Donald Trump’s Justice Department secretly obtained the phone records of Washington Post reporters covering Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the newspaper reported Friday.
DOJ officials also obtained a court order for access to the journalists’ email records, but did not execute it, the Post reported, citing government letters and officials.
Three journalists were notified this month that “pursuant to [a] legal process” that reportedly took place in 2020, the DOJ had received more than three months of records dating back to April through July 2017 that were linked to their work, home or cell phone numbers, according to the Post.
The phone records included the numbers of callers, as well as the times of day the calls took place and how long they lasted. They did not include what was said, the Post reported.
“We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists,” said the Post’s acting executive editor, Cameron Barr. “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.”
Toward the end of the period in 2017 that the phone records date back to, the targeted Washington Post reporters wrote a story about classified U.S. intelligence indicating that former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) had discussed the Trump campaign in 2016 with Russia’s then-ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. Trump named Sessions his attorney general after winning the presidential election.
A Justice Department spokesperson told the Post that the move to seize the phone records occurred in 2020 when staunch Trump supporter William Barr was attorney general. Barr refused to respond to the Post’s request for comment.
Such heavy-handed action has been criticized for its chilling effect on sources motivated to share the truth for the good of the nation.
The DOJ, however, defended the seizing of reporters’ records as a justified search to identify leakers of government information.
“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,” DOJ spokesperson Marc Raimondi told the Post.
The Obama administration also took aggressive action to stop government leaks to the media by seizing journalists’ phone records and prosecuting their sources. President Barack Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder updated the rules on media leak investigations after a groundswell of criticism.