U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Justice Department attempted to seize email records of 3 Washington Post reporters

Incident Details

December 22, 2020

The Department of Justice under then-President Donald Trump attempted to acquire email records of three Washington Post reporters as part of a leak investigation on Dec. 22, 2020.

The day before William Barr stepped down as attorney general, he filed an application for a court order to compel Proofpoint, a cybersecurity firm, to turn over records belonging to Post reporters Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and Adam Entous, who now works at The New Yorker. The request was part of an attempt to identify who had informed the journalists about conversations between Trump campaign officials and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, according to the Post.

According to the redacted application, classified information was made available to Congress in April 2017 and was published by the Post in the subsequent months.

The DOJ also seized the same journalists' phone records in 2020; the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented that court order here. The Biden Justice Department’s disclosure of the seizures led to the unsealing of court documents about the leak investigation on July 9, 2021.

According to the court docket, Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui granted the department’s request for a 2703(d) court order to compel the release of the records. However, the Post reported that while the DOJ did obtain the reporters’ phone logs, it did not succeed in obtaining their email records.

The revelation about the email records was the latest in a series of recent disclosures about the Trump administration’s efforts to use the seizure of journalists’ communications to identify leakers or critics of the administration.

On May 21, President Joe Biden condemned such seizures as “simply, simply wrong” following revelations that CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr’s personal phone and email records were obtained during the Trump administration, The Associated Press reported. In keeping with Biden’s sentiments, the DOJ announced on June 5 that it will no longer seize journalists’ records during leak investigations, according to the AP. The Post reported that Attorney General Merrick Garland is expected to send a memo formally notifying all federal prosecutors of the ban in mid-July.

The Department of Justice, The Washington Post and the named reporters didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. As it is unclear if the cybersecurity firm Proofpoint ignored or objected to the request for records before the DOJ closed its investigation, the Tracker is marking the status of the subpoena as dropped.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].