In three hours, the House was set to vote on controversial legislation renewing the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program.
The White House was actively whipping votes on the bill, which would extend a program that senior officials say is critical to keeping America safe from terror plots. Getting the program renewed with as few changes as possible had been the intelligence community’s No. 1 legislative priority for the past year.
Then, at 7:33 a.m., President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE tweeted.
“‘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?” Trump tapped out.
Suddenly, Capitol Hill was thrown into confusion before what was already expected to be a tight vote.
After months of lobbying by the administration for a renewal of the surveillance program, it appeared that the president himself was throwing his weight behind an amendment to impose new privacy limitations on the government.
Supporters of the amendment immediately blasted out the tweet to rally support for the proposal. Democrats launched an ill-fated effort to pull the underlying bill from the floor. Members walking onto the floor to vote, asked for their predictions, threw their hands up and said, “No idea!”
“There were people on the fence, there were friends of mine on the fence that I’ve been working — when that first tweet came out, I got a couple texts from some of my friends saying ‘I’m voting no, because if he doesn’t care I don’t care,’” said Rep. Tom Rooney Thomas (Tom) Joseph RooneyRooney won’t run for Rubio’s seat Former Florida House Speaker won’t run for Rubio’s Senate seat Florida Republican questions administration opposition to West Africa travel ban MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee who backed the underlying legislation.
An hour and a half later, Trump issued a second tweet clarifying his position.
At the time, Republicans were holding a contentious meeting on the bill behind closed doors. The House Freedom Caucus and a few other privacy-minded members have been fiercely opposed to renewing the program without the changes proposed in the amendment, from Rep. Justin Amash Justin AmashGOP leaders agree to consider Dec. 30 spending bill House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won’t fire official who sued him MORE (R-Mich.).
“We were getting a minute-by-minute update. ‘Hey, there’s another one!’” said Rep. Tom Cole Thomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting Ryan’s office warning he wasn’t part of deal on ObamaCare: source Overnight Finance: GOP to reduce tax relief by 0B to win over deficit hawks | Republicans eye two-week spending bill | Fed official urges caution on digital currency | Security of auditing system under scrutiny MORE (R-Okla.), reenacting the incident for reporters. “People were laughing about it.”
In the second tweet, Trump essentially said that he was in favor of the underlying bill but against the amendment. He also noted that he separately was taking action to change the rules for the “unmasking” of officials caught up on wiretaps.
Trump tweeted that he “has 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.”
The White House had already expected a fierce fight on the amendment before Trump put his own position briefly into question.
The amendment opposed by the administration had passed the House twice before, under former President Barack Obama Barack Hussein ObamaPatagonia files suit against Trump cuts to Utah monuments Former Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report Eighth Franken accuser comes forward as Dems call for resignation MORE, and as late as Wednesday night officials were still making calls to try to sway uncertain members. White House chief of staff John Kelly John Francis KellyMORE was on the Hill Thursday to rally support.
In the end, the House voted to renew the program with a few small changes. Although some members had expected the tally to be close, the controversial amendment went down by 50 votes.
The vote was a pivotal moment in the battle over surveillance and privacy, dampening the hopes of those who wanted to limit the government’s powers.
Although Sens. Rand Paul Randal (Rand) Howard PaulLexington mayor launches bid for Congress Trump-free Kennedy Center Honors avoids politics Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump’s next secretary of State MORE (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden Ronald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocratic senator predicts Franken will resign Thursday Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Lobbying world MORE (D-Ore.) have vowed to filibuster the bill, the upper chamber is expected to swiftly take up and pass it. And despite the first tweet, Trump is expected to sign it.
House Speaker Paul Ryan Paul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: ‘I worry about both sides’ of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges ‘entitlement reform’ next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE (R-Wis.) spoke to Trump after the initial tweet, but after the vote he batted down questions from reporters about whether Trump understood what the House was voting on and how his tweets sowed confusion on Capitol Hill.
“We speak on an almost daily basis. It’s well known that he has concerns about the domestic FISA law, but that’s not what we’re doing today. Today, we’re doing 702, which is a different part of that law,” Ryan said.
“He knows that, and he I think put out something that clarified that. And his administration’s position has been the clear from day one, which is 702 is really important; it’s got to be renewed.”
Supporters of the surveillance program have repeatedly complained that issues such as unmasking have been conflated with Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law authorizing the government to spy on foreigners overseas.
Unmasking isn’t covered by Section 702, which allows the government to use any information they “incidentally” collect on Americans who are corresponding with legitimate foreign targets. Critics of the program say that investigators should have to seek a warrant before searching the database for American targets.
The two issues became politically linked last year when the president tweeted that the Obama administration had “wiretapped” his campaign at Trump Tower. Republicans have long speculated that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was caught up in 702 surveillance and inappropriately unmasked by Obama administration officials.
“There are FISA issues swirling around that have absolutely nothing to do with 702,” Rep. Mike Conaway Kenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayTop intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father House panel interviews Podesta after Trump dossier revelation Texas lawmaker says GOP colleague should resign over lewd photo MORE (R-Texas) said before the vote. “Those are being used by opponents, those who want it to go dark, in a perfectly legitimate debate technique to try to muddy the waters.”
“I think the president’s instincts are great and I think he understands that all the evidence points to the fact that it sure looks like the FBI systematically went after him — so he’s concerned about all these possible infringements on the Fourth Amendment,” said Rep. Jim Jordan James (Jim) Daniel JordanOvernight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges ‘entitlement reform’ next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids Overnight Finance: Trump says shutdown ‘could happen’ | Ryan, conservatives inch closer to spending deal | Senate approves motion to go to tax conference | Ryan promises ‘entitlement reform’ in 2018 House conservatives, Ryan inch closer toward spending deal MORE (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus member who supported the amendment.
Melanie Zanona and Scott Wong contributed.