Trump authorizes sanctions to punish foreign interference in US elections

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order authorizing a broad range of sanctions on individuals, companies or countries that interfere with U.S. elections.
  • The order will punish attempted interference with election infrastructure and political campaigns, as well as foreign disinformation and propaganda efforts.
  • "Capabilities and attempts" have so far been identified as coming from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, said a top administration official.
Donald Trump
Leah Millis | Reuters

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday authorizing a broad range of sanctions to punish individuals, companies or countries that interfere in U.S. elections.

During a conference call with reporters, John Bolton, Trump's national security advisor, and Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, confirmed that the president signed the order and they outlined how the sanctions process would work.

Within 45 days of an election, the intelligence community will be charged with delivering an assessment of whether or not any foreign entities interfered with it. If the community assesses that there was interference, it will then inform the attorney general and the Department of Homeland Security, who will jointly have another 45 days to decide whether to trigger sanctions on the foreign actor.

The officials emphasized that the executive order is not country specific, and that it will punish not merely foreign attempts to interfere with election infrastructure, like voting machines, but also any attempts to interfere in U.S. political campaigns. It will also target foreign disinformation and propaganda efforts like the kind Russia launched during the 2016 presidential election.

"We've seen not just Russia and China, but capabilities from Iran and even from North Korea," Coats said. But he added that so far, attacks on the 2018 elections do not equal "the intensity of what happened in 2016."

Still, Coats emphasized that the nature of cyberwarfare means that a much more intense attack "is only a keyboard click away."

He declined to detail exactly what the intelligence community has seen so far this election cycle, but he said it includes both "capability and attempts."

The executive order declares a national emergency with regard to election interference. This step, Bolton said, creates an umbrella under which the multiagency intelligence review plan will be carried out to determine the scope and origin of any suspected foreign interference.

"This is a further effort to protect the United States from foreign interference in our elections and our political process more broadly," Bolton said. "The president felt very strongly about this, and we talked about this weeks and weeks ago."

Bolton said the administration would be happy to consult with Congress on election security, "but we do think the president has broad discretion in this area, particularly in the conduct of foreign and defense policy."

On Capitol Hill, the executive order drew a mixed response, with some lawmakers saying it does not go far enough. They pointed to the fact that the intelligence assessment mandated by the order is only required after the election has already happened. They warned that punishment after the fact may fail to serve as a sufficient deterrent for some countries.

"Mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks our electoral systems serve as the best deterrent," Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement.

The senators are co-sponsors of legislation known as the Deter Act, which would mandate the imposition of certain sanctions which the current executive order leaves to the discretion of officials at the Treasury and State departments.