WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump issued a new order Wednesday authorizing additional sanctions against countries or individuals for interfering in upcoming U.S. elections, but lawmakers of both parties immediately said the effort does not go far enough.
The order would allow Trump to sanction 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, as well as “propaganda” and other attempts to influence voting from abroad, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told reporters.
The harshest sanctions outlined in the order would be up to 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.
As The Washington Post first reported in August, the order appears to be an effort to stave off bipartisan legislation that would mandate tough federal action.
Bolton said criticism that Trump had been too deferential to Russia or blinkered in his view of Russian election interference played “zero” role in the new action.
Trump has repeatedly said he wants to combat foreign interference, Bolton said, and the United States has already sanctioned Russian individuals and entities.
“I think his actions speak for themselves,” Bolton said.
Trump has repeatedly called the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election a “witch hunt,” and alleged without evidence that the inquiry is “rigged” against him. He has appeared to take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word that Russia did not interfere on his behalf in the election, most recently when he and the Russian leader met for a widely criticized summit in Helsinki, in July.
Trump has also said he accepts the strong consensus view of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia did interfere, including through propaganda and falsehoods spread on social media.
But aides have said that Trump’s anger at what he views as a questioning of his surprise election victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton colors his view of the threat to future elections, and slowed down the administration’s planning for this year’s congressional election.
“It has been a touchy subject,” one White House official said last month, when the Post reported on a draft of the executive order.
Congressional pressure for tougher federal defenses against foreign election interference grew following Trump’s July 16 summit and news conference with Putin, when Trump avoided publicly confronting the Russian leader about Moscow’s efforts to influence the election.
Trump instead renewed a demand for an investigation of Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state and noted that Putin had issued an “extremely strong and powerful” denial.
Bolton said Wednesday that the White House is open to ideas and proposals from lawmakers, but said new legislation might be slow in coming. He cast the White House action as a way to strengthen U.S. defenses immediately.
“We felt it was important to demonstrate the president has taken command of this issue, that it’s something he cares deeply about,” Bolton said. “The integrity of our elections and our constitutional process are a high priority to him.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sen Marco Rubio, R-Fla., immediately issued a joint statement calling the White House effort insufficient and calling on Congress to pass tougher legislation now.
“Today’s announcement by the Administration recognizes the threat, but does not go far enough to address it,” they wrote. “The United States can and must do more,” such as the mandatory sanctions attached to legislation they proposed, the senators wrote. “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.”
Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., the vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also criticized the executive order, which he said puts too much power in the hands of a president who has previously failed to demand accountability from Russia on the issue.
“Unfortunately, President Trump demonstrated in Helsinki and elsewhere that he simply cannot be counted upon to stand up to Putin when it matters,” Warner said. He added that “an executive order that inevitably leaves the President broad discretion to decide whether to impose tough sanctions against those who attack our democracy is insufficient.”
The executive order was also panned by some lawmakers at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Russian interference Tuesday afternoon. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said the move “won’t substitute for mandatory sanctions required by law” and shouldn’t be used to blunt congressional momentum on the issue.
Coats warned last month that Russian efforts to undermine U.S. elections continue. U.S. officials have also identified China, Iran and North Korea as potential threats.
“In regards to Russian involvement in the midterm elections, we continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Coats said in August.
He described the White House response as broad, including assessments by intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic arms of the government.
“We are doing everything we possibly can, first of all to prevent any interference with our election, and then to do a full assessment after the election,” Coats said Wednesday.
Lawmakers and independent analysts say that federal and state action has already made U.S. voting systems more secure against foreign hackers. Russian entities have not targeted those systems to the degree they did in 2016, Coats said Wednesday.
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.
The White House has deflected much of that criticism while pointing to the tough sanctions imposed on Russian individuals and the expulsion of Russian diplomats in response to the 2016 election interference.