Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

Trump’s DOJ secretly gathered phone records of Post reporters


WASHINGTON — The Trump Justice Department secretly obtained Washington Post journalist­s’ phone records and tried to obtain their email records over reporting they did in the early months of the Trump administra­tion on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, according to government letters and officials.

In three separate letters dated May 3 and addressed to Post reporters Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, and former Post reporter Adam Entous, the agency 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.”

The letters listed work, home or cellphone numbers covering that 3½month period.

Cameron Barr, the Post’s acting executive editor, said: “We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communicat­ions of journalist­s. 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.”

News organizati­ons and First Amendment advocates have long criticized the government practice of seizing journalist­s’ records in an effort to identify the sources of leaks, saying it chills critical newsgather­ing.

It is rare for the Justice Department to use subpoenas to get records of reporters in leak investigat­ions, and such moves must be approved by the attorney general.

The letters do not say when Justice Department leadership approved the decision to seek the reporters’ records, but a department spokesman said it happened in 2020, during the Trump administra­tion. William Barr, who served as Trump’s attorney general for nearly all of that year, before departing Dec. 23, declined to comment.

The department defended its decision to subpoena Post reporters’ records as an investigat­ive step of last resort that was not taken 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 unauthoriz­ed disclosure of classified informatio­n,” said Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the Justice Department.

“The targets of these investigat­ions are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense informatio­n who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”

The phone records in question include who called whom when, and how long the call lasted, but do not include what was said in the calls. Investigat­ors often hope such records will provide clues about possible sources the reporters were in contact with before a story was published.

The letters to the three reporters also noted that prosecutor­s got a court order to obtain “non content communicat­ion records” for both reporters’ work email accounts, but did not obtain such records. The email records would have indicated who emailed whom and when, but would not have included the contents of the emails.

The letter does not state the purpose of the phone records seizure, but toward the end of the period mentioned in the letters, those reporters wrote a story about classified U.S. intelligen­ce intercepts indicating that in 2016, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., had discussed the Trump campaign with Sergey Kislyak, who was Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Department officials would not say if that reporting was the reason for the search of journalist­s’ phone records. Sessions subsequent­ly became President Donald Trump’s first attorney general and was at the Justice Department when the article appeared.

About a month before that story was published, the same three journalist­s also wrote a detailed story about the Obama administra­tion’s internal struggles to counter Russian interferen­ce in the 2016 election.

Entous, who now works at the New Yorker, declined to comment.

The seizure of reporters’ phone records has been a controvers­ial topic in recent years, as both the Trump and Obama administra­tions escalated efforts to stop leaks and prosecute government officials who disclose secrets to reporters.

In early August 2017 — days after the time period covered by the search of the Post reporters’ phone records — Sessions held a news conference to announce an intensifie­d effort to hunt and prosecute leakers.

“This culture of leaking must stop,” Sessions said, noting that the number of leak investigat­ions had tripled since the end of the prior administra­tion. That announceme­nt seemed aimed at appeasing Trump, who had publicly complained about leaks that made him look bad, and branded Sessions weak on hunting leakers.

Department policy dictates that investigat­ors in leak cases should exhaust all other possible sources of informatio­n before considerin­g trying to examine journalist­s’ records.

During the Obama administra­tion, the department prosecuted nine leak cases, more than all previous administra­tions combined. In one case, prosecutor­s called a reporter a criminal “co-conspirato­r” and secretly went after journalist­s’ phone records in a bid to identify reporters’ sources.

Prosecutor­s also sought to compel a reporter to testify and identify a source, though they ultimately backed off.

In response to criticism about such tactics, in 2015 Attorney General Eric Holder issued updates to the rules about media leak investigat­ions aimed at creating new internal checks on how often and how aggressive­ly prosecutor­s seek reporters’ records.

In response to Trump’s concerns, Sessions and others discussed changing the rules to seek journalist­s’ phone records earlier in leak investigat­ions, but the regulation­s were never changed.

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