U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Trump Justice Department secretly obtained records of 4 New York Times reporters

Incident Details

January 1, 2020

The U.S. Department of Justice informed The New York Times on June 2, 2021, that the agency secretly obtained phone records of four of the newspaper’s reporters during the Trump administration, the Times reported.

The Justice Department, now under President Joe Biden, sent a letter to the Times saying that in 2020 it had obtained phone logs spanning nearly four months of 2017 for multiple Times reporters — Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eric Lichtblau and Michael S. Schmidt — as part of a leak investigation. While the letter didn’t specify the subject of the investigation, according to the Times the four reporters were covering then-FBI Director James Comey’s handling of investigations into the 2016 election, and had published classified information.

Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told the newspaper in a statement: “President Biden has said this sort of interference with a free press will not be tolerated in his administration. We expect the Department of Justice to explain why this action was taken and what steps are being taken to make certain it does not happen again in the future.”

Goldman’s phone records also were seized in 2013 while he was reporting for The Associated Press, which helped spur reforms to the department’s policies on obtaining journalists’ records. Goldman didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

“I don’t care who is president—Republican or Democrat—I will always try to inform the public,” Goldman wrote in a June 2 tweet.

CNN reported that DOJ regulations for issuing media subpoenas were changed under the Obama administration in 2015 to require that the attorney general authorize any such legal orders related to journalists’ communications or work products. While the regulations mandated that the journalist and outlet be notified of the seizures, the policy set no clear timetable for notification.

The revelation about the Times reporters’ phone 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 June 4, a gag order was lifted, allowing Times attorney Dave McCraw to reveal that the DOJ also had attempted to obtain the four reporters’ email records in an effort that began in January 2021 and continued under the Biden administration.

On May 21, President Joe Biden condemned such seizures as “simply, simply wrong,” the AP reported. In keeping with Biden’s sentiments, the DOJ announced on June 5 that it would no longer seize journalists’ records during leak investigations, according to the AP.

“This announcement is a potential sea change for press freedom rights in the United States,” Trevor Timm, executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement. “While we’re encouraged to see this announcement ending this invasive and disturbing tactic, the devil is—of course—in the details. The Justice Department must now write this categorical bar of journalist surveillance into its official ‘media guidelines,’ and Congress should also immediately enshrine the rules into law to ensure no administration can abuse its power again.”

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When reached for comment concerning the newspaper’s push for an explanation from the Justice Department, Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha confirmed to the Tracker that publisher A.G. Sulzberger would be meeting with the attorney general and shared a statement from him ahead of that meeting.

“We’re pleased that Attorney General [Merrick] Garland has agreed to this meeting. We hope to use the meeting to learn more about how this seizure of records happened and to seek a commitment that the Department of Justice will no longer seize journalists’ records during leak investigations,” Sulzberger said.

Garland met with executives from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN on June 14, and affirmed the planned policy changes. While Garland’s comments during the meeting were off the record, The Times reported that Sulzberger was encouraged by Garland’s statements but said he would continue to push the department until the outlets’ concerns are fully addressed.

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