President Donald Trump sent mixed signals Thursday morning about a controversial law used to collect intelligence on individuals suspected of spying on the United States just hours before the House is slated to vote on reauthorizing it. And a key privacy hawk in Congress contends the president is more in line with him than the White House lets on.
For nearly two hours, the commander in chief even broke with his own White House’s stance on whether the law should remain on the books. But in an apparent clean-up operation, Trump was forced to fire off a tweet declaring this of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act: “We need it!”
With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
Despite Trump’s clarifying tweet, the early morning episode showed again how the president’s morning Twitter habit gins up confusion and complicates things even for his allies on Capitol Hill.
The House is set for a late-morning vote on what is colloquially known as FISA, a law that sets guidance for federal security agencies’ electronic surveillance of individuals suspected of conducting espionage or terrorism against the U.S. government on behalf of a foreign entity.
The White House issued a statement Wednesday evening signaling the president wants the House — then the Senate — to vote to keep the law on the books. The same statement even lauded its “useful role” in gather sensitive intelligence. The same statement expressed the White House’s opposition to an amendment being offered by privacy advocates intended to shield U.S. citizens’ electronic communications from being used in federal investigations without the proper warrant.
“The administration urges the House to reject this amendment and preserve the useful role FISA’s Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives,” the White House said Wednesday evening.
But less than 12 hours later, Trump suggested he wanted the FISA law terminated, tweeting it was used by the Obama administration to “badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign.”
“House votes on controversial FISA ACT today.” This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
A White House spokesman did not reply to an inquiry asking whether Trump wants the House to vote against reauthorizing FISA. But on its face, the 7:33 a.m. social media post suggested the president and his senior staff were again at odds on a major policy issue. Earlier this week, Trump appeared to side with Democrats on several immigration matters, only to have his top aides walk back his comments soon after he uttered them.
Almost 120 minutes after the first FISA tweet came another from Trump’s personal account, this one saying the law should be reauthorized.
“I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land,” the president wrote around 9:15 a.m. “We need it!”
House Democratic leaders pounced on the conflicting tweets.
In a blast email, the Democratic whip shop called the social media posts “the latest example of President Trump undermining American security and not knowing what’s happening in Congress.”
“The White House called this a critical national security tool to keep us safe, so Trump contradicted not only himself, but the recommendations of his intelligence leaders, including DNI Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo,” the Democrats’ email read. “While we’re sure he will try to walk this back after being told why he’s wrong … the damage is done.”
Just where Trump stands on FISA and the national security apparatus’ ability to conduct electronic surveillance was further muddied Thursday morning by Sen. Rand Paul, who sometimes golfs with the president and speaks to him regularly.
Paul suggested during a morning television interview that despite the Twitter flap, Trump might be more in line with his position.
“I have spoken with the president,” Paul said. “He still advocates, or the administration says they still advocate for reauthorization. So do I actually, I want reauthorization with reform, so I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.”
“The way I understand the president’s position is that he wants some of the reforms, that he thinks that we ought to have a warrant to look at this, and that there’s a possibility that people with bias in the intelligence community could use that bias to actually abuse the system,” the Kentucky Republican said on MSNBC. “This is an enormous power.”
Paul reiterated his concerns about American citizens being caught up in data collection.
“This program allows spying on foreigners in foreign lands with a less than constitutional standard, or really with no constitutional standard,” Paul said. “I’m OK with that.”
“What I’m not OK with is that millions of Americans are collected into this data system, and that maybe rogue people at the FBI or at [the] Justice Department could look at this data without a judge’s warrant,” Paul said.
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.