President Trump on Tuesday urged House Republicans to oppose legislation extending Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provisions, citing abuses of the law against his 2016 campaign.
“I hope all Republican House Members vote NO on FISA until such time as our Country is able to determine how and why the greatest political, criminal, and subversive scandal in USA history took place!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Trump’s call to action is a boon to privacy advocates in both parties, who for years have faced narrow defeats on measures to restrain government surveillance. But with Republicans in the minority in the House, they will need support from left-wing Democrats who also want to change a Senate-passed bill. If the bill is altered, it will return again to the Senate.
The bill was negotiated in part by Attorney General Bill Barr and passed the Senate 80-16 this month after senators rejected by a single vote a measure to protect US internet browsing records from warrantless collection. With 59 votes in favor and a supporter, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, absent, the provision failed.
Last week, Trump told The Post during a press conference on Capitol Hill that during Senate negotiations, “I purposely said to [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch [McConnell], you go and do what you want.”
But Trump added: “Nobody has been abused more than Trump…. so I’m going to be studying it very much.”
On Tuesday, before Trump urged Republican opposition, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in response to a question from The Post at a press briefing, “Any FISA concerns the president has, they’re real, they’re personal, and they should be considered as we move forward to reauthorize this valuable tool.”
Trump faced divided pressures within the Republican Party. Some allies, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, had hoped Trump would block the bill, though Paul said he didn’t hold out much hope after discussing the matter with Trump.
“I think he was sympathetic to the idea that we needed more reform but we didn’t have the votes, basically,” Paul said last week. “I think he should [veto the bill], but I don’t think he will.”
It’s unclear if Trump’s demand for further review of abuses against his campaign will take on more specific form. The Senate Judiciary Committee led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) already is reviewing the FBI’s Russia investigation, though Graham has resisted Trump’s urging to call former President Barack Obama as a witness.
On Tuesday, Trump swore in a new national intelligence director, former Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe. In one of his final acts, outgoing acting intelligence director Ric Grenell declassified transcripts of former Trump adviser Michael Flynn’s December 2016 calls with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to FBI agents including Peter Strzok about those calls, though he argues he did not intentionally lie and the Justice Department has moved to dismiss the case finding no valid reason to interview Flynn.
Trump defenders particularly object to the “unmasking” of Flynn’s identity under FISA by Obama administration officials, as well as the FBI withholding information from the FISA court in applications to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
An investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller ultimately found no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion.
FISA became law after Watergate to rein in government surveillance. It sets out oversight for surveillance of suspected spies and terrorists, but privacy advocates say it’s insufficient. In 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the FISA court was routinely approving the dragnet collection of domestic call records from phone companies, which Congress ended in 2015.
The pending bill’s reforms require the attorney general to sign off on surveillance of government officials, and opens the door to additional outside expert testimony before the FISA court, where only government attorneys generally are represented.
Paul said last week the pending bill would allow authorities to use FISA to “investigate a presidential election, which is a terrible, terrible injustice, and we should have tried to prevent it.”
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