President Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday allowing sanctions on foreign companies, organizations or individuals the government determines to have interfered in U.S. elections.
The order is the latest effort by the Trump administration to address fears that Russia is looking to meddle in the November midterm elections, much like it did during the 2016 presidential race.
“This clearly is a process put in place to try and ensure we are doing every possible thing we can to prevent any interference in our election,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told reporters.
Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on whether Moscow interfered in the 2016 election, triggering criticism from lawmakers in both parties that his administration has not done enough to deter Russia and other state actors from running online disinformation campaigns or hacking into state voting systems.
Wednesday’s order is designed to address those concerns by showing the president and his team are taking the threat seriously.
“I think his actions speak for themselves,” national security adviser John Bolton said of Trump, adding that the president “cares deeply” about preventing foreign election interference.
The measure orders the director of national intelligence to investigate whether election meddling took place and who was responsible. After a 45-day review period, an assessment will be passed to the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, which will have an additional 45 days to determine if punishments are warranted.
Possible sanctions include freezing any U.S. assets of individuals or groups found to have interfered in the election, cutting off their access to the American financial system and banning them from entering the country.
Bolton said the American public will only learn of any determination of election interference when sanctions are announced, saying investigations must be kept private because they involve highly classified intelligence.
Officials said the order did not pertain to one country in particular — like Russia, which has regularly been the target of sanctions for election interference — over fears that others such as Iran, China and North Korea could also attempt to meddle in the U.S.’s elections.
“It’s more than Russia here that we are looking at,” said Coats.
There is growing evidence that foreign actors are ramping up efforts to interfere in the 2018 midterm contests. Facebook, Google and Twitter have recently shut down hundreds of accounts believed to be tied to influence campaigns backed by Iran and Russia.
Trump signed the executive order at the same time Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are weighing legislation meant to deter foreign election interference.
Bolton said the president is open to considering those measures, but that the administration wanted to put a process in place for the him to respond on his own.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who jointly introduced a piece of legislation that would impose penalties for election interference earlier this year, said in a statement Wednesday the order “does not go far enough to address” malicious activity by foreign entities.
“Mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks our electoral systems serve as the best deterrent,” the senators said. “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.”
Their legislation, known as the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act, would require penalties on Russia or other foreign governments that try to interfere in U.S. elections.
The White House was in touch with Rubio’s office in the days before the order was signed and administration officials told the senator’s team that the legislation had influenced the language in the order, according to a person familiar with the process.
A Van Hollen aide told The Hill that the senator’s office has also had extensive conversations with the administration regarding the order.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is also set to take up a bill on Thursday written by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — also known as the DETER Act — that would block foreign nationals who have sought to interfere in U.S. elections from entering the country.
Menendez said Wednesday that he had not yet reviewed the language in the executive order, but called it “outrageous” that Trump had not previously taken direct action to counter election interference.
“If the Trump administration is serious about protecting our nation from foreign interference, they should endorse this bipartisan proposal,” Menendez said in a statement, referring to his and Graham’s bill.