Like most White Houses of both parties, the Trump administration has sought the widest possible power for the executive branch and the intelligence community. The official White House line has been that the president supports reauthorization but opposes reform efforts. Wednesday night, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders released this statement:
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.
Then the president woke up Thursday, tuned in to Fox, and blew up the administration’s position for almost two hours.
During a segment on Fox and Friends, pundit Andrew Napolitano made a plea for Trump to veto the law. If Napolitano’s name rings a bell, it’s because Trump credited or blamed him for the unsubstantiated claim that Obama had “tapped [Trump’s] wires.” That claim was false, never backed by any evidence, and Napolitano was suspended from the air following it. But Trump believed it and has continued to say so, and on Thursday, Napolitano repeated the claim, using it to argue Trump should reject the reauthorization.
“His woes began with unlawful foreign surveillance and unconstitutional domestic surveillance of him, before he was president of the United States,” Napolitano said. (There is no evidence for any of this.) “Mr. President, this is not the way to go.”
The nap-napping of U.S. policy was successful. At 7:33 a.m., Trump tweeted his opposition to the bill:
The missive came during a period that Axios reported has become known as “executive time”—the stretch when Trump lounges around the White House private residence, sans aides and mostly watching television, before starting his workday. This is often when he sends his most outlandish tweets. Then, almost two hours later, and after already tweeting about a different topic (another story he’d seen on Fox and Friends), Trump walked back the comment at 8:14 a.m.:
The immediate reaction to the Fox and Friends story, the lag between the two tweets, and Trump’s history of anemic interest in policy all suggest a simple chain of events: He was persuaded by the segment, then staffers had to explain to him that he was contradicting the official White House position, leading to the clumsy-clean-up tweet. The implication, made before and reinforced Thursday, that the president can be induced to swing his stance on key policy fights based on a single segment on cable news has potentially wide-reaching implications for American policy—including for lobbyists, special interests, or foreign countries seeking to influence the government. The walk-back shows that some such moves can often be undone quickly, but that won’t always be the case.