"Special treatment": Judge suggests Musk trying to "cozy up" to Trump by trying to tip him off

Special counsel obtained Trump's direct messages and other data after judge fined Twitter $350K for contempt

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published August 16, 2023 10:52AM (EDT)

Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Special counsel Jack Smith obtained a litany of former President Donald Trump's Twitter data, including direct messages, draft tweets, and location data, despite the social media company's pushback, according to unsealed court documents

In February, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell fined Twitter — which is now known as X — $350,000, holding it in contempt of court for missing a court-ordered deadline to respond to prosecutors' search warrant. 

"Is this to make Donald Trump feel like he is a particularly welcomed new renewed user of Twitter?" Howell asked at the February 7 hearing, dragging Twitter for taking "extraordinary" measures to notify Trump about the search warrant in advance, despite being told not to.

"Twitter has no interest other than litigation its constitutional rights," replied Twitter attorney George Varghese.

The judge went on to single out Elon Musk, who acquired the company in October of last year, saying, "Is it because the new CEO wants to cozy up with the former president?"

"Elon Musk hired expensive lawyers to fight a lawful search warrant to defend Donald Trump's interests," tweeted former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. "Twitter receives court orders like this regularly, and doesn't spend that kind of money to fight them on behalf of customers. Why the special treatment for Trump?"

Politico reported that the new filings show that the search warrant ordered Twitter to provide the following data:

— Accounts associated with @realdonaldtrump that the former president might have used in the same device.

— Devices used to log into the @realdonaldtrump account

— IP addresses used to log into the account between October 2020 and January 2021.

— Privacy settings and history

— All tweets "created, drafted, favorited/liked, or retweeted" by @realdonaldtrump, including any subsequently deleted.

— All direct messages "sent from, received by, stored in draft form in, or otherwise associated with" @realdonaldtrump

— All records of searches from October 2020 to January 2021

— Location information for the user of @realdonaldtrump from October 2020 to January 2021

"I'm surprised that Trump had 'many' direct messages," Mariotti wrote in a Tuesday tweet. "Given that he doesn't use text and email, they could more directly reveal his intent than other evidence Jack Smith has."

We need your help to stay independent

As Politico notes, the legal kerfuffle between Smith's team and Twitter primarily stemmed from a "nondisclosure" order prosecutors issued to Twitter, ordering the social media company to keep Trump in the dark about the search warrant. Twitter responded by expressing concerns that Smith was mining for data that could be protected under presidential power, "a contention that drew incredulous responses from both prosecutors and the judge, who said Trump was unlikely to be doing government business with senior aides via Twitter DM."

"You don't even know the half about the very warrant you are coming in here to delay the execution of," Howell said, underscoring the fact that Twitter, at the time, was relatively unaware of what the encompassing evidence Smith's team had used to justify obtaining the warrant was. 

"There actually are concrete cognizable reasons to think that if the former president had notice of these covert investigative steps, there would be actual harm and concern for the investigation, for the witnesses going forward," special counsel team member Gregory Bernstein said, according to the transcript.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

"First, they don't know anything. I mean, they know some stuff. They know what they have read in the newspapers," Bernstein said. "But they're making these confident factual assertions without knowing the actual facts of the investigation."

Former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance said the transcript suggests the special counsel's office "had a close informant" who gave them the probable cause they needed and "who they were strenuously protecting from Twitter's efforts to disclose to Trump."

New York University Law Prof. Ryan Goodman told CNN that the "timescale for the search warrant means this is not just around January 6th.

"It's much broader than that. It's soaking up a lot of information that the government must have had probable cause," he said. "We don't yet know, are the DMs only incoming?" he added. "He's famously known for not really emailing. It could be that he's receiving private DMs coming in and maybe not sending them out. That could be part of what's still very valuable information."

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

MORE FROM Gabriella Ferrigine

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aggregate Donald Trump Elon Musk Jack Smith January 6 Politics Twitter