Surveillance

Justin Amash and Rand Paul Disagree About Impeachment, but Fight Together for Federal Surveillance Reform

Both still see surveillance abuse that needs fixing. They’re pursuing different paths to get there.

|

Two libertarian-leaning conservatives, Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), have been working together for the past six years attempting to restrain the government's power to snoop on citizens without a warrant. But the two have found themselves on opposite sides in their interpretations of the investigation of President Donald Trump and his campaign team, on whether there were political motivations behind the then-secret surveillance, and on how that should inform our thoughts about whether Trump has committed impeachable offenses.

Amash has famously come forward as the only Republican in Congress willing to publicly consider impeachment. Paul is opposed to impeaching Trump, and his opposition is partly rooted in his concerns that the Trump investigation has politicized roots and is not solely an effort to root out possible corrupt relationships with Russia or other countries.

The two men's differences have been presented as a potential significant rift or conflict. Last week on Fox News, Paul expressed his disagreement with Amash's position. Fox headlined the coverage, "Rand Paul on fellow libertarian Amash's impeachment call: Russia probe was 'un-libertarian.'" The implication was that if one were a libertarian, one would have been opposed to the Russia probe, and therefore subsequently against the possibility of impeaching Trump.

But Paul was actually very careful and nuanced in how he discussed the surveillance and the investigation in the Fox appearance. And he didn't attack Amash so much as explain why he sees the situation differently. What he's describing as un-libertarian is the "feel" of the investigation: "You have an intelligence community that has so much power that many libertarians have said, 'Gosh, this much power could be abused.' And when I look at it I see abusive power from Comey, from Clapper, from Brennan, from all these guys…who took this great power we've entrusted in them to spy on foreigners and they directed it against Americans for partisan reasons…"

It's interesting that the example of bad surveillance Paul provides in this interview is not the wiretapping of former Trump aide Carter Page but that of Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security advisor, whose phone conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak had been picked up by the FBI just a couple of months before Trump was to take office.

Why does it matter if Paul talks about Flynn rather than Page, when part of the Republican defense of Trump has been characterizing the surveillance of Page as illegal or somehow invalid? Page was never charged with a crime. Flynn, on the other hand, has pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about those conversations with Kislyak.

It matters because so much of the reform effort that Amash and Paul have pushed forward has focused on the unwarranted surveillance of American citizens by the federal government. The FBI got a warrant to wiretap Page; the debate there is whether its agents had properly disclosed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court relevant information about the controversial Steele dossier. There was no warrant with Flynn, and that's why Paul focuses on him.

In Flynn's case, this is because he wasn't actually the initial target of the surveillance. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the FBI and the National Security Agency are able to wiretap foreign officials without having to get a warrant. They don't have the same level of surveillance protections that Americans get.

What can happen, is in Flynn's case, is that the FBI listens in when a foreign official has a conversation with an American citizen, and then everything gets complicated. There are supposed to be strict guidelines on minimizing access to this information and controls over who is allowed to view info incidentally collected about Americans this way. There have been serious concerns about what are called "backdoor" searches, where the FBI uses this information—intended to investigate espionage actions and terrorist plots—as evidence for completely unrelated domestic crimes. And right as Obama was leaving office, he loosened the rules for secret information sharing within departments of the executive branch.

My point is that Paul is expressing his disagreement with Amash in a way that nevertheless keeps the focus on policy shifts that they both share. They both want to restrain the ability of the federal government to spy on Americans without warrants.

What's different here is that, unlike Amash, Paul has the president's ear. This is not to say that I think Paul's position is calculated or insincere or that Paul's support of Trump is dependent on access. But in this same Fox interview, Paul notes that he had just spoken with Trump himself. He is using Trump's anger at this surveillance to try to convince the president to permit important policy changes that would reduce the FBI's authority to access information collected from Americans' communications without getting a warrant.

In the end, Paul is trying to push through much-needed surveillance reforms in an administration that, despite all its screaming about snooping, has resisted any scaling back of domestic surveillance and has, in fact, expanded it.

So Amash and Paul have come to differing conclusions about how to interpret the information of the special counsel Robert Mueller's report and what next steps to take. But there's more to politics and policy than whether or not to impeach Trump (believe it or not), and despite what seems like a huge disagreement, the two of them still do not seem that far apart.

Bonus link: At the Washington ExaminerJack Hunter looks at both Amash's and Paul's positions and, like me, doesn't necessarily think one of them has to be wrong.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

29 responses to “Justin Amash and Rand Paul Disagree About Impeachment, but Fight Together for Federal Surveillance Reform

  1. A lot of Trump types on Twitter are starting to throw fits regarding Amash. It’s hilarious.

    I disagree with him on impeachment if it pertains to Russian interference. Trump should be removed from office for the same reasons Obama and Bush should have been removed: warmongering.

    1. A lot of Trump types on Twitter are starting to throw fits regarding Amash. It’s hilarious.

      You obviously don’t read these comments very often. It’s not just Twitter. There are several here saying Trump is more libertarian than Amash.

      I agree, though, that Trump shouldn’t be impeached for whatever is in the Mueller report. I’m not sure about warmongering yet, wrt to Trump.

      You could reasonably argue his biggest abuse(s) of power has been his declaration of national emergencies to get whatever it is he wants at any given moment. This should be one of the things that libertarians like Reason and Amash should be focusing on, rather than impeachment. Congress should be clawing back these powers that they’ve ceded to the Executive.

      1. Well said. It seems there are some people that engage in wild logical stretches so that they can support Trump at all costs while simultaneously insisting on identifying as libertarians. I have no idea why, though, since libertarianism is not particularly popular.

        1. All costs… you mean like refusing to go along with political prosecutions of process crimes absent any other crime? Truly a horrible stance to take.

      2. We would love to hear all the ways that Amash is Libertarian at all and how those reason are more Libertarian than Trump’s clear record of Libertarian-ish things he has done as President.

        Multiple people have done a ~20 point list for Trump’s street cred.

        Let’s see yours for Amash. reason sure is not going to do it.

        1. I will even help you out.

          Justin Amash’s voting record

          1. virtually everything on that list is a pro-liberty vote. is Trump that important to you, that a disagreement on this one issue means that all the other pro-liberty votes go down the drain?

            1. Amash delivers precisely 1/435 votes in the House, 1/535 in Congress altogether.
              Amash hasn’t accomplished anything for the cause of libertarianism.
              If he were regularly proposing bills and getting coalitions together, he might get something done.
              Of course, that might interfere with him lining his pockets and living large without having to work.

              1. True enough that the strategy of being principled doesn’t really work. But the question is whether he is a libertarian. He clearly votes like one, so I think he is, even if ineffective.

                1. Please explain how pushing process crimes absent other crimes is principled.

        2. It’s true that Trump has done some libertarian things. It’s also true that he has done some very non-libertarian things. Tariffs, farm bailouts, bump stock bans, troops still in Syria, extending FISA, executive orders, spending, spending, spending, etc. Not to mention immigration, which I know is something you and I disagree quite a bit on. But I’ll give credit that he’s certainly been friendlier to liberty than Bush and Obama for certain.

          Much of the criticism of Amash has been that he hasn’t done much. Which is true. Of course it shouldn’t be shocking that a single member of Congress has less influence over actual policy than a President… especially a President that stretches the use of the pen and phone to at least Obama levels through his use of national security emergencies.

          1. One way to spot the reflexively progressive: their extremely high value of ‘intentions’ to the downplaying of results.
            Abstract/fantasy at the expense of reality.

            1. I agree with you about intentions, but I think the distinction can be made slightly richer. There are people who do genuinely act in favor of their cause, but are just not doing a good job of advancing it. I wouldn’t say that only means they have “intentions” and nothing more. It could mean they are not competent (that’s bad, obviously, but for a different reason), or that the goal is not currently possible.

          2. It’s not that Amash hasn’t done much….He hasn’t really tried! He’s a phony!

            1. One easy thing for Amash to put his money where his mouth is is to submit Articles of Impeachment against Trump in the House.

              1. Good point…It’s all political grandstanding!

      3. Congress could end those emergency laws at any point. That’s a fault of Congress, not trump. Hes just using the tools Congress gave him.

        1. #PenAndPhone

    2. YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    3. If Amash was making that argument, I would be with him. Instead, he has sided with the permanent war bureaucracy and establishment in what appears to be a transparent effort to raise his individual national profile.

  2. Impeachment can be for anything the House of Representatives wants. They can literally impeach Trump for not being Hillary. They can impeach him for wearing ties that do not match his shirt. They can impeach him for typos when using Twitter.
    Then the Senate gets to decide guilt or innocence. And there is the only reason they have not impeached him yet.

    1. they’re too fucking long regardless of whether they match someone should tell him

    2. Well…not according to the constitution.
      Oh, right. You meant the democrats.

  3. DeepState dupe Amash is all principals over principles.

    1. As is Shackford.
      Unless he’s just fully devoted to the deep state. Haven’t read anything of his that would indicate otherwise.

  4. Watch out Rand! Amash might blindside you and break some more ribs over some petty process crime accusations.

  5. My take away from the whole Russian collusion/obstruction of justice mess: abolish the FBI! Fire every one of these lying, unelected, power-grabbing bureaucrats! Since when has the FBI done anything but spy on Americans and waste tax dollars. They have been the cause of this investigation’s misconduct from day one. Without this, there would be no obstruction of justice even open door discussion

  6. […] Congressman Justin Amash and Republican Senator Rand Paul have made headlines recently. The two libertarian politicians are symbolic of the conflict even among those in a […]

Please to post comments