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Musk’s X fined $350,000 in Justice Department fight over Trump records

VIDEO | 01:35
X is fined $350,000 after refusing to comply with a search warrant related to Trump.

A search warrant from special counsel Jack Smith’s office sought data for Trump’s Twitter account and warned that the ex-president might try to destroy evidence.

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X, formerly known as Twitter, was fined $350,000 for defying a judge’s deadline to comply with a Justice Department search warrant for records related to former President Trump’s account, according to a court opinion unsealed Wednesday.

The ruling revealed that special counsel Jack Smith’s office, which obtained the warrant as part of its investigation into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, had asked a judge to bar X from revealing the warrant’s existence. Prosecutors argued that alerting the former president “would seriously jeopardize the ongoing investigation” by giving him an opportunity to destroy evidence or change his conduct.

In the 3-0 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected X’s objections to the nondisclosure order and upheld the lower court judge’s civil contempt sanction. The opinion notes that X ultimately complied with the warrant.

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Judge Florence Pan, who was appointed to the court by President Biden, wrote that prosecutors had offered “unquestionably compelling” reasons to stop X from notifying Trump about the search warrant, and that the government’s interests were “particularly strong” because of the subject of the investigation — efforts to undo “a valid national election.”

In a post on his Truth Social platform, Trump — the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination for 2024 — criticized how the special counsel’s office had handled the warrant issue.

Frozen in time since the Jan. 6 insurrection, perhaps forever, Donald Trump’s Facebook page lives on as an internet destination for #MAGA fans and #Resistance types alike.

April 23, 2021

“Just found out that Crooked Joe Biden’s DOJ secretly attacked my Twitter account, making it a point not to let me know about this major ‘hit’ on my civil rights,” he wrote. “My Political Opponent is going CRAZY trying to infringe on my Campaign for President.”

Trump was indicted Aug. 1 on felony charges that he conspired to obstruct the election. He has pleaded not guilty.

A spokesperson for Smith declined to comment on the opinion. A representative of X didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

X’s lawyer, Ari Holtzblatt of WilmerHale, didn’t respond right away. He is also representing the company against a lawsuit by Trump over his suspension from the platform following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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The fight over the warrant unfolded largely in secret court proceedings until Wednesday, when the D.C. Circuit ordered a redacted version of its July 18 opinion unsealed.

Smith’s office had obtained a search warrant for data and other records related to Trump’s account in mid-January, according to the opinion. The district judge who signed off on it — U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, then the D.C. court’s chief judge — found probable cause at the time to search the account “for evidence of criminal offenses.”

The D.C. Circuit noted that the Justice Department had trouble serving X with a copy of the warrant and the nondisclosure order because the company’s website for legal requests was “inoperative.” Prosecutors were able to notify a lawyer for X within a few days.

The D.C. Circuit panel also featured Judge Nina Pillard, who was appointed by former President Obama, and Judge J. Michelle Childs, who was appointed by Biden.

X objected to complying with the warrant, claiming that the nondisclosure order — which was set to last 180 days — violated the company’s 1st Amendment free speech protections and that it would bar Trump from having a chance to raise executive privilege challenges. The company argued that it shouldn’t have to comply with the warrant until that issue was fully litigated.

Howell ruled against the company and ordered it to comply by Feb. 7; the original deadline had been Jan. 27. X missed that new deadline and didn’t produce all of the records until the evening of Feb. 9, triggering the monetary sanctions.

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The judge adopted the government’s proposal for how to calculate the sanctions — $50,000 per day of noncompliance, doubling that rate every additional day — and pointed out that the company had been sold to Elon Musk for more than $40 billion and that Musk’s net worth was more than $180 billion at the time.

The judge issued another opinion in March finding that the nondisclosure order was “narrowly tailored” to “protect the compelling interest of safeguarding the integrity and secrecy of an ongoing criminal investigation.”

On June 20, the government alerted the district judge that it would allow X to notify Trump about the warrant. X paid the fine, but the money was held in an escrow account while it pressed its appeal, according to the opinion.

The appeals court held that Howell wasn’t required to wait to rule on the contempt issue — and delay the government’s access to evidence in a criminal investigation — until it resolved the merits of X’s challenge to the nondisclosure order.

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