The Trump administration subpoenaed Twitter for information related to a parody account that criticized Devin Nunes, a close ally to the former president, according to federal court records released on Monday.
Investigating messages related to the parody Twitter account @NunesAlt, which poses as the California representative’s mother, the Department of Justice (DoJ) sought to identify the user behind the account, according to a motion to quash the subpoena.
“It appears to Twitter that the subpoena may be related to Congressman Devin Nunes’s repeated efforts to unmask individuals behind parody accounts critical of him,” the document states.
In 2019, Nunes filed a $250m lawsuit that accused the media giant of defamation while profiting from abusive behavior and language. The lawsuit also sued @NunesAlt and another parody account posing as the representative’s cow, @DevinCow.
Last summer, a judge ruled that the representative could not sue Twitter, citing section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects sites from liability for what users may post.
Twitter has not complied with the demand to share the identities. A lawyer for the site said last summer it had no intention of doing so.
In the DoJ investigation, a gag order prohibiting Twitter from talking about the subpoena was issued along with the document.
According to the motion to quash the subpoena, Twitter asked the justice department for an explanation regarding the criminal investigation. The government said messages by the parody account were a possible violation of a federal statute that makes it a felony to use interstate communications to threaten to injure someone – but did not point to any tweet that made a threat.
A Twitter account holder would typically be notified of any legal request – such as subpoenas, court orders or other legal documents – regarding their account, according to Twitter’s rules and policies. However, in this case, prosecutors got a court order in November to keep the subpoena secret, citing a fear that its disclosure could harm the investigation.
On Tuesday, a Twitter spokesperson said the company was “committed to protecting the freedom of expression for those who use our service. We have a strong track record and take seriously the trust placed in us to work to protect the private information of the people on Twitter.”
The user behind @NunesAlt wrote that the release of the court records was “the closest thing I’m gonna get to a Mother’s Day card”.
He or she also quoted Eric Garcia, a Democrat running against Nunes in California, who referred to Nunes’s prominent opposition to the investigation of Russian election interference and links between Trump and Moscow.
“So,” Garcia wrote, “the person who claims secret courts and organizations and trying to destroy our country tried to use a secret grand jury subpoena to find the identity of @NunesAlt. How many other times did Devin use the DoJ to try and attack private citizens?”
A GoFundMe campaign has been created by the user behind @DevinCow to pay for the costs related to the congressman’s lawsuit against both parody accounts.
“These parodies are anonymous on Twitter, however, they are real people behind these accounts who have retained attorneys to respond and fight these allegations in court,” reads the fundraiser description.
By Tuesday, the fundraiser had raised more than $146,000.
Nunes has filed several defamation lawsuits, including one against the political journalist Ryan Lizza and Hearst, which owns Esquire, over a 2018 article about his family farm. The lawmaker also filed a $435m libel suit against CNN over a report about his contacts with a Ukrainian prosecutor.