Of all the extraordinarily hackish maneuvers Bill Barr’s Justice Department undertook to protect Donald Trump, perhaps the most hackish was not revealed until Monday afternoon. According to a newly unsealed court document, Barr’s DOJ obtained a grand jury request to expose the author of a Twitter account that had mocked Republican congressman Devin Nunes.
Nunes was the head of the House Intelligence Committee, a fanatical defender of Trump throughout various scandals, and an enthusiastic litigant. Nunes believes that his critics in the media should be shut down or forced to pay him lavish sums for their effrontery, and has filed, or threatened to file, a series of lawsuits against publications including Esquire, the Fresno Bee, and Twitter.
It is almost impossible to convey how amateurish Nunes’s legal claims are. He believes he can sue Twitter over the existence of parody accounts mocking him, including one called “Devin Nunes’ Cow,” on the principle that the fake cow has said hurtful things about him and this somehow is not allowed.
All of Nunes’s legal efforts have been laughed out of court. And yet, incredibly, Nunes somehow got the Justice Department behind another absurd legal crusade to quash his critics, with this effort aimed at the Twitter account @DevinAlt, a non-bovine account which is also dedicated to mocking Nunes.
The DOJ attempted to use the grand jury to unmask the author of the account. The pretext for this effort was to enforce a law against threatening to injure, kidnap, or extort a person using interstate communications. The law was obviously designed to stop blackmailers and kidnappers, not a parodist making fun of a public official:
Twitter fought the request, and after Trump officials left the DOJ, the department’s new management sensibly abandoned the effort. It is difficult to imagine that a legal effort as preposterous and facially incompatible with the First Amendment could possibly have succeeded, even in a second Trump term. Had it prevailed, it would have essentially led to a ban on any pseudonymous criticism of Trump or his allies.
What should we take away from the news that Barr endorsed such a ridiculous maneuver? One is that, despite his very last-minute abandonment of the Trump ship before it sank, Barr was no principled objector to his boss’s authoritarianism. He was willing to employ the powers of the Justice Department to intimidate Trump critics, in flagrant defiance of the First Amendment.
And second, the Republican posture of defending “free speech” has never been remotely earnest; the only thing that prevented Trump from quashing any and all criticism was his inability to get away with it.