WASHINGTON – President Trump’s Justice Department secretly received a grand jury subpoena last year to identify the person behind a Twitter account devoted to mocking California representative Devin Nunes. This emerges from a newly unsealed court document.
But Twitter battled the subpoena and an associated gag order that prevented the company from speaking publicly about it. Twitter executives have been skeptical about whether the Justice Department could abuse federal law enforcement powers to take revenge on a critic of Mr. Nunes, a Republican who is a close ally of Mr. Trump, who violates the First Amendment.
According to someone familiar with the matter, the Justice Department withdrew the subpoena this spring after President Biden took office.
What happened behind the summons remains murky. The filing – a motion to suppress the subpoena and overturn the gag order filed by Twitter in March – shows that the Department of Justice sent the company a request on Nov. 24 to provide identification information about the user @NunesAlt.
Twitter immediately appears to have been suspicious of the legitimacy of the request. The user of this account, the file states, “appears to be engaged in clear First Amendment activity discussing views on current affairs, government policy and, in particular, one elected official – Congressman Nunes.”
The filing provided examples of some of the account’s tweets, such as a photo of Mr. Nunes with text above his face: “Believe in conspiracy theories. Even if there is no evidence. “
As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee until the Democrats took control of the Chamber after the 2018 midterm elections, Mr. Nunes used his position to make claims that support Trump’s claim that the Russia investigation was a “deep state” conspiracy against him .
The Twitter filing also indicated that Mr Nunes and his attorney filed a number of lawsuits to expose pseudonymous social media users who criticized him, including an account alleged to be the Congressman’s cow and the account @NunesAlt.
When Twitter urged the Justice Department for a statement, the government said the subpoena was part of a criminal investigation into a possible violation of a federal law that makes it a crime to use interstate communications to threaten to harm someone. However, the government refused to point out a specific tweet that posed a threat.
On the company’s file, the judge in charge of the matter was asked to take a careful look at the rationale behind the Justice Department’s motivation to prosecute the user.
“With the custodian holding the private identification information requested by the government, Twitter is concerned that the subpoena may not be supported by a legitimate law enforcement purpose and hence there is no need – let alone imperative – for the government to expose the user “Wrote a lawyer from Twitter in the court application.
It continued, “As such, Twitter is asking the court to do a thorough analysis of the government’s rationale for issuing the subpoena to determine whether the subpoena violates the First Amendment and should be overturned.”
The grand jury subpoena was received from the United States law firm for the District of Columbia. At the time, the office was headed by Michael R. Sherwin, appointed by Attorney General William P. Barr.
A spokeswoman for that office did not respond to a request for comment or explanation, including whether the underlying investigation remained open. The text of the subpoena, which was attached to Twitter’s court record, indicated that the investigation was being conducted by the Capitol Police, who protect members of Congress.
A spokesman for Mr Nunes did not respond to a request for comment.
The person who runs the @NunesAlt account seemed surprised by the filing. She wrote in a post Monday afternoon that there was “nothing remarkable about me,” adding, “Then why am I being sued by a US Congressman? Why would the DOJ ever target me? Is it the mean tweets and bad memes? “
Twitter said in a statement that it “has a duty to protect freedom of expression for those who use our service. We have a strong track record and we take the trust placed in us seriously to protect people’s private information on Twitter. “
Kate Conger, Katie Benner and Nicholas Fandos contributed to the coverage. Seamus Hughes contributed to the research.