During a week in which President Trump called himself a “very stable genius,” he has once again proved that the White House he inhabits is not a particularly stable place — thanks to him.
In a tweet Thursday morning, Trump called into question his own administration's position on the reauthorization of a program that allows the government to conduct foreign surveillance on U.S. soil, also known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008.
Here's what Trump tweeted:
Less than 11 hours before the tweet, though, the White House reiterated its position in favor of said reauthorization and against an effort on behalf of libertarian-leaning members of Congress to limit its powers — an amendment known as “USA Rights.” Here's the statement from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, sent just after 9 p.m. on Wednesday:
The Administration strongly opposes the “USA Rights” amendment to the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act, which the House will consider tomorrow. This amendment would re-establish the walls between intelligence and law enforcement that our country knocked down following the attacks of 9/11 in order to increase information sharing and improve our national security. The Administration urges the House to reject this amendment and preserve the useful role FISA’s Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives.
It's pretty clear why Trump tweeted what he did. He's probably not all that tuned in to what's happening in Congress with FISA, and he was apparently watching plenty of TV on Thursday morning. He saw the word “controversial” and “FISA” in a "Fox and Friends" chyron and remembered that it was the program used to conduct surveillance of Trump campaign aides Carter Page and Paul Manafort. Those FISA warrants are at the heart of a deep-state conspiracy theory alleging that the Steele dossier was used as a pretext to spy on his campaign and undermine him. And in Trump's world, things like this are pretty simple: If FISA warrants were used in a way that he perceives as being against him, they are bad.
His administration, though, has reached a very different conclusion. To it, FISA warrants are a key tool in the war on terror and for general intelligence-gathering. It remains to be seen if Trump is actually thinking about changing that position, but if he did, it would obviously represent a very significant development for the controversial program, and Trump of course has veto power over such things.
Thus far there are conflicting signals. One of those libertarian-leaning members, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is reportedly saying he prevailed upon Trump to support scaling back the program . . .
… but then Trump tweeted later Thursday morning that he supported the FISA program — an apparent effort to recall his earlier tweet.
The vote was already on pretty thin ice, thanks to bipartisan opposition, so it's possible Trump may have just damaged its prospects, despite his clean-up efforts. Exactly what he supports isn't completely clear.
But more than anything, it suggests that those around Trump seem to be acting on such matters without Trump's say-so or without Trump actually tuning in to the things they are asking him about. Did Sanders's statement Wednesday night go out without Trump's approval? Or did he really approve a pro-FISA statement Wednesday night and then send out an anti-FISA statement on Thursday morning?
It's possible the second is true — Trump, after all, is known to have flexible positions on matters depending upon the last person he has spoken to — but the alternative (Option No. 1) is also intriguing. Given that report earlier this week about how Trump is spending less time in the office and more on nebulous “executive time,” how much is he actually paying attention to very important stuff like the FISA reauthorization, and how much is simply being handled by others in his administration?
Given what's happened the past 12 hours, it's a completely valid question to ask.