Trump upends controversial surveillance fight
President Trump is threatening to blow up an extension of expiring intelligence programs as he backchannels with a cadre of top allies who want to use the bill to reform a shadowy surveillance court.
Congress has approximately 10 working days to reauthorize three expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act, a 2015 bill that overhauled the country’s surveillance laws, with Attorney General William Barr and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) backing a “clean” extension.
But Trump threw a grenade into those already fragile plans Thursday, when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told reporters that the president supports his effort to include broader reforms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as part of any reauthorization of the intelligence programs.
“I’ve talked to the president, and I plan on insisting on getting a vote,” Paul said, asked by The Hill about including broader FISA reforms in a bill would authorize the expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act.
Paul wants a vote on an amendment that would prevent FISA warrants from being used against Americans. Paul’s proposal would also prevent FISA information from being used against Americans in a domestic courtroom. The president, according to Paul, is supportive of his amendment.
Trump’s apparent support for including broader changes to the surveillance court associated with FISA comes as he’s railed repeatedly about his campaign being “spied” upon by the Obama-era FBI.
Progressives and libertarian-minded Republicans have long pushed to reform the court, arguing enough privacy protections and transparency aren’t given to individuals targeted for government surveillance.
But concerns about the court found a broader audience with Republicans when Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz found 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” as part of the surveillance warrant applications involving Trump campaign associate Carter Page.
Trump, before Thursday, had not weighed in on whether those broad reforms to the surveillance court needed to be included in the USA Freedom Act reauthorization.
Sending the opposite signal, Barr was dispatched to the Capitol on Tuesday where he urged Senate Republicans to pass a clean extension of the three expiring provisions related to roving wiretaps, lone-wolf surveillance and a controversial records program that allows the government to view phone metadata.
GOP senators say Barr indicated during the lunch that Trump would support a clean extension of the three programs. McConnell threw his support behind extending the authorities during a press conference after the powwow with Barr.
“These tools have been overwhelmingly useful according to our intelligence advisors, and I hope that when the Senate deals with these expiring provisions in a couple of weeks, we will be able to continue to have them in law, which will, of course, provide maximum protection for the American people,” McConnell told reporters.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and the Intelligence Committee, noted that Barr was supportive of a clean extension.
“I certainly think he has talked to the president about it,” Blunt said. “[But] the president speaks for himself.”
Paul accused Barr of making the administration’s position “cloudy” by advocating for a clean extension.
“After the conversation with Barr [on Tuesday] I called the president and said, ‘we’re missing a huge opportunity. If your administration is for this,’ and he assured me that that’s not his opinion. So we’re getting conflicting reports … but I think the president is the final word,” Paul said.
Paul’s comments come after there were signs, via Trump’s Twitter account, that he could be leaning toward pushing for reforms to the surveillance court as part of the intelligence legislation.
Trump retweeted Rep. Jim Jordan’s call for changes to the FISA process, including a Fox News clip where the Ohio Republican discusses wanting to get changes to the surveillance court. He retweeted Jordan a second time on FISA reforms and added “they spied on my campaign!”
The tweet comes as Trump and other top White House officials have been talking with a group of Republicans who support using the USA Freedom reauthorization bill to make broader surveillance changes.
In addition to Paul, Trump has been talking with Republican Sen. Mike Lee about the issue, according to a spokesman for the Utah senator.
“Sen. Lee has had multiple positive phone calls with President Trump on this,” said Conn Carroll, a spokesman for Lee, asked if he had been in contact with the White House about getting FISA reforms into the USA Freedom reauthorization.
Meanwhile, Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) met on Wednesday with Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner to discuss the need for broader surveillance reforms as part of the intelligence bill, according to a Republican staff source.
The source added that Kushner was “certainly receptive” to the idea of merging surveillance reforms into the legislation.
The negotiations over reauthorizing the expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act have already been fraught with division. House Democrats had to pull their own bill after Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) threatened to force several FISA-related votes.
McConnell, meanwhile, has been trying to get Republicans line up behind a clean extension.
In a bid to try to soothe GOP concerns about potential surveillance abuse, Barr told Republicans that he would use his own rulemaking authority to enact changes to the surveillance court and the warrant application process.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is also doing a deep dive on the FISA process, including closed-door depositions that he expects to start next week. Graham appeared caught off guard about Paul’s talk with the president, saying “I haven’t talked to him about it, [but] I’ll see him this weekend.”
Graham and Trump are campaigning in South Carolina together.
It’s unclear if those promises will be enough to get Republicans back on board with a straightforward extension of the expiring surveillance programs.
“If we don’t fix FISA now, it will never be fixed,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “This is our opportunity. This is our chance.”
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