A single tweet Thursday from President Trump criticizing a foreign surveillance law threw Congress into confusion hours before lawmakers were preparing to vote — at the administration’s urging — to renew the controversial counterterrorism measure.
Mr. Trump’s action undercut his own team’s push to renew government snooping, when he asserted that the Obama administration had used those intelligence-collection powers to monitor his own communications during the 2016 campaign.
At 7:13 a.m., the president tweeted that Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act “may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony [Russian] Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?”
Section 702 of the law lets the government collect communications of foreign terror suspects overseas — including when they’re talking to U.S. citizens. Senior intelligence officials say getting the program renewed without watering it down was their top priority in Congress to help stop terrorist plots.
The president’s criticism prompted urgent phone calls between House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and the White House. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly also visited the Hill again as the White House tried to rescue what had already been expected to be a close vote in the House.
Some lawmakers questioned whether the president was supporting an amendment by Rep. Justin Amash, Michigan Republican, to impose new privacy limitations on the government. Democrats tried to get the overall bill pulled from consideration.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the president’s anti-FISA tweet was careless.
“This is irresponsible, untrue, and frankly it endangers our national security,” Mr. Warner tweeted, responding to the president. “FISA is something the President should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning.”
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, said Mr. Trump’s initial tweet on FISA was “mistaken.”
“It wasn’t helpful at first,” he told MSNBC, emerging from a meeting of House Republicans. “Hopefully, it’s been corrected. The president is supporting” the bill on the floor Thursday.
Two hours after his first tweet, at 9:14 a.m., Mr. Trump tried to walk back his earlier comment on Twitter, voicing support for renewing the law.
“With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
Mr. Warner’s office sent out a press release headlined, “Cleanup, Aisle 702.”
Lawmakers who were meeting on the issue at the Capitol alerted each other to the president’s latest tweet.
“We were getting a minute-by-minute update. ‘Hey, there’s another one!’” Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican told reporters. “People were laughing about it.”
Before the House vote, Mr. Ryan addressed lawmakers “to clear up some of the confusion.”
“Title 1 of the FISA law is what you see in the news that applies to U.S. citizens. That’s not what we’re talking about here,” Mr. Ryan said. “This is Title 7, Section 702. This is about foreign terrorists on foreign soil. That’s what this is about.”
Mr. Ryan later downplayed the president’s social media commentary.
“He just has concerns about other parts of FISA,” Mr. Ryan said when asked if the president was confused about the law. “We’ve talked about FISA in the past, he knows what 702 [provision] is.”
After the House voted 256-164 to renew the law, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president wasn’t confused about it.
“The president fully supports the 702 and was happy to see that it passed the House today,” she told reporters. “But, he does have some overall concern with the FISA program more generally. We weren’t confused, but some of you were.”
She explained, “The president doesn’t feel that we should have to choose between protecting American citizens and protecting their civil liberties. He wants to do both. And that’s exactly what he’s going to do. We don’t see any contradiction or confusion in that.”
She noted that Mr. Trump issued an order several days ago asking for a new “unmasking” policy — governing how Americans’ names can be used when gathered in foreign intelligence.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats released the new policy Thursday morning. It states that only top intelligence community chiefs “or their designees” can approve requests for Americans’ names to be attached to their communications, and those receiving the information must be identified by name or title.
“This is top of mind for the president, top of mind for the administration, and he has a full understanding,” Mrs. Sanders said.
⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.