Key conservative presses for shield law after seizure of NYT reporter’s records

The Justice Department’s seizure of a New York Times reporter’s private email and phone records has sparked one of President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE’s top GOP allies in Congress to say he’ll aggressively pursue legislation to protect journalists.

Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanGOP lawmakers jockey for positions as managers Democrats approve two articles of impeachment against Trump in Judiciary vote Democrats object to Meadows passing note to Jordan from dais MORE (R-Ohio), a former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and a possible candidate for Speaker, said the need for a federal media “shield” law is even more critical after reporter Ali Watkins’s records were taken.

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The shield law he’s proposed would protect journalists from being forced by the government to turn over their records or sources, and is similar to a bill that had been co-authored by Vice President Pence.

“For me, it truly is about the Constitution,” Jordan, a former attorney, told The Hill in an interview.

“When you think about the context of the last several years, you’ve seen the IRS target conservative for their political beliefs. You’ve seen what the FBI was trying to do with phones and Apple encryption. You’ve seen this deal with the FBI and this reporter, Ali Watkins,” he said.

“All these things are examples of where government continues to encroach and violate people’s fundamental liberties.”

The seizure of Watkins’s records has infuriated First Amendment advocates and civil liberties champions, while thrusting the issue of press freedoms into the national spotlight.

Jordan, the founding chairman of the hard-right Freedom Caucus and a vocal Trump ally, has been working on the shield legislation for months. Last fall, Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers MORE (D-Md.), a liberal constitutional law professor at American University, approached Jordan, a fellow House Judiciary Committee member, about being a lead co-sponsor of Raskin’s media shield bill.

“I’m in,” Jordan told Raskin at the time.

Raskin and Jordan rolled out the Free Flow of Information Act on Nov. 14, just hours after Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLisa Page sues DOJ, FBI over alleged privacy violations Sessions leads GOP Senate primary field in Alabama, internal poll shows Trump rebukes FBI chief Wray over inspector general's Russia inquiry MORE told Congress he could not make a “blanket commitment” to not jail journalists who refuse to cooperate in leak investigations.

“The press plays an essential and sacrosanct role in American democracy and we need to make sure that the government cannot harass and intimidate reporters in the pursuit of their stories,” Raskin said in an interview on the steps of the Capitol. “Everybody should be troubled that the government appears to be clamping down on the work of reporters. The press, under our First Amendment, play a vital role in checking governmental abuse and tyranny.”

The Raskin–Jordan legislation is identical to bipartisan legislation co-authored by then-Rep. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceNorth Korea is everybody's problem, so Trump must change his approach Mark Levin calls Trump 'first Jewish president' Pence: It's not a 'foregone conclusion' that lawmakers impeach Trump MORE (R-Ind.) that cleared the House on a lopsided 398-21 vote back in 2007, two years after then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days for refusing to disclose her White House source who leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay House Ethics Committee informs Duncan Hunter he can no longer vote after guilty plea MORE (R-Wis.) was one of 176 Republicans to join almost all Democrats in voting "yes." But Republicans filibustered the bill in the Senate amid a veto threat from President George W. Bush.  

The new bill currently has only six co-sponsors, including Reps. Alex MooneyAlexander (Alex) Xavier MooneyOcasio-Cortez calls out GOP lawmakers asking to be arrested, citing privilege Ocasio-Cortez, Mooney spar on Twitter over closed-door impeachment hearings House Republican defends protest of closed-door hearing MORE (R-W.Va.), Grace MengGrace MengHillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack Progressives oppose spending stopgap measure over surveillance authority extension Hillicon Valley: Ocasio-Cortez clashes with former Dem senator over gig worker bill | Software engineer indicted over Capital One breach | Lawmakers push Amazon to remove unsafe products MORE (D-N.Y.) and John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Kentucky Democrat: McConnell's agenda driven by 'power without a purpose' MORE (D-Ky.). But two Freedom Caucus leaders, Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy GOP lawmakers jockey for positions as managers The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by UANI — Sparks fly as House Judiciary debates impeachment articles MORE (R-N.C.) and Rep. Warren DavidsonWarren Earl DavidsonFinancial sector's work on SAFE Banking Act shows together, everyone achieves more Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess GOP leaders struggle to contain conservative anger over budget deal MORE (R-Ohio), plus past shield-law supporters like Rep. Mike SimpsonMIchael (Mike) Keith SimpsonOn The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers 'Minor league cities' need new federal partnership MORE (R-Idaho), said they planned to sign on to the bill.

“I would vote for it, because I think reporters ought to have that shield and protect their sources,” Simpson said. “Otherwise how are you gonna get accurate reporting?”

Asked by The Hill on Thursday about the reporter shield bill, Ryan replied: “Wasn’t that Mike Pence’s bill? I still support it. I voted for it back then; I haven’t changed my position.”

But the Speaker added that he hasn’t given any thought to bringing the bill to the floor this year.

Jordan said he now plans to aggressively whip support given Pence and Ryan’s past support, the Watkins case and reports that Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinRosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe Judge rules former WH counsel McGahn must testify under subpoena MORE threatened to subpoena emails and phone records of House Intelligence Committee staffers, what Jordan says is another example of executive branch overreach.

“We just hadn’t pushed it, and now’s a good time,” Jordan said as he hurriedly walked from his office to votes.

Last week, it was revealed that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had obtained years worth of emails and phone records from Watkins, 26, as part of an investigation into whether top Senate Intelligence Committee staffer James Wolfe leaked classified information to reporters related to the Russia probe. The DOJ charged Wolfe, 57, with making false statements to the FBI about his contact with reporters, including Watkins.

Wolfe pleaded not guilty on Wednesday.

Watkins and Wolfe had a three-year personal relationship that began when she was a college intern at McClatchy and continued as she bounced around to different national security reporting jobs at HuffPost, BuzzFeed and Politico. Watkins said Wolfe was not a source during that time. Last December, she joined the New York Times, which said Wednesday it is investigating Watkins’s involvement in the Wolfe matter, including their relationship.

Under current administration policies, the DOJ is supposed to notify a reporter first before subpoenaing his or her records. But DOJ leaders were concerned that if they told her, she would tip off Wolfe or take other steps to undermine the leak investigation, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Trump has kept up a steady stream of attacks on special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Trump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts MORE’s Russia investigation and the reporters covering the story, calling the press this week “our country’s biggest enemy.”

On Capitol Hill, Jordan, Meadows and other Trump allies have been highly critical of the Muller probe, which includes investigating possible collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, as well as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s supervision of that probe.

What’s interesting is that Jordan is now advocating for a New York Times reporter who broke the story that Russian spies had tried to recruit former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, a key component of Mueller’s Russia probe.

In the interview, Jordan said he had spoken this week to three Judiciary colleagues — Reps. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingHouse passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers Juan Williams: Stephen Miller must be fired Why the GOP march of mad hatters poses a threat to our Democracy MORE (R-Iowa), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Raskin — about holding a hearing on the DOJ’s search and seizure of reporter records and how the agency obtained messages that had been transmitted over encrypted messaging apps, including Signal and WhatsApp.

King is chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.

In addition to his work with Raskin, Jordan has teamed with Lieu, a vocal Trump critic, on another bill that would bar states from forcing Apple and other tech companies to build “backdoors” in their devices so law enforcement can access them.

Jordan’s pairing with Raskin is an unusual one given that they hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum: The former was the founding chairman of the far-right Freedom Caucus, while the latter is a vice chair of the Progressive Caucus.

But Raskin explained that press freedom is an area where both liberals and libertarian-minded conservatives see eye to eye.

“There is a bedrock respect and love for the Bill of Rights among progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans and that’s how we get together,” said Raskin, whose mother was a journalist and father served as a national security aide to President Kennedy.

“Anybody who has a liberal or libertarian bone in their body is afraid of Big Brother run amok during this period,” Raskin told The Hill. “It’s getting a little 1984ish out there.”