Trump won’t extend spy powers without reforms, senator says

Politics
Donald Trump

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before leaving the White House, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Washington, to visit the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump told his attorney general and top GOP lawmakers he will not extend surveillance authorities that expire this month unless Congress sends him a bill that incorporates reforms, according to a senator present for the Tuesday night meeting at the White House.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has led efforts to curtail the federal government’s ability to spy on Americans, said Trump “made it exceedingly clear” he will not accept a straight re-authorization of the surveillance provisions. Trump wants changes before he will sign the bill into law, Paul said.

“The president said he’s not signing without something happening,” Paul told reporters after the nearly 90-minute meeting with top lawmakers. “He pushed back very vigorously and said, ‘We’re not doing this.’”

Another person familiar with the meeting confirmed the account. The person was unauthorized to discuss the meeting and granted anonymity.

Trump is getting more deeply involved in the dispute among Republicans over what to do about expiring surveillance powers used by the FBI as lawmakers strain amid the looming deadline to chart a path forward.

At the White House, Attorney General William Barr made the case to the president that the Justice Department could make regulatory changes to satisfy the critics of the surveillance programs. Barr and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell want to simply renew the surveillance authority and work on reforms that eventually could be legislation. McConnell made his preference for that approach known at the meeting, those involved said.

But Barr and McConnell were outnumbered by the others who attended the meeting that included House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican Reps. Doug Collins, Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan. Paul, Meadows and Jordan have advocated an overhaul of the surveillance laws and have been pressing Trump to go along. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was also present, has sided with Barr’s approach, pushing for continuing the surveillance and taking the months ahead to work out the reforms.

“The president didn’t accept that,” Paul said.

Barr has urged Congress to quickly renew the provisions, which are used by the Justice Department to fight terrorism. McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are supportive, but each side has lawmakers who are critical of the surveillance tools and want to make changes.

Bipartisan negotiations are ongoing, but it’s unclear if lawmakers can agree on an overhaul before the provisions expire March 15.

No resolution was reached Tuesday, those involved said. Paul indicated the president may be willing to consider a stopgap measure that continues the surveillance provisions for a another week or so if the talks are progressing.

The Republicans who want an overhaul are somewhat aligned with liberal Democrats who are also unhappy with the surveillance safeguards. Both groups want to overhaul the surveillance powers to preserve civil liberties and ensure the U.S. doesn’t unfairly target private citizens.

McCarthy has said he is working with Democrats in the House and is optimistic reforms can be hammered out in time to vote before the provisions expire next week. Paul said McCarthy told Trump as much at the meeting.

But Republicans are also angry over the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, and they want to use the looming deadline to force their own changes.

At issue are three surveillance provisions, including one that permits the FBI to obtain court orders to collect business records on subjects in national security investigations. Another, known as the “roving wiretap” provision, permits surveillance on subjects even after they’ve changed phones. The third allows agents to monitor subjects who don’t have ties to international terrorism organizations.

The FBI calls the provisions vital in the fight against terrorism and stresses that none are tied to the surveillance problems identified by the Justice Department inspector general during its investigation into the Russia probe. The inspector general said in a report last year that the FBI made serious mistakes and omissions during four applications to eavesdrop on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, including omitting information that did not support their suspicions that Page was an asset of a foreign government.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., have introduced their own legislation that would make some reforms to the law, but it has stalled because it does not go as far as many Democrats would like.

Schiff said Tuesday that he is negotiating with the Democrats who want more reform and with Republicans, but it’s unclear if they will find agreement.

Some Senate Republicans have suggested adding an extension to legislation to provide dollars to the coronavirus outbreak, but Schiff, McCarthy, Pelosi and other House lawmakers have said they want it to move separately.

Schiff said that in negotiations they have “incorporated a lot of the proposals in terms of privacy protections, and I think narrowed significantly the differences on any remaining issues.”

“I hope we can get to yes, and then we’ll have to see where the Republicans are,” Schiff said. “What I’m focused on doing is coming up with a bill that’s good policy, that has good reforms in it that preserve our ability to get the intelligence. We need to protect the country.”

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Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

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