This summer marks 50 years since the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee heard the first hearings about the White House audio system. However, one such audio recording—later known as the “Smoking Gun” tape—documented the initial stages of the Watergate cover-up, where President Richard Nixon was heard formulating a plan with White House Chief of Staff Harry “Bob” Haldeman to block the investigation.
Nixon’s political backing virtually vanished over night once the transcription was released.
It is highly unlikely that this will happen regardless of what Jack Smith, Special Counsel, may have expected from the former president Donald Trump’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter account. Court documents reveal that Smith received a search order earlier this year.
It was reported by Politico.com on Wednesday that Twitter initially refused to comply with the January 17 warrant, and that resulted in a federal judge holding the company—now called X—in contempt, and levying a $350,000 fine. The fine was upheld by a federal appeals court.
Only this week, when a previously-sealed version of the sealed opinion was unsealed with redactions was the truth revealed about the secret battle in court.
What is the smoking gun tweet?
Smith was looking for information on Trump’s Twitter usage before and after the January 6, 2021 uprising. Former president used Twitter until just a few days after insurrections at the U.S. Capitol Building.
Politico.com reported that data from Twitter could have provided information about Trump’s usage of his account and whether anyone else had access, or if there were draft statements not sent.
Charles King, a technology analyst at Pund-IT explained that while the search warrant issued by Special Counsel Jack Smith for records of former President Trump on Twitter is newsworthy it’s also logical. It could prove valuable in several ways.
King continued, “At that time when the warrant was served, Trump’s legal risk at the moment of the arrest was much less apparent than today.” Smith might have worried about Trump’s or someone in his circle’s attempt to remove potentially damaging tweets as these issues became clearer. Elon Musk’s decision to cut Twitter’s management and staff may have also made him worry that Trump’s Twitter account could be deleted or altered.
The Public Record
Trump’s use of Twitter is well known, and the tweets he sent out—as well as messages to others—could be seen as relevant to Smith’s investigation.
King said that Trump’s tweets prior to the Capitol Riot could be considered evidence, or provide an chronological timeline which sheds light on any other evidence that Smith’s team is gathering and witnesses statements. King suggested that “all speculation is of course true, but the news demonstrates Smith’s meticulous methodology.”
Are Tweets And Other Communication Achievable?
All business-related communications made by the president are required to be handed over to the National Archives—a point made all too clear in the ongoing investigation into the classified documents that the former president maintained after leaving the White House.
It is now a question of whether or not tweets should also be kept as public records.
Cliff Lampe is professor of Information and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the School of Information at University of Michigan.
The Presidential Records Act, 1978 states that “Communications by POTUS are supposed to be filed in the National Archives”. Lampe added that Twitter had been an area of gray around these requirements. My guess is the warrant sought direct messages sent between former President Obama and Twitter users.
Direct messages, which are usually private, may be subject to a different law and not the PRA 1978.
Lampe suggested that the warrant might also be able to obtain deleted tweets – though they were archived a lot of them – and composed tweets but never sent.
Many have discovered the hard way that communications in social media are forever. All mediated communications that are stored on the internet can also be accessed.
Lampe said that if you use a platform for sending messages, it is necessary to store the communications somewhere. All electronic communications are subject to investigation and search. Twitter fought this in this instance, and other platforms are likely to do the same, since it is bad for business.