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Elon Musk’s X, formerly known as Twitter, was fined $350,000 after missing a deadline for complying with a secret search warrant for Donald Trump’s account as part of a US Department of Justice investigation into the former president.
According to an order by an appeals court on Wednesday, X was served with the search warrant earlier this year, as part of the investigation into potential interference with the peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 presidential election and the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, 2021.
The DoJ’s search warrant directed X to produce data and records related to Trump’s @realdonaldtrump Twitter account, which he frequently used as a megaphone to communicate directly to his millions of followers throughout his presidency.
But X failed to comply with the request from the team led by special counsel Jack Smith until three days after the court-ordered deadline, according to the order, and produced only an incomplete set of records on deadline.
The delay came as X unsuccessfully tried to litigate against a non-disclosure order that prohibited it from saying anything publicly about the warrant, the filing said. The company said the non-disclosure order infringed its right to free speech under the First Amendment.
A lower court found there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that notifying Trump “would seriously jeopardise” Smith’s investigation by giving him “an opportunity to destroy evidence, change patterns of behaviour, [or] notify confederates”, according to the legal filing.
The lower court also said there was reason to believe the ex-president would “flee from prosecution”, but the government later said it had “errantly included flight from prosecution as a predicate” in its request, the court document said.
Following X’s $350,000 payment, the lower court in June allowed the company to alert Trump of the warrant with some limitations, since information on probes targeting the ex-president had become public.
The fine for contempt of court comes as billionaire entrepreneur Musk, who bought Twitter for $44bn in October, has reduced the platform’s workforce from 7,500 to about 1,500 as part of a cost-cutting exercise, causing disruption internally and raising concerns that multiple teams have been left understaffed. The company has come under scrutiny for cutting compliance staff in particular, which has raised concerns among some global regulators.
Trump’s Twitter account was suspended after the January 6 riots. But Musk, a self-described free-speech absolutist, restored it when he took over the company. Trump, who is spearheading rival social media site Truth Social, has not yet resumed posting on the site.
The former president was arraigned in a Washington court last week on four criminal counts, including conspiring to defraud the US and to obstruct a government proceeding, in the second case to be brought by Smith’s office.
Smith, who was appointed by US attorney-general Merrick Garland to oversee probes involving the former president, in June obtained a separate indictment accusing him of mishandling sensitive government material. The ex-president was also charged with falsifying business records in a case brought by the Manhattan district attorney in April.
The frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, Trump has pleaded not guilty in all three criminal cases and has called legal challenges against him a “witch hunt”.
Trump said in a Truth Social post after the court order was unsealed: “Just found out that Crooked Joe Biden’s DOJ secretly attacked my Twitter account, making it a point not to let me know about this major ‘hit’ on my civil rights. My Political Opponent is going CRAZY trying to infringe on my Campaign for President.”
The DoJ and X declined to comment.