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How far did Bill Barr's Justice Dept go to help Devin Nunes?

Devin Nunes was bothered by a Twitter account that mocked him. So why did Bill Barr's Justice Department get a subpoena to expose the critic?
Image: Rep. Devin Nunes, R-CA, looks on during testimony at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Nov. 20, 2019.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-CA, looks on during testimony at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Nov. 20, 2019.Erin Schaff / Pool via Getty Images file

The more controversial Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) congressional career became, the more the Republican lawmaker became the subject of criticism. He didn't handle the spotlight especially well: Nunes apparently believed litigation was the proper way of dealing with those who said things he didn't like.

According to one tally, the GOP congressman filed lawsuits against the Washington Post, McClatchy, CNN, Hearst, Fusion GPS, Republican strategist Liz Mair, a watchdog group called the Campaign for Accountability, and an organic fruit farmer who called Nunes a "fake farmer."

The Californian also took a keen interest in Twitter accounts that upset him, suing the social-media company and some of its users, accusing them of defamation and negligence. The defendants included parody accounts, including one called "Devin Nunes' Cow."

To be sure, it didn't look great for a sitting congressman to go to court because he'd been bothered by a pseudonymous cow, but Nunes filed the case anyway. Not surprisingly, it failed.

What we didn't know until yesterday, however, was that the beleaguered GOP politician had a powerful ally working on his behalf. The New York Times reported overnight:

The Justice Department under President Trump secretly obtained a grand-jury subpoena last year in an attempt to identify the person behind a Twitter account dedicated to mocking Representative Devin Nunes of California, according to a newly unsealed court document.

The politicization of the Justice Department during Bill Barr's tenure as attorney general has long been among the most serious of the Trump-era scandals, and we're apparently still learning new details about the scope of the controversy.

As the Times' report explained, at issue was a Twitter account called @NunesAlt, which ridiculed the congressman. For reasons unknown, Barr's Justice Department sought a subpoena to expose the person (or persons) behind the account.

The demand for the information came two days before Thanksgiving 2020 -- weeks after Donald Trump's defeat.

Twitter, not surprisingly, balked, recognizing the @NunesAlt account and its content as constitutionally protected speech. According to the article, "When Twitter pressed the Justice Department for an explanation, the filing said, the government said the subpoena was part of a criminal investigation into a possible violation of a federal statute that makes it a felony to use interstate communications to threaten to injure someone. But the government refused to point to any particular tweet that made a threat."

Fortunately, none of these efforts worked. Twitter pushed back, and after President Joe Biden's inauguration, the Justice Department's new management withdrew the misguided subpoena.

But the fact that this happened at all is extraordinary and emblematic of just how far Team Trump was willing to go to corrupt institutions such as the Justice Department. Reflecting on what these revelations tell us about the former attorney general and his cohorts, Jon Chait added, "[D]espite 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 his department to intimidate Trump critics in flagrant defiance of the First Amendment."

As for the anonymous figure behind the @NunesAlt account, yesterday's news came as quite a surprise. After explaining that there's "nothing remarkable" about him/her, the author asked in an online item yesterday, "So then why am I being sued by a US congressman? Why would the DOJ ever target me? Is it the mean tweets and bad memes?"

These need not be rhetorical questions.