U.S. Justice Department Quietly Seized Washington Post Reporters’ Phone Records During Trump Era

U.S. Justice Department Quietly Seized Washington Post Reporters’ Phone Records During Trump Era
Photo: Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Justice quietly seized phone records and tried to obtain email records for three Washington Post reporters, ostensibly over their coverage of then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election, according to officials and government letters reviewed by the Post.

Justice Department regulations typically mandate that news organisations be notified when it subpoenas such records. However, though the Trump administration OK’d the decision, officials apparently left the notification part for the Biden administration to deal with. I guess they just never got around to it. Probably too busy inspiring an insurrection and trying to overthrow the presidential election.

In three separate letters dated May 3 addressed to reporters Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller, and former reporter Adam Entous, the Justice Department wrote they were “hereby notified that pursuant to legal process the United States Department of Justice received toll records associated with the following telephone numbers for the period from April 15, 2017 to July 31, 2017,” according to the Post. Listed were Miller’s work and mobile phone numbers, Entous’ mobile phone number, and Nakashima’s work, mobile phone, and home phone numbers. These records included all calls to and from the phones as well as how long each call lasted but did not reveal what was said.

According to the letters, the Post reports that prosecutors also secured a court order to seize “non content communications records” for the reporters’ email accounts, which would disclose who emailed whom and when the emails were sent but not their contents. However, officials ultimately did not obtain these records, the outlet said.

“We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists,” said the Post’s acting executive editor Cameron Barr. “The Department of Justice should immediately make clear its reasons for this intrusion into the activities of reporters doing their jobs, an activity protected under the First Amendment.”

Frustratingly, the letters apparently don’t go into why the Department of Justice seized this data. A department spokesperson told the outlet that the decision to do so was made in 2020 during the Trump administration. (It’s worth noting that former President Donald Trump has made it crystal clear that he despises news media and the government leakers that provide them their scoops.)

Based on the time period cited in the letters and what the reporters covered during those months, the Post speculates that their investigations into Sessions and Russian interference could be why the department wanted to get its hands on their phone data.

During that time period, the three reporters published a story detailing federal correspondence that indicated then-Sen. Sessions of Alabama had discussed the Trump campaign in 2016 with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. at the time. In that same period, the reporters also wrote about how the Obama administration struggled to counter Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Sessions, who later acted as Trump’s attorney general from 2017 to 2018, held a news conference in August 2017, just four days after the time period cited in the letters, where he committed to ramping up efforts to suss out and prosecute government leakers.

“This culture of leaking must stop,” Sessions said at the time.

For the Justice Department to subpoena records of reporters, it must have exhausted all possible avenues for obtaining that information and secured the attorney general’s approval, according to the agency’s regulations. On Friday, Justice Department spokesperson Marc Raimondi told the Post it’s considered a last resort that the agency doesn’t take lightly:

“While rare, the Department follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into unauthorised disclosure of classified information. The targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defence information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”

Regardless, the news sparked fierce condemnation from media organisations, who argued the Justice Department’s actions may have violated the First Amendment. Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called it “imperative” that the Justice Department explain its reasoning and why the agency is only just now notifying the Post months after the decision was made.

“It is imperative that the new Justice Department leadership explain exactly when prosecutors seized these records, why it is only now notifying the Post, and on what basis the Justice Department decided to forgo the presumption of advance notification under its own guidelines when the investigation apparently involves reporting over three years in the past,” he said a statement issued Friday.