A pair of tweets on Thursday morning had lawmakers and others in Washington confused about what exactly President Donald Trump’s opinions were regarding a controversial surveillance law.
Congress had yet to vote on whether or not to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, also known as FISA, which allows a secret court system to determine when surveillance should be applicable, including the surveillance of U.S. citizens. The law has been opposed by citizens’ rights groups that argue its secrecy and broadness interferes with privacy rights established under the Constitution.
Some argue, however, that the law is necessary in order to prevent terrorist attacks from foreign threats. The law itself, originally implemented in 1978, has undergone many changes since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The law’s association with the Patriot Act has led many to question whether it truly aids in the fight against terrorism or is being abused by surveillance agencies in the U.S.
Nonetheless, the bill reauthorizing FISA for another six years did pass in the House Thursday morning, but not before Trump made two contradictory tweets about the matter.
First, Trump seemed to insinuate his opposition to FISA renewal.
“House votes on controversial FISA ACT today.” 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?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
Trump was alluding to claims he made in 2017 that his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, “wiretapped” him at Trump Tower in New York City during his presidential campaign. Those claims were never substantiated by Trump, and the Justice Department also confirmed there was no weight to them.
Trump’s comments Thursday morning seemed to imply he was against reauthorization, perhaps even threatening a veto if the bill reached his desk. Yet a couple of hours later, Trump sent out another tweet, affirming his support for renewal.
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. We need it! Get smart!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
Trump’s second tweet seems to suggest he would support the FISA renewal after all. But as The Washington Post points out, Trump’s claims on reforming “unmasking” procedures seem to be inaccurate. The bill that would have made the reforms Trump is referring to was stripped of that language by its author, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California), before it was passed on for Trump’s signature.
Trump’s two contradictory tweets ruffled feathers on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers expressed their frustrations with the president for creating confusion.
“FISA is something the president should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning,” Democratic Sen. Mark Warner commented to reporters Thursday.
That’s precisely how Trump’s tweets appear to have evolved. It’s likely the president saw a Fox News report Thursday morning in which contributor Andrew Napolitano looked directly into the camera and said, “Mr. President, this is not the way to go” on FISA, alluding to the alleged surveillance that took place against the president (which again, was never substantiated).
During the segment, after claiming that Trump's "woes began" with "surveillance of him," Andrew Napolitano literally turns to the camera and says, "Mr. President, this is not the way to go." pic.twitter.com/W8NrtDDP3I— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) January 11, 2018
The president is evidently taking his policy cues from Fox News in the morning, before possibly “correcting” them to match his official views through help of his staff. Clearly, Trump saying he doesn’t watch cable news shows is a lie. But more importantly, this latest escapade reveals that Trump’s thoughts are easily manipulated by what he’s watching on television at the moment.
Different opinions exist about FISA, and a true debate about its merits or problems should happen among lawmakers in Washington. But basing opinions on short segments from a controversial news source is not the way to formulate an opinion on a subject that deserves to be meticulously studied from multiple angles. The president needs to turn off his TV and give more attention to this issue, as well as many others, before spouting off on Twitter without thinking.