WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order Wednesday authorizing U.S. sanctions on any foreign individual or country that tries to interfere in U.S. elections.
“This is intended to be a very broad effort to prevent foreign manipulation of the political process,” John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, told reporters during a briefing Wednesday.
The move comes less than two months before the 2018 midterm elections, and just weeks after Dan Coats, Trump’s director of national intelligence, warned of a “pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States” before Americans go to the polls in November.
The executive order could blunt momentum in Congress for legislation that would impose harsher and more direct penalties on Russia for any future election meddling. Several senators said Wednesday that the White House order was a good first step but fell short of what’s needed and could give Trump too much wiggle room.
“While the administration has yet to share the full text, an executive order that inevitably leaves the President broad discretion to decide whether to impose tough sanctions against those who attack our democracy is insufficient,” said Sen Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the Senate investigation into Russia.
“If we are going to actually deter Russia and others from interfering in our elections in the future, we need to spell out strong, clear consequences, without ambiguity,” Warner said.
Coats and Bolton said the president’s action was not aimed at short-circuiting congressional action.
The order will help ensure the administration is “doing every possible thing we can” to prevent and assess election meddling, Coats said. “And if we see something has happened, then there’s going to be an automatic response to that.”
The forceful rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s own statements about Russia’s efforts to undermine American democracy. Trump has called the federal investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election a “witch hunt.”
And after a closed-door meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, Trump said he believed Putin when he denied that Russia did not try to sway the 2016 election, despite the U.S. intelligence community’s public findings implicating the Kremlin.
Bolton denied that Wednesday’s executive order was an effort to reverse the damage from Trump’s remarks after the summit with Putin, which prompted outrage among lawmakers in both parties.
“The president has said repeatedly that he is determined that there not be foreign interference in our elections,” Bolton told reporters. “I think his actions speak for themselves.”
Coats said the new executive order is a response to Russia’s actions in the 2016 election and “to make sure that doesn’t happen again. But he said the order will apply not just to Russia but to others possible bad actors, including China, North Korea, and Iran.
“We have seen signs of (meddling from) not just Russia, but from China … from Iran and even North Korea,” Coats said. “We’re taking nothing for granted here.”
The order sets up a high-level process for the U.S. intelligence community and other law enforcement officials to investigate and evaluate possible election meddling.
First, it requires the Director of National Intelligence to conduct regular assessments of possible election interference. And after each election, the intelligence community will have 45 days to investigate whether there was an attempt at interference, followed by a Justice Department review.
If there is a consensus that a foreign country or other entity tried to meddle in the election, automatic sanctions would be triggered, Coats said.
Bolton said the sanctions would be imposed not just for direct actions, such as hacking into election systems, but also for distribution of propaganda and disinformation. Russia spent millions of dollars trying to sow division and discord in the 2016 presidential race, using Facebook and other social media platforms, among other tactics.
Warner and others said Congress should still move forward with legislation. One bill that has broad support, crafted by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would mandate tough sanctions on major sectors of the Russian economy, including finance, energy, and defense companies.
It would also target senior Russian political figure and oligarchs close to Putin, barring them from the United States and freezing their assets.
“There is no question that protecting our elections from foreign interference is one of the most pressing issues facing our country today,” Rubio and Van Hollen said in a joint statement Wednesday.
But, they added, “we must make sure Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or any other foreign actor, understands that we will respond decisively and impose punishing consequences against those who interfere in our democracy.”
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