A social media company that was forced to hand over records from former President Donald Trump’s account to special counsel Jack Smith, during his investigation of the failed coup d’etat got fined $350,000 for dragging its feet in response to a search warrant, according to an appellate court ruling unsealed Wednesday.
Trump was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges stemming from his efforts to illegally remain in power after he lost the 2020 presidential election, including his action to incite the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The newly unsealed documents show that District Judge Beryl A. Howell ruled in March that Twitter had to comply with a sealed search warrant issued by the special counsel and pay $350,000 for missing a court-ordered deadline by three days.
The filing also reveals that Howell had found reason to believe that should the search warrant be made public, Trump might engage in obstructive conduct or flee prosecution.
Twitter, which was renamed X subsequent to the purchase of the technology company by Elon Musk, appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which in July upheld Howell’s ruling.
Since Trump has been charged with four felonies related to his attempts to usurp the authority of voters after he lost the 2020 election, the appellate decision has been unsealed.
Attorneys for Twitter did not oppose the search warrant but they argued that a gag order preventing the company from alerting Trump to the search violated the First Amendment.
The company argued that it should not have to hand over the records until that issue was resolved. Howell sided with the government, finding Twitter in contempt on Feb. 7 for failing to comply with the search warrant.
She gave Twitter until 5 p.m. to produce the records, with sanctions of $50,000 per day, to double every day that Twitter did not comply. Twitter produced the records three days later.
The following month, Howell upheld the nondisclosure order and imposed a $350,000 contempt sanction on Twitter. She found that there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that disclosing the warrant to Trump “would seriously jeopardize the ongoing investigation” by giving him “an opportunity to destroy evidence, change patterns of behavior, [or] notify confederates,” according to the appellate ruling.
In June, the government moved to modify the gag order, saying Twitter could alert Trump to the contents of the warrant — just not the identity of the case agent.
That request came shortly after another judge in D.C. unsealed a potentially landmark ruling that compelled former vice president Mike Pence to testify against Trump before a grand jury investigating the Capitol attack and other efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Chief U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg of Washington, said that Pence could remain silent about his role in Congress on Jan. 6, but now on conversations with Trump or others encouraging him to stop the confirmation of the election results, which the vice president was not legally authorized to do.
Howell also found the former president might “flee from prosecution,” although the special counsel’s team later said they did not intend to make that argument and it was not included in her final analysis.
Rather than frustrating his hopes to win back the presidency in 2024, the former president’s ongoing legal troubles seem to be inflating his level of support among Republicans as he mounts a third bid for the White House. Trump has been involved in an estimated 4,000 lawsuits, prosecutions and other legal cases during his business and political career.
According to the indictment handed up by a federal grand jury, Trump faces four charges: conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding; obstruction of and attempt to obstruct an official proceeding; and conspiracy against rights.
The documents do not specify what was turned over, but a subpoena could cover draft tweets and direct messages, as well as information on who had access to the account.
The grand jury indictment against Trump includes references to 18 of Trump’s tweets, including seven from the day of Jan. 6.
In those messages, Trump spread a variety of election lies, attacked officials who tried to correct the record, rallied supporters to Washington for Jan. 6, and pressured Pence to help overturn the election results.
In announcing the charges, Smith called what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, an “unprecedented assault” on democracy.
“It was fueled by lies: Lies by the defendant targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government — the nation’s process of collecting, counting and certifying the results of the presidential election,” said Smith.