Trump meets with GOP lawmakers amid surveillance rift

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 is getting more deeply involved in the dispute among Republicans over what to do about expiring surveillance powers used by the FBI, meeting with Attorney General William Barr and GOP lawmakers Tuesday evening to discuss the path forward.

Barr has urged Congress to quickly renew the provisions, which are used by the Justice Department to fight terrorism. Senate Majority Leader Mitch 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.

One of the central questions is where Trump will fall. Some Republicans are privately pushing the president — long suspicious of the nation’s intelligence community — to demand immediate reforms. But Barr has made a public case for a quick renewal and letting the Justice Department work on changes that wouldn’t require congressional approval.

The group meeting at the White House included Trump, Barr, McConnell, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican Reps. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan and Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Paul, Meadows and Jordan have advocated an overhaul of the surveillance laws and have been pressing Trump to go along. McConnell appears to have aligned with Barr, suggesting Tuesday that they extend the tools now and discuss reforms later.

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. 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.”


Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Aamer Madhani contributed.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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