Washington — Special counsel Jack Smith obtained a search warrant for information about former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account earlier this year as part of his investigation into the aftermath of the 2020 election, court records unsealed Wednesday show.

A ruling by a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia revealed a lengthy battle that played out behind closed doors between the Justice Department and the Elon Musk-owned social media platform, now known as X. Twitter was ultimately held in civil contempt and fined $350,000 for twice failing to comply with the warrant.

Smith obtained the warrant for data and records pertaining to the Twitter account @realDonaldTrump on Jan. 17, 2023, along with a nondisclosure order prohibiting Twitter from sharing the existence of the warrant or its contents to anyone. The warrant arose from Smith’s investigation into Trump’s actions after he lost the 2020 presidential election, the appeals court said. Trump was charged with four counts in that probe and pleaded not guilty last week.

Twitter objected to the nondisclosure order, withholding the production of data and records while it challenged that order. A district court rejected that argument and said the company would be held in contempt if it didn’t meet a new deadline to produce the records. Twitter missed that second deadline and the court denied Twitter’s objections to the nondisclosure agreement, imposing the sanctions. The company fully produced the requested information several days after the deadline.

Twitter asked the appeals court to review the district court’s actions, arguing the nondisclosure order violated the First Amendment and that the court abused its authority by issuing the fine and holding it in contempt. The appeals court sided with the lower court in the decision first issued on July 18 and unsealed on Wednesday.

The order revealed that the government “faced difficulties” when it first tried 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,” it said. “Two days later, on January 19, 2023, the government successfully served Twitter through that website. On January 25, 2023, however, when the government contacted Twitter’s counsel to check on the status of Twitter’s compliance, Twitter’s counsel stated that she ‘had not heard anything’ about the warrant.”  

The details of what Twitter handed over about Trump’s account were not immediately clear. His account was permanently suspended after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, but it was reinstated last year after Musk bought the company. Trump has not returned to tweeting, preferring to use his social media platform Truth Social. 

News of the search warrant comes after a federal grand jury indicted Trump for his alleged role in conspiring to alter the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. The former president has insisted that the criminal cases against him are meant to derail his presidential candidacy. He quickly responded to news of the search warrant on Truth Social. 

“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,” Trump wrote. “My Political Opponent is going CRAZY trying to infringe on my Campaign for President.”

Melissa Quinn contributed reporting.