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Special counsel Jack Smith got a secret search warrant for Trump's Twitter account

Twitter's blue bird is seen on its headquarters building in San Francisco on July 24. Special counsel Jack Smith obtained search warrant for Twitter to turn over info on Trump's account, according to newly unsealed court documents.
Godofredo A. Vásquez
/
AP
Twitter's blue bird is seen on its headquarters building in San Francisco on July 24. Special counsel Jack Smith obtained search warrant for Twitter to turn over info on Trump's account, according to newly unsealed court documents.

Updated August 9, 2023 at 3:12 PM ET

Special counsel Jack Smith obtained a search warrant for former President Donald Trump's Twitter account back in January and requested Twitter not disclose this information to Trump, newly unsealed court documents show.

On Jan. 17, 2023, prosecutors applied for, and received, a search warrant directing Twitter, a company now known as X, to produce data and records related to the @realDonaldTrump account, documents from the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit show.

This warrant was tied to the special counsel's investigation into Trump and his involvement in attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Trump is now facing four criminal charges related to this investigation. He's pleaded not guilty.

Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter just days after the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol. His account was reinstated on X, but he has not tweeted since Jan. 8, 2021, and instead uses his Truth Social platform.

The warrant was served along with an order that prohibited Twitter from notifying anyone about the existence or contents of the warrant.

Prosecutors shared fears with the court that if Trump knew about the warrant that he would jeopardize the investigation by giving him "an opportunity to destroy evidence, change patterns of behavior [or] notify confederates."

The social media company subsequently fought the Justice Department on this warrant request as well as its demand not to disclose this information to Trump or others, the court filings show.

In a since-rejected appeal, Twitter had argued that the nondisclosure order violated the First Amendment and the Stored Communications Act.

Twitter did eventually comply with the warrant, but failed to produce all of the requested information until three days after a court-ordered deadline, placing the company in contempt and was ordered to pay a $350,000 fine for the delay.

Trump called the revelation of this search warrant a "major 'hit' on my civil rights" on his Truth Social account.

A representative for the Justice Department declined to comment.

How common are social media search warrants?

Very, according to Mary Graw Leary, a former federal prosecutor.

Social media is now a fabric of nearly everyone's lives, so in many criminal investigations its highly likely that there will be subpoenas into a subject's accounts and overall digital presence, she said. Leary is also currently the senior associate dean for academic affairs at The Catholic University of America.

If a potential target of an investigation is keeping a social media account, essentially a "public diary," during the time frame in question "of course" investigators would want all the records tied to these accounts, she said.

It's less common for a nondisclosure order to be requested as it was in this investigation into Trump, but it's not unexpected, she noted.

"That is usually related to the status of the investigation," she said. Meaning, as it seems to have in this case, prosecutors will tread lightly to avoid harming the investigation by informing potential targets or witnesses of this request.

It appears in this case that federal prosecutors and Twitter attorneys litigated the issue heavily and that steps taken by investigators seem consistent with statutory law, according to Leary.

So, as for Trump's assertions his "rights" were violated? "It's hard to see what rights he is referring to that have been violated," she said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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