The order covers overt efforts to meddle in election infrastructure, such as vote counts, “propaganda” and other attempts to influence voting from abroad.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump issued an order Wednesday authorizing additional sanctions against countries or individuals for interfering in upcoming U.S. elections, but lawmakers of both parties said the effort does not go far enough.
The order would allow Trump to penalize foreigners who interfere in the midterm elections to be held in less than two months. It covers overt efforts to meddle in election infrastructure, such as vote counts, “propaganda” and other attempts to influence voting from abroad, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said.
The harshest sanctions outlined in the order would be at the president’s discretion.
“This is intended to be a very broad effort to prevent foreign manipulation of the political process,” national-security adviser John Bolton said during a briefing Wednesday.
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In the order, the president declared a national emergency, an action required under sanctions authority, to deal with the threat of foreign meddling in U.S. elections.
The order calls for sanctioning any individual, company or country that interferes with campaign infrastructure, such as voter-registration databases, voting machines and equipment used for tabulating or transmitting results.
It also authorizes sanctions for engaging in covert, fraudulent or deceptive activities, such as distributing disinformation or propaganda, to influence or undermine confidence in U.S. elections.
It requires the national intelligence director to make regular assessments about foreign interference and asks the Homeland Security and Justice departments to submit reports on meddling in campaign-related infrastructure. It also lays out how the Treasury and State departments will recommend what sanctions to impose.
Coats said the U.S. is not currently seeing the intensity of Russian intervention that was experienced in 2016, but he didn’t rule it out. He said the U.S. is also worried about the cyber activities of China, North Korea and Iran.
Coats said Trump’s order directs intelligence agencies to conduct an assessment within 45 days after an election to report any meddling to the attorney general and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The attorney general and DHS then have an additional 45 days to assess whether sanctions should be imposed.
“This clearly is a process put in place to try to assure that we are doing every possible thing we can,” Coats said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., are pushing a bill that would prohibit foreign governments from purchasing election ads, using social media to spread false information or disrupting election infrastructure. They said Trump’s order recognizes the threat but doesn’t go far enough.
The order gives the executive branch the discretion to impose sanctions for election meddling, but the bill would spell out sanctions on key economic sectors of a country that interferes. Those backing the legislation say that under the bill, a nation would know exactly what it would face if it were caught.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s order leaves the president with broad discretion to decide whether to impose tough sanctions.
“Unfortunately, President Donald Trump demonstrated in Helsinki and elsewhere that he simply cannot be counted upon to stand up to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin when it matters,” said Warner, who is sponsoring the bill.
At a July 16 news conference with Putin in Helsinki, Trump was asked if he would denounce what happened in 2016 and warn Putin never to do it again. Trump did not directly answer the question. Instead, he delivered a rambling response, including demands for investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server and his description of Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of meddling.
That drew outrage from both Republicans and Democrats.
Trump has pushed back, saying that no other American president has been as tough on Russia. He has cited U.S. sanctions and the expulsion of alleged Russian spies from the U.S.
James Clapper, the former national intelligence director, said he believes Russian interference did influence the outcome of the 2016 election, but didn’t elaborate. “The Russians are still at it. They are committed to undermining our system,” Clapper said.
Lawmakers and independent analysts say federal and state action has already made U.S. voting systems more secure against foreign hackers. At the same time, outside experts have warned for more than a year that Russian efforts to manipulate U.S. voters through misleading social-media postings are likely to have grown more sophisticated and harder to detect.
Daleep Singh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, said that if sanctions are not made mandatory, the odds of Russian interference will only become greater.
“At the risk of not knowing enough of the details, it strikes me as more of a news release than a change of policy. I don’t know what costs are now authorized to be imposed on Russia that were not authorized previously,” he said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Wednesday that the Trump administration had made the right move.
“You don’t want to federalize everything, and that’s why this is a delicate balance,” Ryan said during an interview with the news website WisPolitics. “But that’s why the administration is right to say: ‘We are watching. We are coordinating and we will be penalizing if someone tries to mess with our election security.’ ”