The Trump administration last year tried to force Twitter to reveal the identity of the user behind a parody account mocking Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., according to newly unsealed court documents.
The office of Michael Sherwin, who was installed as the acting U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., by former Attorney General Bill Barr, secretly obtained a grand jury subpoena last summer to demand that Twitter identify the owner of @NunesAlt, a satirical account posing as the litigious congressman's mother. The DOJ also sought a gag order to prevent the company from publicly discussing the case. Twitter fought the effort, filing motions to quash the subpoena and lift the gag order in November, the documents show.
The subpoena suggested that the investigation was being led by the Capitol Police. When the social network questioned the reason behind the subpoena, the DOJ claimed that it was part of a criminal investigation into potential violations of a federal law against using interstate communications to threaten to injure someone. It did not cite any tweets that made such threats, according to one of the motions.
"I have consulted with my supervisor here at the US Attorney's Office, and we will not agree to provide any further information at this time," a DOJ lawyer told the company in an email cited in the documents.
"They won't tell you what the threatening communications are because they don't exist," the @NunesAlt account tweeted on Monday.
"There's nothing remarkable about me. I'm a basic smartass with a Twitter account. So then why am I being sued by a US congressman? Why would the DOJ ever target me?" the unidentified user said. "Is it the mean tweets and bad memes? It's not about me or this silly account. It's about silencing all of us."
The court documents show that the grand jury was still seeking the information from Twitter as late as March. The Justice Department ultimately withdrew the subpoena this spring after President Joe Biden took office, according to The New York Times.
The social network raised questions about the Trump administration's intentions in its motion seeking to quash the subpoena.
The user behind the account, the motion said, "appears to be engaged in clear First Amendment activity, discussing stances on current events, government policies and one elected official in particular — Congressman Nunes."
The company's lawyers suggested that the department was abusing its power.
"Twitter is concerned the subpoena may not be supported by a legitimate law enforcement purpose, and that therefore, there cannot be any need — let alone a compelling need — for the government to unmask the user," the motion said, asking the court to review "the government's bases for issuing the subpoena in order to determine whether the subpoena violates the First Amendment and should be quashed."
The DOJ attempt to unmask the user came after Nunes, the former chairman (and now ranking member) of the House Intelligence Committee — who led an effort to cover up the Trump campaign's ties to Russia that were extensively detailed in a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report — unsuccessfully sought to unmask the user himself.
"Congressman Nunes had previously and unsuccessfully attempted, in several ways, to obtain information about his critics," a Twitter attorney said in a motion. "Twitter was concerned that the Subpoena was merely another attempt by Congressman Nunes to do the same."
Nunes sued the owner of the account, as well as another parody account called "Devin Nunes' Cow," Republican strategist and frequent critic Liz Mair, and Twitter itself for defamation in 2019. Nunes sought $250 million in damages, accusing the satirical posters of trying to "intimidate him" and claiming they "intended to generate and proliferate false and defamatory statements."
A Virginia judge threw out Nunes' lawsuit against Twitter last June, telling the congressman's attorneys that federal law protects social media companies from content posted on their platforms.
Nunes "seeks to have the court treat Twitter as the publisher or speaker of the content provided by others based on its allowing or not allowing certain content to be on its Internet platform," wrote Virginia Circuit Court Judge John Marshall. "The court refuses to do so."
Nunes is still suing Mair and the anonymous users. But his efforts to unmask the parody accounts have thus far failed and his lawsuits may have backfired. The Washington Post noted that "Devin Nunes' Cow" only had about 1,000 followers before the lawsuit, but has since attracted more than 770,000 followers amid the publicity. The @NunesAlt account targeted by the DOJ has more than 121,000 followers.
Nunes has also filed defamation lawsuits against the Washington Post, CNN, McClatchy newspapers, Hearst and Fusion GPS, among others. The congressman dropped his lawsuit against McClatchy after the company filed for bankruptcy and judges threw out his remaining complaints against the media outlets and Fusion GPS.
While Nunes' dubious legal efforts have been well documented, former prosecutors were shocked but not surprised that the Trump administration tried to use the DOJ to go after perceived enemies.
"This speaks to the remarkably petty ways Bill Barr was willing to subvert justice in support of Trump & his allies," tweeted former U.S. attorney Joyce White Vance.
"What possible basis could Barr's DOJ have to issue this subpoena?" questioned Daniel Goldman, a former federal prosecutor who served as the Democrats' lead counsel in Trump's first impeachment. "This appears to be Barr using the awesome power of a grand jury subpoena as a personal favor to a political ally. Barr should not have a law license anymore."