President Donald Trump fired off a series of tweets Thursday that appeared to undermine his own administration’s position on surveillance legislation.
While live-tweeting during his preferred morning show, “Fox & Friends,” Trump railed against a 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ― even as his staffers were working to reauthorize it.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, which was passed in 2008 and was set to expire Wednesday unless reauthorized, allows the government to spy on the electronic communications of non-U.S. citizens located outside the United States.
Critics of the Section 702 amendment argue that its language also intentionally enables the government to spy on Americans who communicate with non-U.S. citizens under surveillance. Libertarians and progressive lawmakers attempted to pass an amendment to Section 702, known as the USA Rights Act, on Thursday. The provision would require the government to obtain a warrant before collecting information about Americans.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that the Trump administration was against the USA Rights Act and that it supported the reauthorization of Section 702 as it was written.
“The Administration strongly opposes the ‘USA Rights’ amendment to the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act, which the House will consider tomorrow,” Sanders told reporters. “This amendment would re-establish the walls between intelligence and law enforcement that our country knocked down following the attacks of 9/11 in order to increase information sharing and improve our national security. The Administration urges the House to reject this amendment and preserve the useful role FISA’s Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives.”
Nonetheless, Trump bashed Section 702 on Thursday morning and linked it to conspiracy theories that claim Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the 2016 presidential campaign, and Democratic lawmakers used it to influence the election. Hours later, the president appeared to recognize his mistake, telling his Twitter followers to “get smart” about Wednesday’s vote on Section 702 and the USA Rights Act.
Despite the president’s mixed messages, the House of Representatives voted against the USA Rights Act on Wednesday. It then voted for the reauthorization of Section 702.
During a news briefing Thursday afternoon, Sanders said Trump “fully understands” the FISA provisions and that she didn’t believe his tweets were in conflict with his administration’s stance on Section 702.
“The president fully supports the 702 and was happy to see it passed the House today,” Sanders said. “But he does have some overall concern with the FISA program more generally. The president doesn’t feel we should have to choose between protecting American citizens and protecting their civil liberties. He wants to do both. ... We don’t see any contradiction or confusion in that.”
This story has been updated with additional comments from Sanders.