Trump, privacy hawks upend surveillance brawl

Trump, privacy hawks upend surveillance brawl
© Greg Nash

Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFlorida Republican becomes sixth member of Congress to test positive for coronavirus Zoom, grocery delivery, self-isolation: How lawmakers are surviving coronavirus Rand Paul volunteering at hospital after negative coronavirus test MORE (R-Ky.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeZoom, grocery delivery, self-isolation: How lawmakers are surviving coronavirus Justice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court Senator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy MORE (R-Utah) are playing hardball as they try to torpedo a House-passed surveillance deal.

The two GOP senators, and their allies on both sides of the aisle, have already netted one victory: They will have successfully forced a days-long expiration of three surveillance programs, including the controversial Section 215, when the intelligence authorities lapse Sunday night.

Now, they are trying to get President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders says he wouldn't 'drop dead' if Trump decided on universal healthcare Overnight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 Hillicon Valley: State officials push for more election funds | Coronavirus surveillance concerns ramp up pressure for privacy bill | Senators warned not to use Zoom | Agencies ask FCC to revoke China Telecom's license MORE to upend the fight over the House bill — which ties a reauthorization of the three expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act, a 2015 law that overhauled the country’s intelligence programs, with some changes to a shadowy surveillance court.


“The House bill, with no amendments, is completely unacceptable, an affront to any of us who were ever concerned about FISA abuse,” Paul said, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, or FISA, Court.

Lee, meanwhile, delivered a lengthy speech, where he railed against the House measure, invoking the president’s concerns.

"He still has concerns with FISA and that many senators are pointing out the flaws in the reforms package," Lee said. "If the president of the United States himself has reason to be concerned about FISA, what about the rest of Americans?"

The House passed its bill on Wednesday in a 278-136 vote. In addition to leadership on both sides of the aisle, Trump allies like Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTop conservatives pen letter to Trump with concerns on fourth coronavirus relief bill Justice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court The relief bill and public broadcasting: A missed opportunity MORE (R-Ohio) supported the legislation.

The measure would provide an extension of two USA Freedom Act provisions related to “roving” wiretaps, allowing law enforcement to follow an individual across devices, and lone wolf terrorists -- people who might be inspired by, but not directly linked to, a terrorist organization.

The bill would end a controversial call records program but reforms and reauthorizes other parts of Section 215, which allows the government to request “tangible things” relevant to a national security investigation.


But opponents argue it does not go far enough to reform the FISA Court.

Because negotiations over the legislation went down to the wire, with the House not passing its measure until Wednesday, Paul and Lee were able to throw up procedural roadblocks to the Senate voting on it before Sunday’s deadline.

They offered to support a 45-day short-term extension if it was paired with a deal on guaranteed amendment votes to the House bill. Republicans, however, shot down that request, signaling they want to pass the House bill as is.

The move by Paul and Lee rankled their GOP colleagues and came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former Trump advisor Bossert says to test the well, not ill; Senate standoff on next relief bill McCarthy slams Democrats on funding for mail-in balloting Harris, Ocasio-Cortez among Democrats calling for recurring direct payments in fourth coronavirus bill MORE (R-Ky.) took a veiled shot at them when he warned that forcing a lapse to “make a political point which will not change the result.”

“I am confident this will pass the Senate as well. It is not a question of if this passes, but when,” McConnell said.

Other Senate Republicans were more direct, warning that if there were a terrorist attack before the intelligence programs were reauthorized, Paul and Lee would be to blame.

“I hope we don’t have an attack this weekend,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrKudlow slams senators who allegedly traded stock before pandemic Trump takes heat for firing intel watchdog during pandemic COVID-19 and the coming corruption pandemic MORE (R-N.C.).

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate blocks dueling coronavirus relief plans Five problems banks face in getting coronavirus relief out the door Mnuchin, Schumer in talks to strike short-term relief deal MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said the House bill was the only thing that could pass before the Sunday deadline.

“If we don’t do it now, it won’t get done until we get back,” he warned.

The situation mirrors a 2015 fight when privacy hawks were able to force a 36-hour lapse of then-Patriot Act provisions because McConnell brought the bill to the floor too close to the deadline to avoid needing the cooperation of every senator, something opponents weren’t willing to give him.

Ultimately, the Senate that year passed the USA Freedom Act, which Paul opposed and Lee voted for, reauthorizing the programs with reforms.

The Senate will take an initial procedural vote on the House-passed bill Monday evening. GOP leaders have signaled they believe the measure will pass once it’s on the floor.

To win this time around, Lee and Paul will need help from Trump, who they are publicly urging to oppose the bill.

Trump has railed against the surveillance court, saying his 2016 campaign was “spied” on.

Progressives and libertarian-minded GOP warned for years that the surveillance court did not provide enough transparency or privacy protections for those targeted.

Republicans, meanwhile, have become increasingly skeptical of the surveillance court after Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found 17 significant inaccuracies and omissions in the warrant applications targeting Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Trump has largely stayed mum on the surveillance fight. But in a tweet that did not go unnoticed on Capitol Hill, he acknowledged that some Republicans are pushing him to oppose the bill.

“Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the FISA Bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted “coup” of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!” he tweeted.


A  White House official told The Hill that the president is interested in significant FISA reforms but is “carefully listening” to views of all Republicans.

Trump told Lee during a conversation that he opposed the House bill, a spokesman for Lee said. Paul has also been in touch with the White House.

If Trump opposes the bill, that would put him at odds with his own attorney general. William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrOvernight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 COVID-19 is no excuse for Attorney General Barr to skirt the rule of law Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening MORE released a statement saying he supported the bill.

“I know there’s a lot of noise about it, but I hope he follows the advice of his own attorney general and signs it,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next COVID-19 relief deal Senate blocks dueling coronavirus relief plans Lawmakers announce legislation to fund government purchases of oil MORE (R-Texas) said of the president’s tweet.

Asked if Trump would buck his own attorney general, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneDurbin: Bringing senators back in two weeks would be 'dangerous and risky' Trump's magical thinking won't stop the coronavirus pandemic Lawmakers brace for more coronavirus legislation after trillion bill MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, told reporters as the elevator doors closed: “I don’t think so.”