Was Trump Using Twitter Direct Messages? (Please Let the Answer Be Yes.)

Rachel Weiner, reporting for The Washington Post yesterday, “Twitter Was Fined $350,000 for Failing to Turn Over Trump’s Data”:

The social media company Twitter was forced to hand over records from former president Donald Trump’s account to the special counsel investigating the events leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack and pay sanctions for failing to do so more quickly, as disclosed in an appellate court ruling unsealed Wednesday. [...]

Attorneys for Twitter did not oppose the search warrant but argued that a gag order preventing the company from alerting Trump to the search violated the First Amendment. The company argued that it should not have to hand over the records until that issue was resolved. Howell sided with the government, finding Twitter in contempt Feb. 7 for failing to comply with the search warrant. She gave Twitter until 5 p.m. to produce the records, with sanctions of $50,000 per day, to double every day that Twitter did not comply. Twitter produced the records three days later.

The Post story focuses on Twitter’s stonewalling — which, given that it took place this year, I presume was driven by Elon Musk. But I’m keenly interested in what the search warrant was after. It wasn’t Trump’s tweets, which are public. So the obvious conclusion: his direct messages. Trump, famously, does not use email and, until this year, apparently didn’t use text messaging either. But did he send or receive DMs on Twitter? And was he stupid enough to put anything incriminating in them? Is he about to be hoisted with Twitter’s unencrypted petard?

It seems unlikely on the surface that someone who doesn’t use email or text messaging would use DMs, but if the special counsel was not looking for DMs, I’m not even sure what the warrant could have been after. There just isn’t much else associated with a Twitter account that isn’t public. The least satisfying answer could be that the special counsel issued the warrant just in case Trump was a DM user, but he wasn’t, and there was nothing (or nothing relevant) there. But the special counsel convinced the court that Trump’s Twitter account information contained evidence of criminality. From the unsealed appellate court ruling:

On January 17, 2023, the government applied for, and obtained, a search warrant that directed Twitter to produce data and records related to the “@realDonaldTrump” Twitter account. At the same time, the government applied for, and obtained, a nondisclosure order, which prohibited Twitter from disclosing the existence or contents of the search warrant to any person. Based on ex parte affidavits, the district court found probable cause to search the Twitter account for evidence of criminal offenses. Moreover, the district court found that there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that disclosing the warrant to former President Trump “would seriously jeopardize the ongoing investigation” by giving him “an opportunity to destroy evidence, change patterns of behavior, [or] notify confederates.” The warrant required Twitter to turn over all requested information by January 27, 2023. The nondisclosure order was to remain in effect for 180 days after its issuance.

That doesn’t sound like a fishing expedition.

Twitter DMs, infamously, are not encrypted. With E2EE messaging platforms like iMessage, Signal, and WhatsApp, messages are not magically protected from search warrants — but such messages can only be produced from the participants’ own devices or, depending on the platform, from backups of those devices. But with non-encrypted Twitter DMs, the messages are just sitting there on Twitter’s servers. We also know, from this story just a few months ago, that “deleted” tweets were just hidden, not actually deleted — and a bug resulted in deleted tweets resurfacing. Was that (or is it still) true for “deleted” direct messages as well? I think it’s quite likely that every single DM ever sent on Twitter is still around.

Speaking of Twitter bugs, this bit from the unsealed court ruling made me laugh:

The government faced difficulties when it first attempted to serve Twitter with the warrant and nondisclosure order. On January 17, 2023, the government tried to submit the papers through Twitter’s website for legal requests, only to find out that the website was inoperative. Two days later, on January 19, 2023, the government successfully served Twitter through that website.