WASHINGTON—In a call with journalists today, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats outlined an executive order just signed by President Donald Trump that would result in automatic sanctions against any foreign entities found to have attempted to interfere in US elections. The order, not yet released, is meant as a deterrent against interference in the 2018 midterm elections.
The White House imposed a number of new sanctions against Russia in March for election interference, and the Justice Department filed indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officers in July. But these sanctions have apparently not deterred the Russian government and other countries with an adversarial relationship with the US from maneuvering to affect the outcome of some 2018 congressional races, according to Coats. While Coats said that “we have not seen the intensity of activity from 2016,” the intelligence community has seen signs that there are efforts underway by a number of actors to manipulate the political process this year. “We have several that we are tracking,” he explained, “and have seen signs, from not just Russia, but China, Iran, and North Korea.”
Bolton had previously warned that there were signs of election meddling from China, North Korea, and Iran, though he offered no specific evidence. And evidence would not be forthcoming in the event that the White House considers sanctions under this order—the first word of any assessment would come with the sanctions themselves, Bolton told reporters. “These are sensitive, sometimes very dangerous operations, and we have to operate with respect to sources and methods,” he said.
Lock them up
Bolton said that the executive order, entitled “Imposing Certain Sanctions in the Event of Foreign Interference in a United States Election,” would “protect the US against interference in our elections and the political process more broadly.” The order declares a national emergency, Bolton said, and requires DNI to make regular assessments of activities targeting the US electoral process, reporting findings to the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security. Bolton noted that the scope of the order included not just attacks on election infrastructure but also “the distribution of propaganda” intended to impact the electoral process.
Coats explained that the process outlined by the order called for a 45-day period within which the intelligence community was to assess whether election interference had occurred and who the actors behind that interference were. The finding would then be passed to the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, who would then make a determination within 45 days whether the interference took place and warranted sanctions. The 45-day period is based on when interference is believed to have happened and not specifically tied to Election Day. “We’re looking at having evidence that interference has occurred,” Bolton explained, “and that happens after the election but doesn’t preclude there would be evidence in the course of the election.”
If DOJ and DHS officials concurred with the director of national intelligence’s report, sanctions would “automatically” be leveled against those determined to be behind the interference; the State Department and Department of the Treasury would then review the sanctions and determine whether they were sufficient and appropriate to the severity of the activity. Sanctions authorized in the executive order include blocking of assets, transfer of property, US investment in sanctioned companies, and restriction of travel.
Coats said that the administration acknowledges that there was interference in the 2016 election, and “we’ve learned our lessons. Our focus is, going forward, that we have the integrity of the election in place and we have the measures in place to deter and retaliate if necessary.”
Cutting Congress off at the pass?
The executive order comes as bills in the House and Senate have gained support that would require sanctions against any government or person determined to have engaged in electoral interference. The Deter Act, proposed in January by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida), would mandate broad economic sanctions against Russian companies and require the White House to identify other countries that had been involved in electoral interference and provide proposed sanctions within 90 days. A similar bill is moving forward in the House.
Update, 2:30 PM ET: Van Hollen and Rubio issued a joint statement on the executive order, stating, “Today’s announcement by the Administration recognizes the threat, but does not go far enough to address it. The United States can and must do more. Mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks our electoral systems serve as the best deterrent, which is the central tenet of the bipartisan DETER Act. 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.” Van Hollen and Rubio urged colleagues in the Senate to quickly pass the Deter Act before the November elections.
Update, 3:30 PM: In a statement issued by the White House after the announcement, a White House spokesperson said that the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation will “host a live Election Day Watch at the FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center to monitor and coordinate election-related activities” as part of the effort to ensure the security of the election. The executive order was positioned as part of an ongoing effort to shore up the security and integrity of the election system, including efforts last year by DHS to assist states in checking their information security and an August “National Election Cybersecurity Table Top Exercise” run by DHS to work on information sharing and working with state and local authorities on election security efforts.