President Trump signed an order Wednesday creating an mechanism that automatically slaps sanctions on foreign countries or people who interfere in U.S. elections.
The moves comes amid the U.S. intelligence community’s heightened alerts about potential cyberattacks on the midterm elections Nov. 6.
The sanctions would be triggered by attacks on election systems, political parties or distribution of propaganda, said National Security Adviser John Bolton, who briefed reporters on the executive order.
“We felt it was important to show the president has taken command of this issue, that it is something he cares deeply about, that the integrity of our elections [and] our constitutional process are a top priority,” Mr. Bolton said.
The automatic sanctions were warning to foreign governments contemplating cyberattacks on America’s elections and campaigns, said Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who also briefed reporters.
“It’s more than Russia,” he said, noting potential threats from China, North Korea and Iran. “We have not seen the intensity of what happened in 2016 but as I have said it is only a keyboard click away.”
Mr. Trump has been faulted for downplaying Russian interference in the 2016 election. Then he was harshly criticized by Republicans and Democrats for accepting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials in July at a summit in Helsinki.
Mr. Bolton said the president had made clear his support for the U.S. intelligence agencies and their determination that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, as well as by imposing sanctions and other measure such as the executive order Wednesday.
“I think his actions speak for themselves,” he said.
The order preempts legislation in the House and Senate that address similar issue, although some include more penalties targeting Russia for interference in 2016 campaign and other offenses.
The administration is ready to work with Congress, Mr. Bolton said, but wanted to move faster than the legislative process.
“You never know how long legislation will take,” he said. “The present has acted decisively today.”
Under the order, intelligence agencies, led by the director of national intelligence, have 45 days to assess an attack and then forward the findings to the Justice and Homeland Security departments.
Justice and Homeland Security would have 45 days to make a determination, notify the president and trigger the sanctions.
Separately, the Treasury and State departments would be advised of the election attack and have the opportunity to impose additional sanctions.
Mr. Coats said the intelligence agencies were working on around the clock to protect the 2018 elections.
“This is an ongoing effort here and it has been for a significant amount of time,” he said.
The order received a lukewarm reception from lawmakers pushing for a new sanctions law.
“Today’s announcement by the Administration recognizes the threat, but does not go far enough to address it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, said in a joint statement.
The senators preferred legislation they co-authored, the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines, or, DETER Act, that would set up automatic sanction but also prescribe harsher penalties for Russia.
“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.
Sen. Thom Tillis applauded the president’s order, calling the Russian cyberattacks in 2016 “hostile acts against America’s democratic system that were designed to cause division and discord within our nation.”
“We cannot allow such hostile acts to occur again,” said the North Carolina Republican. “It is imperative that America remains united in punishing potential election meddlers and bad actors and that Republicans and Democrats work together to protect the integrity of our elections.”