President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at punishing foreign actors that interfere with U.S. elections, senior administration officials said Wednesday.
National security adviser John Bolton said Trump and his team decided to move ahead with the order to show he has “taken control” of efforts to prevent, stop and punish election meddling like that conducted by Russia in 2016. Though there is a bipartisan Senate bill focused on combating meddling, the administration moved the order now to put a “mechanism” in place that marshals all federal efforts under Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
On the same call, Coats said the order shows the Trump administration is “doing every possible thing we can” to “prevent” meddling, report anything uncovered between now and Election Day, and then conduct a “full assessment” after the midterms.
“If we see something has happened, then there’s going to be an automatic response to that,” the former GOP Indiana senator said.
The administration’s order does not preclude “the urgent need for legislation that increases sanctions pressure on the Kremlin,” Sen. Robert Menendez said. The New Jersey Democrat is the co-sponsor of a bipartisan sanctions bill before the Foreign Relations Committee.
The order calls for any foreign state or entity that meddles in U.S. elections to be hit with sanctions and threats of additional penalties. It would base decisions on implementing sanctions on any U.S. intelligence community conclusion that meddling occurred.
It does not mention Russia by name even as Trump continues to be unnerved by the Justice Department’s probe of 2016 Russian meddling, led by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller.
“It’s more than Russia we’re looking at here,” Coats said, noting “we have not seen the intensity we did in 2016.”
Coats dodged a question about what intelligence agencies are seeing on any Russian attempts to meddle in the current midterm cycle. And Bolton did not directly say whether the administration needs legislation to fully combat meddling, saying only they will continue working with lawmakers on the matter.
The DNI said the intelligence community has significantly improved its meddling monitoring and its ability to communicate with other federal, state, and local entities.
Media outlets were not allowed in to view — or roll video while — the president signed the order. Such “pool sprays” have been held while Trump signed previous orders — or entire public events in Washington and around the country scheduled around them.
Trump has shifted his stance on whether he agrees with a unanimous late-2016 conclusion by all 16 American spy agencies that Russia meddled in that campaign. Russian President Vladimir Putin stood alongside Trump in Finland in July and admitted he and his government wanted Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton.
While Trump has at times said he believes Moscow meddled, he has been quick to also point fingers of blame at China and individuals, including independent hackers.
“I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China,” he said during a 2016 debate with Clinton. “It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don’t know who broke into [the] DNC.”
But Wednesday, Bolton said Trump has been consistent in voicing opposition to any foreign interference in American elections.
Republican lawmakers are likely to praise the order, while Democrats might gripe that it does not go far enough — especially its exclusion of one word: Russia.
The two authors of that Senate bill applauded the White House for signing the order, but said in a joint statement it “does not go far enough.”
“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,” said GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic colleague Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
“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,” the duo said. “With only 55 days until the midterm elections, we urge our colleagues to send a clear and unified message to our adversaries by quickly passing this legislation.”
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr told Fox News, “once again this administration said, ‘We’re not going to let Russia meddle in our elections. We’re going to sanction people.’ They gave 45 days after the election to report to DHS any interference. And DHS [will] seek sanctions against them.”
“The United States government — the whole of government,” the North Carolina Republican added, “has taken a very tough stand on Russia.”
Intelligence and Homeland Security officials would have 45 days to evaluate any meddling intel and determine if the actions meet the level of triggering sanctions. If that judgement is affirmative, the penalties would go in place immediately.
Niels Lesniewski and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.