While the Trump administration never informed The Times about the effort, the Biden administration continued waging the fight this year, telling a handful of top Times executives about it but imposing a gag order to shield it from public view, said the lawyer, David McCraw, who called the move unprecedented.
The gag order prevented the executives from disclosing the government’s efforts to seize the records even to the executive editor, Dean Baquet, and other newsroom leaders.
McCraw said on Friday that a federal court had lifted the order, which had been in effect since March 3, freeing him to reveal what had happened. The battle was over an ultimately unsuccessful effort by the Justice Department to seize email logs from Google, which operates The Times’s email system, and which had resisted the effort to obtain the information.
The disclosure came two days after the Biden Justice Department notified the four reporters that the Trump administration, hunting for their sources, had in 2020 secretly seized months of their phone records from early 2017. That notification followed similar disclosures in recent weeks about seizing communications records of reporters at The Washington Post and CNN.
Baquet condemned both the Trump and Biden administrations for their actions, portraying the effort as an assault on the First Amendment.
“Clearly, Google did the right thing, but it should never have come to this,” Baquet said. “The Justice Department relentlessly pursued the identity of sources for coverage that was clearly in the public interest in the final 15 days of the Trump administration. And the Biden administration continued to pursue it. As I said before, it profoundly undermines press freedom.” There was no precedent, McCraw said, for the government to impose a gag order on New York Times personnel as part of a leak investigation. He also said the government had never before seized The Times’s phone records without advance notification of the effort.