President Trump clarifies position on FISA after tweet expressing surveillance concerns

Trump clarified his position on FISA after a tweet expressing concerns.

ByAlexander Mallin and Benjamin Siegel
January 11, 2018, 1:28 PM

— -- President Donald Trump is under fire following a pair of seemingly contradictory tweets Thursday morning that thrust confusion into the debate over an intelligence program deemed critical by government national security agencies.

Thursday afternoon, the White House denied the tweets were contradictory or created any confusion.

The controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes the U.S. government to monitor electronic communications of suspected foreign terrorists and spies, passed the House on Thursday in a 256-164 vote, but not before the president issued the confusing statements via Twitter that drew his support for the measure into question.

"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?" Trump tweeted Thursday morning.

That tweet seemed to contradict a statement from the White House just 12 hours earlier that expressed clear support for the measure, — and it seemed to support a proposed amendment to reform the program that the White House had also said it didn't want. The 'USA Rights' amendment proposed by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., would have banned government officials from looking through Americans' data collected under FISA's '702 program' without a warrant.

That amendment failed Thursday morning in a 183-233 vote. Opponents of the proposal, including House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the proposed change would “disable” the 702 program. The White House came out against the amendment and for re-authorization on Wednesday, though President Trump appeared to oppose the measure in a tweet Thursday morning.

Over an hour and a half later after his first tweet on Thursday, the president sent a second tweet on the subject seeming to clarify that he supports FISA re-authorization, with potential privacy concerns addressed separately.

"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," Trump wrote. "We need it! Get smart!"

Trump's tweets drew criticism from a top democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees. In a tweet Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., called Trump's initial criticism of the law "irresponsible" and "untrue," adding "FISA is something the President should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning."

Later Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders sought to downplay the confusion, saying the White House “doesn’t think there was a conflict at all” between his tweeted positions.

“The president fully supports the 702 and was happy to see it passed the House today but he does have some overall concern with the FISA program more generally,” Sanders said. “The president doesn't feel we should have to choose between protecting American citizens and protecting their civil liberties.”

“We don't see any contradiction or confusion in that,” Sanders added.

Asked about critics who suggested the string of tweets showed the president wasn’t familiar with his own administration’s policy, Sanders responded, “This is top of mind for the president and for the administration. And he has a full understanding."

Questioned why the president sent a clarifying tweet almost two hours after his first, Sanders said it was intended to clear things up for the press.

“We weren't confused but some of you guys were,” Sanders said. “We wanted you to make sure you knew the White House position.”

Fox News did a segment on FISA Thursday morning around the same time Trump first tweeted, where he appeared to quote the broadcast.

“I don't understand why Donald Trump is in favor of this,” Judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News senior judicial analyst, said on the network. “His woes began with unlawful foreign surveillance and unconstitutional domestic surveillance of him before he was the president of the United States and now he wants to institutionalize this. Mr. President, this is not the way to go.”

Following the president's first tweet, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., appeared on Fox News where he said he spoke with the president about his own concerns surrounding FISA, and said the president indicated he would back reforms put forward by Amash and Paul himself.

"The administration has voiced support for reauthorization but I think the president indicated to me that he believes that any reauthorization should have significant reforms," Paul said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Cali., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on the House floor during debate over the FISA bill that House GOP leaders should postpone consideration of the bill in light of Trump's tweets.

"I do think we need more time to work on this bill and I think that was only underscored this morning by the contradictory statements coming out of the administration," he said, calling for "more time to discuss this with our members."House Speak Paul Ryan called President Trump following his first tweet of the morning, according to a source familiar with the call.

"One of the most important things we are placed in charge to do is make decisions, not based on TV, not based on internet, based on facts, based on reality," Ryan said in a speech on the House floor this moring. "And we're supposed to make those decisions to keep our country safe."

While they never questioned the outcome Thursday, some Republicans were frustrated by the mixed messages from the White House.

"It didn't help," said Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said of Trump's first tweet.

"The conversations we've been having ... intensely for the last few days is 702. And people have been going, 'Yeah but FISA and unmasking.' And we've had to say, 'Look, they're separate.'"

"702 is a very different issue," he added. "This is a very valuable tool. And I think the communication from the White House made it a little more ambiguous."

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