Sen. Rand Paul is backtracking on a controversial suggestion he made over the weekend: that his opponents secretly want a terrorist attack on the U.S. so they can pin the blame on the Kentucky lawmaker and Republican presidential candidate.
When Paul was asked during a Monday morning appearance on Fox News who he was referring to when he made the comment on the Senate floor Sunday, the senator said, “Sometimes in the heat of a battle, hyperbole can get the better of anyone, and that may be the problem there.” He added, “The point I was trying to make is that I think people do use fear to try to get us to give up our liberty.”
The National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance program allowing the government to collect Americans’ phone data in bulk expired on Monday after Senate GOPers failed to reach an agreement to extend it.
Related: Rand Paul gets an NSA win -- for now
Paul – an outspoken critic of the program – previously insisted “People here in town think I’m making a huge mistake. Some of them—I think—secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.”
During the Fox interview, Paul called the expiration of key proponents of the Patriot Act a “big victory for privacy.” Critics like Paul have spent years condemning the Patriot Act—which was instituted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and allows the government to obtain telecommunication, financial and credit records without a court order—arguing it tramples on civil liberties and allows the government to spy on innocent people.
Meanwhile, some conservative critics have argued Paul sounds more like a Democrat on national security. Paul insisted on Monday, however, that may be the case among “Beltway pundits” but not when he’s on the road talking to Americans.
“I think the American people are actually with me,” said Paul on Fox News.
Paul’s team recently highlighted a survey to msnbc that shows 60% of Americans want to change the Patriot Act. They further point out that 65% of millennials and 75% of Independent men are pushing for a modification of the Patriot Act.
Separately, Mallory Factor, a conservative political analyst who has helped Sen. Paul raise money, told msnbc that the GOP is “doing some soul searching” on national security and that the rift on the issue is causing some shifts in both parties.
“I see a whole realignment in the electorate if the general election is Rand Paul versus Hillary Clinton,” Factor said, suggesting national security is changing allegiances in both the Democratic and GOP parties.
It’s an issue that has divided the emerging Republican field.
Related: Key provisions of Patriot Act expire
Some like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—who have not officially declared their 2016 intentions but are expected to run—have defended the programs, arguing they are vital to national security. Similarly, declared candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida recently argued on the Senate floor that a perception has been created “that the United States government is listening to your phone calls or going through your bills as a matter of course,” said Rubio. “That is absolutely and categorically false."
On the other side are candidates like Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Cruz said a recent federal appeals court ruling the NSA’s collection of millions of Americans’ phone records is illegal confirmed what many Americans already know—that the NSA “went to far in collecting the phone records.” Huckabee has gone as far to suggest authorities should get a warrant if they want to listen in on Americans’ phone calls.
The national security debate has also highlighted a bitter divide between Paul and fellow Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who wanted to extend the Patriot Act. On Sunday, Paul objected to the senate majority leader's proposal to extend less controversial aspects of the surveillance programs -- but allow discussions on the telephone program continue. After Paul's objection, McConnell took to the Senate floor and in apparent aim at Paul, accused critics of a "campaign of demagoguery and disinformation."