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A Befuddled Donald Trump Almost Undermined the GOP’s Surveillance Agenda

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 10: U.S. President Donald Trump makes remarks in the Oval Office prior to signing the bipartisan Interdict Act, a bill to stop the flow of opioids into the United States, on January 10, 2018 in Washington, D.C.  The Interdict Act will provide Customs and Border Protection agents with the latest screening technology devices used to secure our border from illicit materials, specifically fentanyl, a powerful opioid. (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

On Thursday morning, mainstream Republican priorities came under attack from an unlikely, but not entirely surprising, source: President Donald Trump.

The trouble began as the U.S. House of Representatives was preparing to consider reauthorization of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which allows warrantless surveillance of communications between U.S.
citizens and foreign targets. Some civil liberties-oriented lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were working to moderate Section 702’s power, attempting to impose Fourth Amendment protections on some intelligence gathering. The mainstream GOP position, however, still supported the substance of the law, making only minor concessions to privacy concerns.

The ensuing debate proved complex and confusing. It’s an issue that demands surgical precision, but few could agree where to cut and when to sew. It should be little surprise, then, that Trump leaped into the operating theater with a hammer and began swinging wildly:

While it came from a position of radical ignorance, Trump’s tweet had immediate consequences, reportedly confusing whip counts and complicating the ensuing debate. The House would ultimately approve the extension, 256-164. “The measure now heads to the Senate, where it has a good shot of passing, although at least two lawmakers have vowed to filibuster. The White House has said Trump will sign the bill if it gets to his desk,” Politico reports. But Trump did little to ease the process along Thursday.

Even as president stopped short of proposing an actual policy suggestion, he seemed to be suggesting that 702 is itself the problem, if only because it led security agencies to look at his own campaign’s communications. To be sure, that’s not entirely improbable. As Sean Vitka explained in Slate last March, the government probably did spy on Trump’s campaign, given that it “has surveilled virtually all Americans” under its 702 powers. Any information could have been collected incidentally, which means the Trump campaign wasn’t necessarily specifically targeted by intelligence agencies. If that troubles you, then you’re objecting to the substantive overreach allowed under 702 as such.

For the record, though, Trump’s tweet didn’t seem to flow from some deep concern for the privacy rights of American citizens. To the contrary, this appears to be yet another case of the people on his television talking directly to him. As Media Matters senior fellow Matthew Gertz noted, the president’s tweet arrived less than an hour after a Fox and Friends segment in which Andrew Napolitano suggested that Section 702 had been the source of Trump’s troubles:

If the president wants to distribute blame for his confusion, he need only look to his own party’s hypocrisy. As Elizabeth Goiten wrote in Slate last February, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes helped spread the idea that the Trump campaign’s communications were targeted by the intelligence community. And yet, it is Nunes himself who has helped drive the current mainstream GOP pushback against a bipartisan amendment that would have further limited the scope of 702. Indeed, the New York Times reports that Nunes’ own aides recently “distributed a one-page sheet this week denouncing the amendment as imposing ‘unnecessarily severe requirements’ that would endanger Americans.”

When Trump implicitly called for the House to push back against FISA reauthorization, then, he wasn’t just opposing a policy that his own congressional allies pursued; he was actively blinding himself with the rhetorical blanket that they wove to protect him. Or, as Jonathan Chait puts it in New York, “The source of Trump’s confusion may be that he has taken seriously the Republican talking points about the Deep State, failing to realize that it’s disingenuous propaganda designed to cover up misdeeds by his campaign.” In that sense, this Trump flub is far more telling than many of his past gaffes, such as his recent confusion about immigration policy. It’s not just that he doesn’t understand the GOP’s legislative agenda, but that his own agenda is to simply shield himself.

Later in the morning, the White House tried to smooth things over, though its fix—a tweet that arrived almost two hours after the initial message—did little to suggest that the president understood what was at stake:

Any competent writing teacher will tell you that the beginning of a new sentence should build on the information established in the one before. As transitions go, “With that being said” is typically little more than a crutch, the kind of phrase you insert when you want to link two phrases but can’t quite connect them logically. Here, then, we see Trump at his purest: Flailing and largely unaware of how one idea is connected to the next, but still insistently performing his own competence, despite the chaos he causes.

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