The Department of Justice under former president Trump attempted to seize the email logs from four New York Times reporters in an attempt to identify their sources, the Times reported Friday. On Saturday, the department announced the Biden administration will end the practice of aggressively pursuing leak investigations by trying to uncover the media’s sources through court orders.
The DOJ attempted to seize email records from Google, which hosts the paper’s email system, but Google resisted the efforts. This news comes on the heels of recent revelations that showed the Trump administration secretly seized phone records for four Times reporters from 2017. The investigation is believed to be tied to a 2017 story written by journalists Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau and Michael S. Schmidt about then-FBI director James Comey and Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The government also imposed a gag order on Times executives who were informed of the investigation, preventing them from telling the paper’s editorial leadership, including executive editor Dean Baquet, about it. David McCraw, the Times’ attorney, told the paper that this kind of move from the DOJ was unprecedented. News also recently broke that the department also seized records from reporters at CNN and Washington Post.
Justice Department spokesperson Anthony Coley said in a statement obtained by Politico that it will end such practices. “Going forward, consistent with the President’s direction, this Department of Justice — in a change to its longstanding practice — will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs,” Coley said.
Coley also said that the DOJ under Biden tried to pause the enforcement of the order: “On multiple occasions in recent months, DOJ moved to postpone enforcement of the … order and voluntarily moved to withdraw the order before any records were produced.”
Speaking about the matter, Baquet criticized the DOJ’s actions. “Clearly, Google did the right thing, but it should never have come to this,” Baquet said, according to the Times. “The Justice Department relentlessly pursued the identity of sources for coverage that was clearly in the public interest in the final 15 days of the Trump administration. And the Biden administration continued to pursue it. As I said before, it profoundly undermines press freedom.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki released a statement Saturday that said the White House only learned about the gag order on Friday and reaffirmed that the practice will be abandoned, saying, “As appropriate given the independence of the Justice Department in specific criminal cases, no one at the White House was aware of the gag order until Friday night. While the White House does not intervene in criminal investigations, the issuing of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the President’s policy direction to the Department, and the Department of Justice has reconfirmed it will not be used moving forward.”