President Trump’s Twitter account has been the subject of several legal conundrums over the last few years, and figuring out how the social network should fit into the leader of the free world’s communications has been a learning process for us all. On Friday, a federal judge decided that he’s had enough of reading the tea leaves when it comes to exactly what the fuck Trump is talking about.
The president’s tweets have become more central to his tenure in office than ever before as he’s been recovering from covid-19 infection and lashing out in every direction to save his floundering campaign. On Oct. 6, between retweeting supporters and spreading conspiracies about the FDA, Trump tweeted: “I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!” And in case you didn’t get the message, he tweeted it again later that day.
This was news to anyone who has been trying to get their hands on a copy of the full unredacted Mueller Report—including reporters at CNN and BuzzFeed who are involved in ongoing litigation around the report. And like clockwork, BuzzFeed filed two emergency motions requesting all documents related to the Russia investigation
Earlier this week, Justice Department lawyers told a federal court that no such declassification order exists and the department would continue to make redactions and declassify documents at its discretion. “The White House Counsel’s Office informed the Department that there is no order requiring wholesale declassification or disclosure of documents at issue in this matter,” the DOJ said in a court filing.
U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton is done taking the word of people in this administration. On a brief hearing by telephone this morning, Walton told the DOJ that he wants Trump to say whether or not the tweets were serious or just more bullshit he hopes people believe and forget about.
“I think the American public has a right to rely upon what the president says about what his intent is,” Walton said on the call, according to Politico. “It seems to me that when a president makes an unambiguous statement of what his intent is, I can’t rely upon White House counsel saying, ‘Well, that was not his intent.’ Maybe White House counsel talked to the president. Maybe they didn’t, but I can’t tell.”
Justice Department attorney Courtney Enlow argued that, essentially, the judge should assume that everyone involved is telling the truth under a “presumption of regularity.” The judge was having none of it and feels things are quite irregular at the moment. He pointed to a radio interview Trump did with Rush Limbaugh after the tweets in question in which Trump once again claimed he’d declassified everything involving the Russia investigation. Enlow said these weren’t “clear directives to declassify” as “they’re stated in the past tense.”
But the words of a president matter, and Judge Walton felt that Trump’s words were clear enough that only he can take them back. The judge ordered DOJ to go back to the White House and get an official declaration on the president’s intent from Trump himself, or someone from the department can file the declaration as long as they speak with Trump directly. The department has until Oct. 20 to comply.
Writing about BuzzFeed’s promising morning in court, Jason Leopold pointed out that this could be a “watershed moment” for individuals who’ve had to fight battles in court over Trump tweets. The administration has argued in the past that his tweets shouldn’t be taken seriously and are official statements by the president, depending on what argument suits them in a given case. We’ve even seen a court fight over whether Trump has the right to selectively block Americans from viewing his tweets.
Judge Walton is done with this nonsense and now puts Trump in a difficult position. Does Trump admit that he was lying, or does he just say screw it and unleash more chaos with a flood of unredacted documents that might not paint him in the greatest of lights? This is a man who has said he has “no regrets” about his administration’s response to the covid-19 pandemic that has left the U.S. with the highest recorded case-load and death toll in the world. He doesn’t admit when he’s wrong. On the other hand, declassifying the documents could, at minimum, amount to a political situation that finds Trump essentially doing to himself what FBI Director James Comey did to Hillary Clinton a week before the 2016 election.
Never tweet, folks.