Journalists last week heard Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein review the government’s policies on obtaining information from reporters. Rosenstein said the guidelines created under President Obama remained in effect: barring certain circumstances, like an imminent threat to national security, reporters would be told in advance of any attempt to obtain their records. The journalists believed that no changes were imminent; a day later, it seemed as if all bets were off, the New York Times reports. The revelation that DOJ had seized years of phone and email records from New York Times reporter Ali Watkins raised concerns that the Trump administration was adopting a highly aggressive approach, continuing a crackdown that ramped up in the Obama years.
Under Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, the Justice Department obtained private records from reporters at Fox News and the Associated Press. Eventually, facing criticism, Holder strengthened rules to minimize the seizure of journalists’ data. Journalists and lawyers said that the department’s handling of Watkins’ case was a sign that those guardrails might be on their way out, under a president who relishes taunting the press. Holder’s Justice Department pursued at least nine leak-related prosecutions, more than all previous administrations combined. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in August that the Justice Department would vastly expand that effort. He also promised to revisit rules that restrict investigators’ ability to obtain reporters’ records, saying the role of the press “is not unlimited.” Prosecutors seized Watkins’ records as part of an investigation into whether a former Senate Intelligence Committee aide, James Wolfe, gave classified materials to reporters. Media advocates worry that law enforcement officials could start obtaining journalists’ records as a first step, rather than a last resort, exposing communications with confidential sources.