A CNN lawyer spoke out Wednesday on the network, revealing that former president Donald Trump’s administration had sought a reporter’s email records for months in what he called Department of Justice “abuses.”
In a digital piece under his own byline, CNN executive vice president and general counsel David Vigilante detailed that he had been bound by a gag order since July 2020 and could not, until Wednesday, reveal details of the previous administration’s quest to obtain Barbara Starr’s email records.
“This article is the first time in almost a year that I have been able to publicly address what happened to CNN without fear of prosecution. While we are gladdened by recent commitments from both the President and the Office of the Attorney General, these commitments must be made permanent and binding on future officeholders to have any meaning,” he wrote. “History teaches us that secret tribunals are ripe for abuse by even well-intentioned officials. Given recent revelations about other Barr DOJ abuses, it is fair to question whether the very high standard for requesting these secret orders was ever satisfied. Indeed, it seems impossible that what a district court judge described as ‘scenarios unanchored in any facts’ could ever survive the scrutiny of an objective DOJ official.”
On July 17, 2020, he explained, “through our parent company WarnerMedia, I received a secret order issued by a federal magistrate judge in the Eastern District of Virginia. That court, based on an ex parte submission approved by the William Barr-led Justice Department, had ruled that CNN must produce all of Ms. Starr’s email headers from a two-month period in 2017.”
Vigilante said CNN retained outside counsel, but could not acknowledge the order “even existed” to anyone else, including Starr herself, under threat of ” charges of contempt and even criminal prosecution for obstruction of justice.” He further elaborated on the various things he wasn’t allowed to do or know, saying “all the tools lawyers use every day to navigate these situations were refused” to CNN and his “attempts to negotiate with the DOJ went nowhere.” Vigilante noted that he wasn’t even aware of what the investigation was about.
The legal back-and-forth continued for months and it wasn’t until President Joe Biden took office that CNN was able to reach a resolution.
Starr, CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, responded Wednesday to the news, writing on Twitter, “Sometimes I just wonder if govt officials need to reread the First and Fourth Amendment. The Constitution actually works if one follows it.”
She added, “Federal judge says pursuit of my records and CNN ‘unanchored in facts’ and I was not allowed to even be aware due to gag order. #FirstAmendment today, tomorrow and always.”
Vigilante appeared on CNN later in the day to detail the experience, which is viewable above. CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter also appeared on-air, pointing out that the New York Times’ lawyers faced a similar gag order, but for a lesser period of time.
“This is a stunning revelation about the government spying on journalists and trying to do it so that even the journalists and their bosses cannot know,” he said.