Cybersecurity

Trump authorizes sanctions against foreign governments that interfere in US elections

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 executive order says agencies are required to refer any malicious behavior to the director of national intelligence for investigation; the director will then determine whether any interference took place and who was responsible for it.

After a 45-day review period, an assessment will be passed to the departments of Justice and of 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 learn of any determination of election interference only when sanctions are announced, saying investigations must be kept private because they involve highly classified intelligence.

Officials said the order was not directed at any one country - Russia 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 U.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 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 him to respond on his own.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the executive order "strengthens our ability to quickly and appropriately hold responsible anyone who interferes in our elections."

"It also sends a clear message that America can and will respond swiftly and decisively to Russia, Iran and any others who seek to undermine our free, fair and open elections," he said.

The National Association of Secretaries of State - the state officials who administer elections - said the directive is a "positive step in ensuring that secretaries of state, election officials and our federal partners are all on the same page when it comes to safeguarding our democracy."

Still, some lawmakers said Congress needed to pass its own sanctions-related legislation.

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who jointly introduced legislation earlier this year that would impose penalties for election interference, 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 Maryland senator's office also had extensive conversations with the administration regarding the order.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged lawmakers to continue work on Rubio and Van Hollen's legislation, characterizing Wednesday's order as a move by other administration officials to force Trump to take action against Russia.

"In effect, what the executive order does and what this legislation does, it takes that decision away and says if there's a finding made then our country will take the following actions ... because this commander in chief, at least in the case of Russian intervention, has not acted responsibly," Warner said.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, called the order "a good step," while adding that the committee would still likely take up legislation on Russian sanctions.

"There are consequences of imposing sanctions and they have to be done well," he said. "And so as we put together these types of responses, we have to make sure we use all of the tools including economic sanctions, but other tools as well. And make sure they are able to be utilized in a flexible and in an effective way."

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to take up a bill on Thursday authored 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.

Graham and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) also introduced a bill last month that would slap massive financial sanctions against Russia, citing election interference.

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.

Other Democrats were more dismissive of the president's order.

"The best that can be said is that Donald Trump is sending mixed signals about interference in the U.S. election," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a potential 2020 contender, told reporters.

Updated at 6:20 p.m.

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