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Prosecutor Sought Trump Twitter Information in Secret January Search Warrant

FILE - A photo of then-President Donald Trump's Twitter feed on a computer screen in Washington.
FILE - A photo of then-President Donald Trump's Twitter feed on a computer screen in Washington.

Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith obtained a secret search warrant last January for information from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, court records showed Wednesday. A judge fined the social media company $350,000 for failing to quickly comply.

Trump spent almost the entirety of his four-year term in the White House posting thousands of Twitter comments, although it was unclear exactly what information Smith was seeking with the search warrant.

The Twitter comments were already public, with Trump often using social media account to vilify his political opponents and others he disagreed with. He also alerted his supporters about political rallies, such as the one near the White House on January 6, 2021, just ahead of the riot at the U.S. Capitol staged by his supporters trying to block lawmakers from certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

In a lead-up to the rally that day, Trump had used Twitter in December to urge supporters to come to Washington, saying, January 6 “will be wild.”

Smith has twice indicted Trump. Last week in Washington the former president was accused of illegally conspiring to upend his reelection loss. Earlier in Florida, he was accused of hoarding highly classified national security documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate and conspiring to keep from turning them over to federal investigators.

Trump has said he is innocent of all wrongdoing in the various criminal investigations he is facing and portrayed them as politically motivated. He is far and away leading national polls of Republicans for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
Obtaining data from Twitter, now renamed X, could have shown patterns about Trump’s use of the account, whether others had access to it and whether he might have written draft statements that he left unposted.

Trump was banned from Twitter after the January 6 rampage into the Capitol. But last November, new Twitter owner Elon Musk reinstated Trump’s ability to post comments. Since then, however, Trump has yet to post comments on the platform, preferring to offer his views, often to assail Smith and others investigating him, on Truth Social, the social media site he co-owns.

Twitter initially resisted complying with the January search warrant, resulting in a federal judge holding the company in contempt and fining it $350,000.

A federal court of appeals in Washington upheld the fine last month, and on Wednesday released its opinion in the case.

“Although Twitter ultimately complied with the warrant, the company did not fully produce the requested information until three days after a court-ordered deadline,” according to the 34-page opinion by a three-judge appellate court panel in Washington. “The district court thus held Twitter in contempt and imposed a $350,000 sanction for its delay.”

Twitter’s fight with Smith’s prosecutors about disclosing details about Trump’s Twitter postings stemmed from the prosecutors’ request for a “nondisclosure order” that prohibited Twitter from alerting Trump about the warrant’s existence.

The appellate court noted that U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell “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 argued the order violated Trump’s constitutional right of free speech, but the appeals court upheld Howell’s decision. It said that disclosing the warrant to Trump would have jeopardized Smith’s ongoing criminal investigation.

The appellate court said that the “whole point of the nondisclosure order was to avoid tipping off the former president about the warrant's existence.”