Senate Republicans furious over Trump trying to derail FISA bill

Senate Republicans vented their frustration after former President Trump helped derail a compromise House bill to extend Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authority, sending lawmakers scrambling to find a Plan B to keep the nation’s intelligence agencies from losing their ability to spy on adversaries and terrorists.

Republican senators are warning that the nation’s spy program is about to go “dark” and that much of the intelligence that goes into President Biden’s daily briefing could be lost, putting the nation at risk for surprise attacks.

“I’m very disappointed in President Trump’s assessment of FISA. It is an essential tool. It may need to be amended but it is absolutely essential, as everyone in the intelligence community will tell you,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned that failure to pass the bill would cripple the nation’s intelligence gathering.

“If we can’t spy on foreign terrorists and foreign spies overseas, we’re out of the intelligence business,” he said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), another member of the Intelligence Committee, pointed out that much of the national security intelligence provided to Biden on a daily basis comes from information gathered under FISA’s Section 702.

“So I think we need to reform it, not end it,” Cornyn said.

Asked what it would mean for national security if Congress killed FISA’s warrantless surveillance authority under Section 702, Cornyn warned: “We’d go dark on a lot of threats. I’m hoping there can be a more extended conversation about what the reforms should look like.”

Trump effectively derailed a House bill to extend the expanded surveillance powers by urging Congress on Friday to “kill FISA.”

“KILL FISA, IT WAS ILLEGALLY USED AGAINST ME, AND MANY OTHERS. THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN!!!” Trump fumed on his social media platform, Truth Social.

Nineteen House Republicans heeded that demand and blocked the bill from advancing on the House floor Wednesday. Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and his allies scrambled Thursday to come up with a Plan B to reauthorize the program before the looming April 19 deadline, and the House Rules Committee met to tee up a similar version of the measure for a floor vote Friday.

A number of the GOP holdouts signaled that after negotiations, they were willing to help advance the measure on the House floor, but not all were ready to give it their OK, and Johnson can afford to lose only two votes.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) knocked Trump for imperiling the future of the national security program because of his personal beef with the FBI and other intelligence agencies over the wiretapping of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page during the 2016 election.

“I know that for President Trump much of what happens in the world, in his mind, revolves around him, but FISA is actually designed to prevent another 9/11 or worse, and it’s been used extensively by our law enforcement to protect Americans. And if FISA were eliminated, American lives are going to be lost,” he said.

Romney said that Trump’s call to kill FISA is “a very dangerous position.”

“If there are reforms that are necessary to avoid abuse, then by all means let’s enact those reforms, but let’s not throw out something that’s so essential to the life and well-being of our citizens,” he said.

Former Trump Attorney General William Barr told The Hill on Wednesday that Trump’s opposition to FISA seems to be more motivated by personal animus than a substantive policy disagreement or concern for Fourth Amendment protections.

“I think President Trump’s opposition seems to have stemmed from personal pique rather than any logic and reason. The provision that he objects to has nothing to do with the provision on the floor,” he said, referring to the legislation reauthorizing Section 702 of FISA, which stalled in the House on Wednesday after 19 Republicans voted to defeat a rule to advance it.

Barr warned that allowing the program to lapse would put the nation at risk of attack.

“I hope for Republicans’ sake that there are no attacks, because if there are, I think there will be blood on people’s hands for doing this. It’s reckless,” he said.

Barr and multiple senators, including Rubio, pointed out that the FBI initiated a wiretap on Page, Trump’s former campaign aide, in 2016 under Section 1 of FISA, which is not at issue in the House reauthorization bill. And they noted that the FBI obtained a warrant from a FISA court to surveil Page.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said the former president went too far in calling for the termination of FISA and Section 702.

“I disagree with him,” he said. “I’ve worked with the FBI, I’ve seen the briefing on reforms, I believe that they’ve addressed concerns, and I think the world is far too dangerous now for us to go dark.”

Tillis said Republican lawmakers have to work with the Biden administration to keep the nation safe, and if Trump wants additional changes to the program, he should work with Congress on new reforms if he’s elected president in November.

“It’s our job to take care of the business today. We can have this discussion with a future President Trump, but I believe if we go dark, it will make this country and this world a lot more dangerous, and that’s why I support it, with all due respect to President Trump,” he said.

Some Republicans, however, applauded Trump’s intervention on the issue.

“I agree completely,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a libertarian-leaning conservative, of Trump’s call to “kill FISA.”

“I’ve never felt like you can evade the Constitution to get information on Americans,” he said. “Inside the country, the Constitution applies, and this enormous 702 database I would guess has tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of bits of information on Americans.

“I think 702 is a terrible program as applied to Americans,” he said.

It’s just the latest example of Trump undercutting Republican leaders on Capitol Hill at the last minute and putting high-priority legislation into a tailspin.

Trump killed the bipartisan Senate border security deal in February, telling GOP lawmakers at the time to oppose it because he didn’t want to give Biden a legislative victory on border security.

And the former president made a run at derailing a $95 billion emergency foreign aid package that included $60 billion for Ukraine, which the Senate passed in February with 70 votes.

Trump made phone calls to GOP senators urging them to vote against the legislation, depriving it of majority support within the Senate Republican Conference.

But Republican senators are flummoxed that U.S. intelligence agencies may lose critical intelligence-gathering authority in a few days because Trump helped quash a House bill to extend that authority.

“There are a lot of reason why we can’t let it go dark. There are things that need to be fixed and reformed, and I think that’s what the focus should be. But it’s a tool that we really need to keep America safe,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, pointed out that an individual who was threatening to shoot up churches in Idaho was recently arrested before he could carry out any attacks.

“If that individual had gone in and murdered a bunch of people and then the news came out later, ‘We saw it, we knew about it, but couldn’t do anything about it,’ the whole country would be up in arms about it,” he said.

Lankford acknowledged he doesn’t know if that particular threat was stopped because of expanded FISA surveillance authority, but he argued: “It’s not occasional. There are threats coming at our country all the time.”

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