WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General William Barr met with lawmakers Tuesday to encourage them to extend expiring surveillance authorities, making his first visit to Capitol Hill since news broke a week ago that he had contemplated resigning over President Donald Trump's refusal to heed his warning to stop tweeting about Justice Department cases.
The meeting with Republican senators at their weekly lunch was scheduled weeks ago, long before Barr raised the prospect of resigning. Tensions seem to have cooled in recent days, with the White House expressing its support for Barr and the Justice Department insisting he has no plans to resign.
Still, discussions over whether and how to extend government surveillance powers have the potential to drive a wedge between a president distrustful of the intelligence community and law enforcement leaders who see the authorities as crucial to the fight against terrorism. Trump's suspicions were only heightened by a critical watchdog report on the Russia investigation, while the FBI and Justice Department have sought to address the problems that were identified even as they more broadly push for an extension of the expiring provisions.
The attorney general received a round of applause as he arrived at the closed-door lunch to ask the Republican senators to support an extension of several authorities under the USA Freedom Act that are set to expire next month.
He did not revive his concerns over the president’s tweets or discuss the sentencing of White House ally Roger Stone that led to the spat with Trump. But at least five senators spoke up at the lunch with exclamations of support and encouraged him to stay on the job, even as some raised concerns about the surveillance bill.
“He’s in a good spot right now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters afterward. He said Barr has the full confidence of “99%” of the Republican conference.
“There was a warm welcome for the attorney general, appreciation of him doing the job the way he believes it needs it to be done, not bowing to pressure from left, right or middle,” Graham said. “There’s a great deep appreciation that he’s the right guy.”
Barr proposed to senators a multi-part strategy that would involve having Congress approve a continuation of the existing provisions while the administration makes some regulatory changes to the process of surveillance applications. At the same time, senators on Graham’s Judiciary Committee could hash out broader reforms for future legislation.
Barr told senators he had backing for his approach from the national security adviser, FBI Director Chris Wray and some in the White House. Even so, Trump has repeatedly complained about the surveillance of a former aide, and invoked the problems identified by the Justice Department inspector general to argue that changes are needed.
“My sense is the president is supportive of the reforms the attorney general is offering up. Whether he wants more than that, I don’t know,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.
Barr recently told people that he has considered leaving his post after Trump wouldn’t respect his request to stop tweeting about the department's cases. Earlier this month, Barr took a public swipe at Trump, saying in a television interview that the president’s tweets make it “impossible” for him to do his job.
Barr’s suggestion that he might quit left many close to Trump questioning whether the attorney general really was considering stepping aside, instead believing he was trying to quell an internal uproar at the department and bolster his own reputation and his ability to act on Trump’s behalf. In the days that followed, some of Trump's closest GOP allies — including Graham and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — scrambled to let him know they think Barr is the right person to lead the department.
“We think he's doing a terrific job," McConnell said.
Some of those lawmakers supporting Barr are also pushing for reforms to the government’s surveillance authorities.
Their efforts intensified after the inspector general in December issued a scathing report that detailed significant errors and omissions in four applications to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to eavesdrop on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page as part of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
But the push from Trump's allies to change the FISA wiretap rules could complicate efforts in Congress to renew parts of the USA Freedom Act that are set to expire next month, including one authority that enables the FBI to collect a wide range of documents and records in terrorism and national security investigations. The deadline is March 15, leaving Congress little time to act.
The FBI believes the surveillance powers are vital in thwarting terrorism, with Wray urging Congress this month to permanently authorize them.
Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that none of the provisions at issue for renewal has anything to do with the mistakes made in the Page case and urged lawmakers to keep the issues separate.
“They are vital to our relentless efforts to keep something like 325 million American people safe,” Wray said of the surveillance powers.
Congress has historically been reluctant to let the government’s broad surveillance powers lapse, but calls for reform have received bipartisan support in the wake of the inspector general’s report on the Russia investigation.
The report produced an extraordinary, and rare, public rebuke from the chief judge of the surveillance court, who said the errors the FBI made in the Page case called into question the accuracy of applications made in other cases.
In response, the FBI committed to a series of reforms, including better training and safeguards aimed at ensuring that surveillance applications are more thorough and accurate and that information that could undercut the government’s arguments for surveillance is more clearly disclosed to the court.
Senators said it was unclear if Barr’s proposed administrative changes would satisfy those who want deeper changes. The changes Barr is considering would be largely in line with those recommended by the inspector general.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he told Barr and his colleagues he won’t support an extension.
“That’s a big mistake," he said.