WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order authorizing sanctions against foreigners who interfere with U.S. elections and campaigns, but senators backing a bipartisan bill to address political meddling said the order doesn’t go far enough.
Trump’s order requires the national intelligence director to assess whether there is foreign interference and if there is, the order asks for reports by Justice and Homeland Security officials. It also allows the State and Treasury departments to decide on sanctions against those responsible, said John Bolton, the national security adviser.
“It is a further effort among several the administration has made to protect the United States against foreign interference in elections and, really, our political process more broadly,” Bolton told reporters on a conference call.
The intelligence community already is tracking foreign efforts by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea to affect the midterm elections less than two months away, Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, said on the call.
“We have not seen the intensity of what happened in 2016,” Coats said, but he added, “It’s just one click of the keyboard away.”
Coats and Bolton said the aim of the order was to reassure American voters and to signal that, despite Trump’s comments doubting Russian interference in the 2016 election, he wants to make sure that foreigners don’t meddle with the U.S. political process.
“This clearly is a process put in place to try to assure that we are doing every possible thing we can, first of all, to prevent any interference with our elections, to report on anything we see between now and the election, but then to do a full assessment after the election to assure the American people just exactly what may have happened or may not have happened,” Coats said.
“We felt it was important to demonstrate the president is taking command of this issue,” Bolton said, “It’s something he cares deeply about.”
Trump expressed ambivalence about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election when he appeared at a July 16 news conference in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump didn’t say whether he would denounce that interference or warn Putin never to do it again.
But he but did mention Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of election interference, drawing criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.
“Given what the president did in Helsinki, giving himself the option of levying tough sanctions is hardly reassuring,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement about the new executive order. Schumer urged Congress to pass a bill with more teeth.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, "More must be done to combat Russian aggression at all levels of our foreign policy, but this is a positive step in recognizing Russian tactics and in protecting our sovereignty,"
One bill would give Coats 30 days after the election to report to Congress on any foreign interference in elections and would require specific sanctions on those who did it. The bill also has specific sanctions for Russia if it were to interfere again.
Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), key sponsors of the bill, said in a joint statement: “Today’s announcement by the Administration recognizes the threat, but does not go far enough to address it."
“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,” they said.