The United States is hoping to use the threat of calibrated sanctions to deter individuals, companies or countries from attempting to interfere with the midterm elections in November.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday authorizing automatic sanctions against actors or entities assessed to have meddled with elections, whether by attacking America’s election infrastructure or through the use of propaganda and disinformation campaigns.
“It’s a further effort, among several that the administration has made, to protect the United States against foreign interference in our elections and really our political process more broadly,” National Security Adviser John Bolton said Wednesday while briefing reporters.
“We felt it was important to demonstrate the president has taken command of this issue, that it’s something he cares deeply about,” Bolton added. “This order, I think, is a further demonstration of that.”
Russian meddling attempts
There have been ongoing concerns about possible attempts by Russia to meddle with the upcoming November vote as a follow-up to what intelligence officials have assessed to be a fairly successful effort to meddle with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But Bolton and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said the new executive order is not country specific, citing evidence that China, Iran and North Korea may also be working to influence the midterm election in November.
“We see attempts,” Coats told reporters Wednesday, repeating previous assertions that the U.S. intelligence community has yet to see “the intensity of what happened back in 2016.”
“In terms of what the influence is and will be, we continue to analyze all that,” Coats added. “This is an ongoing effort here, and it has been for a significant amount of time, and will continue on a, literally, 24-hour-a-day basis until the election.”
The new executive order gives U.S. intelligence agencies 45 days after an election to report any efforts to meddle with the outcome.
The U.S. attorney general and the Department of Homeland Security will then have 45 days to review those findings. If they agree with the assessment, it would trigger automatic sanctions.
Those sanctions could include blocking access to property and interests, restricting access to the U.S. financial system, prohibiting investment in companies found to be involved, and even prohibiting individuals from entering the U.S.
Additionally, the order authorizes the State Department and the Treasury Department to impose further sanctions, if deemed necessary.
Bolton denied that recent criticism of Trump, and his interactions with President Vladimir Putin during their summit in Helsinki, played any role in issuing the executive order. In Helsinki, Trump told reporters he accepted Putin’s denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 election over the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment and later tried to clarify his statement in a tweet affirming support for the intelligence community.
“The president has said repeatedly that he is determined that there not be foreign interference in our political process,” Bolton said. “Today he signed this executive order, so I think his actions speak for themselves.”
Additional measures possible
Still, Bolton left open the possibility that the White House could work with U.S. lawmakers on additional measures.
Already, members of Congress have introduced various pieces of legislation aimed at setting out stiff penalties for Russia and other countries who seek to meddle with the U.S. electoral process.
And some lawmakers said Wednesday the Trump administration’s latest effort does not go far enough.
“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,” Mark Warner, the Democratic ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
“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 added.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio said that while the order is a step in the right direction, it is not enough.
“The @WhiteHouse & @POTUS deserve credit for taking this action. They did as much as they could do with an executive order but are limited from going further without legislation,” he tweeted.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been critical of Trump for failing to fully enact a sanctions law that they passed over a year ago, even though the U.S. Treasury Department did impose major sanctions against 24 Russians as a result.
But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Republican Richard Burr expressed hope late Wednesday the new executive order will “send a clear message” to Russia, Iran and others.
“[The executive order] strengthens our ability to quickly and appropriately hold responsible anyone who interferes in our elections,” Burr said in a statement.