Trump Meets With Key Republicans Amid Stalemate Over Surveillance Laws

WASHINGTON — President Trump met on Tuesday at the White House with Attorney General William P. Barr and key Republican lawmakers in an effort to resolve a fight in Congress over domestic spying powers before three F.B.I. counterintelligence investigation tools expire next week.

The meeting came as a range of surveillance critics on Capitol Hill — from liberal advocates of civil liberties to conservative allies of President Trump who have been critical of the Russia investigation — were seeking to restrict the F.B.I.’s authorities. They want to attach changes to legislation to reauthorize the three provisions run out on March 15.

No clear resolution came out of the meeting, according to congressional officials briefed on it. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, and Mr. Barr made a case for passing a bill that would simply extend the expiring provisions without changes, relying on rules changes Mr. Barr could make on his own.

But several House Republicans pushed for a bill that would impose sharp new limits on national-security wiretapping — and Mr. Trump appeared to be more sympathetic to the idea of a sweeping overhaul, too, according to the officials.

It is far from clear, however, whether any legislation that makes substantive changes to surveillance law can pass both chambers before March 15.

Other voices at the meeting, like Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued for a short-term extension of the expiring provisions — such as for a month — to permit time to draft a bill. Mr. Graham noted that the expiring tools were different than the wiretapping in the Russia investigation that Mr. Trump and his allies widely denounced.

But for that to work, Mr. Trump would need to sign any extension into law. The president has a history of volatility on surveillance issues, responding to Fox News commentators but displaying little grasp of the legal policy details of national-security surveillance. Mr. Barr has stepped in to float the idea that he could tighten many rules on F.B.I. wiretapping on his own.

Further, some longtime libertarian-leaning members of Mr. Trump’s own party — including several who attended the meeting, like Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky — want to seize the moment to install more sweeping changes through legislation.

Disagreements among Democrats over whether proposed changes go too far or not far enough has already derailed legislation in the House, and the determination of some would-be reformers to capitalize on the window of opportunity created by the deadline heightened the possibility of an impasse allowing the tools to expire without any overhaul.

Mr. Trump’s frequent complaints about surveillance whipped up new levels of support among some of his congressional allies for broad new restrictions on the F.B.I. The president has pointed to its wiretapping of his former campaign adviser Carter Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, as evidence that the bureau abused its power in an effort to undermine him.

Though an inspector general inquiry found serious mistakes with the wiretapping of Mr. Page, it did not find evidence to support the narrative pushed by Mr. Trump and his allies that the high-level F.B.I. officials conspired to weaponize FISA against him.

Before the meeting, Mr. McConnell said he would try to prevent an outcome in which gridlock allowed the provisions to lapse, but acknowledged significant differences of opinion among members of Congress.

“Whether we can resolve those and pass new legislation is unclear,” Mr. McConnell said at his weekly news conference in the Capitol. “If we are unable to resolve our differences, my preference would be for another extension, which would give us more time to talk.”

While Mr. McConnell and many Republican senators want to largely leave the surveillance powers intact, deferring to Mr. Barr to make policy changes within the Justice Department to address concerns raised by Mr. Trump, some of their most vocal opponents come from within Republican ranks.

Before the meeting, Mr. Lee said that extending the expiring provisions without revising the FISA law was “one of the dumbest things we could do.” He called such a move “policy and political malpractice” and said it would happen “over my dead body.”

Democrats have their own internal disputes, with national security-minded moderates facing off with progressives driven by what they see as undue infringement on civil liberties. The tensions burst into the open last week, when a senior Democratic lawmaker effectively derailed a bill negotiated by two House chairmen that would have extended most of the expiring powers while putting in place some new limits to FISA and allowing a dysfunctional and defunct National Security Agency call records program to lapse.

The Democratic lawmaker, Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, planned to offer amendments backed by progressives and some Republicans that would have curtailed surveillance, including requiring a “friend of the court” be appointed to critique the government’s arguments whenever it applied for a warrant to spy on Americans.

The main Democratic bill — backed by Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who negotiated it with the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York — would also expand the role for such a so-called amicus.

But it would have significantly less operational consequence. The Nadler-Schiff bill would call for the appointment of a critic when a FISA warrant request would affect First Amendment activities like a political campaign or religious worship, as opposed to every time any American is targeted.

Mr. Schiff said on Tuesday that he was leading last-minute talks with Ms. Lofgren and other progressive lawmakers to try to find a compromise. But with time dwindling, he had yet to close the gap.

“We are trying to arrive at an agreement on when an amicus would be called for, how long business records should be retained,” Mr. Schiff said in an interview.

But Democratic leaders in the House concede that it is increasingly likely they will simply have to accept whatever the Senate passes and sends to the House for consideration — likely a short-term extension of the powers — or let the program lapse and deal with the consequences.

The Justice Department first moved to impose more oversight over the FISA process in December, when its inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, released the scathing results of an investigation into the wiretapping of Mr. Page. The report found several instances where law enforcement officials seeking permission to wiretap his phone calls and emails gave the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court incomplete or incorrect information about Mr. Page.

Mr. Horowitz did not find evidence that the agent responsible for most of the problems was politically biased against Mr. Trump. But he rejected the explanation that he and his supervisors were simply busy with other aspects of the Russia investigation.

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

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