The House Republicans' hearing on Twitter's “role in suppressing the Biden laptop story” took some unexpected twists Wednesday — including one witness testifying that the White House had requested the platform remove a Chrissy Teigen tweet insulting then-President Donald Trump.
In questioning during the House Oversight Committee hearing focused on Hunter Biden, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., asked Anika Collier Navaroli, a former employee of Twitter’s content moderation team, about a September 2019 exchange between Trump and Teigen. The president had tweeted about "boring" musician John Legend and his "filthy-mouthed" wife.
Teigen responded with a crude tweet insulting Trump, which included a word he notoriously used in the "Access Hollywood" tape.
"The White House almost immediately thereafter contacted Twitter to demand the tweet be taken down. Is that accurate?" Connolly asked.
"I do remember hearing we'd received a request from the White House to make sure we evaluated this tweet, and they wanted it to come down because it was a derogatory statement directed at the president," Navaroli said. The tweet, however, was not taken down.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., used the hearing to push back against Republican claims that Twitter is biased against conservatives. She asked Navaroli about the company's response to a 2019 Trump tweet where he called for Ocasio-Cortez and three other Democratic congresswomen of color to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Navaroli said her team reviewed the tweet and found it was in violation of Twitter's policies against abuse of immigrants, which explicitly barred the phrase "go back to where you came from."
Navaroli said her assessment was overridden, and Ocasio-Cortez asked if the policy was changed "a day or two later."
"Yes, that trope, go back to where you came from, was removed from the content moderation guidance as an example," Navaroli said.
"So Twitter changed their own policy after the president violated it in order to essentially accommodate his tweet?" Ocasio-Cortez asked. "Yes," Navaroli said.
"So much for bias against right wing on Twitter," the congresswoman said.
Democrats weren't the only ones to stray from the hearing's topic. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., used her time to chide the former executives who were present for banning her personal account in January of last year for spreading Covid misinformation.
"Consider your speech banned because you banned mine," Greene told the group. "You violated my First Amendment rights," she said, and "abused the power of a large corporation."
"I'm so glad you lost your jobs," Greene told the former executives. "Thank God Elon Musk bought Twitter," she added, referring to the billionaire who's since restored her account.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., took a similar tack, shouting at the former executives for Twitter limiting her account's reach for 90 days in 2021. She said the action was taken because of a tweet that was a "frickin' joke about Hillary Clinton," one that referred to the 2020 election as rigged.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" Boebert yelled at the former executives.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., used her time at the hearing to complain about Twitter having barred some doctors for offering contradicting views from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Covid and vaccines.
"I find it extremely alarming Twitter’s unfettered censorship spread into medical fields," Mace said.
"I along with many Americans have longterm effects from Covid," Mace said. "Not only was I long-hauler, but I have effects from the vaccine. It wasn’t the first shot but it was a second shot that I now developed asthma that has never gone away since I had the second shot. I have tremors in my left hand and I have the occasional heart pain that no doctor can explain."
She then questioned how Twitter knew how to censor certain medical professionals, and asked former Twitter general counsel Vijaya Gadde, "You're not a doctor, right?"
"No, I am not," Gadde responded.
Hearing was to focus on Biden reporting
The witnesses were called before the committee to answer questions about the platform’s handling of New York Post reporting in 2020 about the alleged contents of a laptop owned by Hunter Biden, in which the social media company controversially blocked users from tweeting and direct-messaging about it.
In excerpts of prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chair of the committee, alleged that “Big Tech autocrats wield their unchecked power to suppress the speech of Americans to promote their preferred political opinions.”
Comer charged that Twitter’s handling of the stories showed there was a “coordinated campaign by social media companies, mainstream news, and the intelligence community to suppress and delegitimize the existence of Hunter Biden’s laptop" and its contents.
James Baker, Twitter's former deputy general counsel, said, "I was not aware of and certainly did not engage in any conspiracy" with government or campaign officials to suppress the story.
"Moreover, I’m aware of no unlawful collusion with or direction from any government agency or political campaign on how Twitter should have handled the Hunter Biden laptop situation,” Baker said.
The move by Twitter executives to limit the spread of the Post articles happened weeks before the November 2020 presidential election. Twitter backtracked 24 hours later, allowing users to share links to the articles, but the main Post account was suspended for two weeks for refusing to delete its initial tweets, Gadde told the panel.
Yoel Roth, Twitter's former head of trust and safety, said the company had concerns because the story "at first glance bore a lot of similarities to the 2016 Russian hack and leak operation targeting the DNC. We had to decide what to do. And in that moment, with limited information, we made a mistake."
He added that these "decisions aren't straightforward," and the company had "wanted to avoid making the same mistake as 2016."
The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, blasted the hearing as a “trivial pursuit” about a news article that had “no discernible effect on anything” and that was given significant exposure on other social media platforms and in right-wing media during the brief time it was blocked on Twitter.
“Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession,” Raskin said.
The White House dismissed the committee hearing as a “bizarre political stunt” a day after the president delivered his second State of the Union address.
“This appears to be the latest effort by the House Republican majority’s most extreme MAGA members to question and re-litigate the outcome of the 2020 election,” White House spokesperson Ian Sams said in a statement.
“This is not what the American people want their leaders to work on. As the president has said and made his focus, the American people expect their leaders to work together in a bipartisan way on the issues that most impact their lives and their families, not attack his family with long-debunked conspiracy theories,” he continued.
The House Oversight Committee’s hearing comes as allies of the president and his son consider a legal defense fund to support Hunter Biden and others as they respond to Republican-led congressional investigations, NBC News reported last month.
Republicans allege that Hunter Biden has capitalized on his father’s political career and connections for profit amid their criticism of a series of the younger Biden’s financial dealings in Ukraine and China.
Hunter Biden beefed up his legal team in December amid an ongoing federal probe and plans by Republicans to make him a key focus of investigations as soon as they took control of the House in January.
Asked in an interview Wednesday about how he planned to handle the GOP investigations into his family, President Joe Biden was largely dismissive of Republican efforts.
"The public is not going to pay attention to that," Biden told PBS NewsHour. "They want these guys to do something. If the only thing they can do is make up things about my family, it’s not going to go very far."
Upon his appointment as the new Oversight Committee chairman, Comer accused the president of “influence peddling,” and swiftly dived into investigating Hunter Biden and other Biden family members and associates.