When the special counsel Jack Smith went to Twitter in January with a search warrant for Donald Trump’s account, the company resisted to the point of racking up a $350,000 fine even as it laid off staff and didn’t pay rent. The Elon Musk-owned Twitter’s objection to the warrant was a requirement that Trump not be notified, which the company claimed somehow violated the First Amendment. The reason for such a requirement isn’t rocket science, though. As the appeals court that ultimately upheld the district court’s fine in the matter noted, “[T]he whole point of the nondisclosure order was to avoid tipping off the former President about the warrant’s existence.”
The appeals court further explained, “Based on ex parte affidavits, the district court found probable cause to search the Twitter account for evidence of criminal offenses. Moreover, the district court found that there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that disclosing the warrant to former President Trump ‘would seriously jeopardize the ongoing investigation’ by giving him ‘an opportunity to destroy evidence, change patterns of behavior, [or] notify confederates.’”
Twitter’s fight against this order came at a time when the company has been getting dramatically more requests from governments and courts than in the past—and complying with the vast majority of them, according to numbers reported by Rest of World in April. At that time:
Most alarmingly, Twitter's self-reports do not show a single request in which the company refused to comply, as it had done several times before the Musk takeover. Twitter rejected three such requests in the six months before Musk's takeover, and five in the six months prior to that.
More broadly, the figures show a steep increase in the portion of requests that Twitter complies with in full. In the year before Musk's acquisition, the figure had hovered around 50%, in line with the compliance rate reported in the company's final transparency report. After Musk's takeover, the number jumps to 83% (808 requests out of a total of 971).
Many of these requests come from repressive governments wanting content they don’t like removed. Twitter goes along with that, for instance removing dozens of posts including footage from a BBC documentary about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the request of India’s information ministry. Ultimately, the Trump search warrant was probably reported as one Twitter complied with since it did do so three days and $350,000 of fines after the court-ordered deadline. But the company picked an interesting case to fight on.
It’s not (yet) publicly known what special counsel Jack Smith was looking for in Trump’s Twitter account. The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel offers some possibilities:
Did Donald Trump, who was known to eschew most forms of digital communication, including email, and who only recently started texting, directly message people? If not, his direct-message inbox is likely not very interesting; Trump’s reinstated account has only 51 followers on the platform, most of them official accounts and family members, and has closed DMs, meaning outsiders can’t initiate contact unless the president follows them back.
There is, as Kerr noted, no guarantee that anything substantive will come from digging through Trump’s infamous account: “If there are no direct messages, there’s probably not a lot of evidence there.” And it’s entirely possible that prosecutors simply obtained the warrant to help submit Trump’s tweets as evidence in court: Creating an official chain of custody would remove doubt that any given tweet actually existed, if the question were raised down the line.
Whatever is going on with this, it’s another sign of how serious and far-reaching Smith’s investigation has been.
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