White House Readies Sanctions for Election Meddling

WASHINGTON (CN) – In an executive order signed Wednesday, President Donald Trump set in motion plans to impose new sanctions on any foreign nations, people or other entities that interfere in U.S. elections.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during their meeting in the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Monday, July 16, 2018. Trump and Putin arrived Monday at Helsinki’s presidential palace for a long-awaited summit, hours after Trump blamed the United States, and not Russian election meddling or its annexation of Crimea, for a low-point in U.S.-Russia relations. (Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva via AP)

The executive order also requires any federal agency aware of election meddling to promptly report that data to the office of the director of national intelligence.

According to the order, an array of federal agencies will be tapped to serve as the decision makers on whether interference has occurred. They include the Department of Justice, National Security Agency, Department of Homeland Security and CIA.

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats explained how the assessment reports on interference will work.

Once an incident is brought to an agency’s attention, Coats’ office will have 45 days to review the activity in full. That report will then be turned over to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions as well as the Department of Homeland Security.

“They, within another 45 days, will assess the validity and the impact of the intelligence. If they determine and find anything that reflects interference with our election, they will then report that and automatic sanctions will take place,” Coats said.

Beyond that, if the Department of State or Department of Treasury have cause and wish to add sanctions because they do not feel the automatic sanctions are “strong enough,” those departments will be able to do so, Coats added.

“If we see something has happened, there will be an automatic response to that,” he said.

Under the order, interference will be defined, at least in part, by attempts to hack U.S. election infrastructure or manipulate public opinion via online propaganda. The methodical leaking of sensitive political information will also qualify as interference.

National Security Adviser John Bolton also said the oversight bodies would “calibrate what sanctions will be, based on the interference.”

Potential sanctions include blocking financial transactions, restricting export licenses, limiting access to U.S. financial institutions, restraining foreign exchange transactions and transfers of credit, and prohibiting U.S. citizens from investing in companies that “may be involved” in meddling.

The public will be informed of interference activity when sanctions occur, Bolton said Wednesday on the conference call.

“These are very sensitive, very dangerous operations. We have to conduct this with respect to the sensitivity of the information, the risk to our sources and methods as well as a range of other factors,” he said.

In order to avoid overlap with congressional legislation aimed at the same goal, the order does not require congressional input or feature specific directives aimed at lawmakers.

Bipartisan bills like the one proposed by U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. – the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines, or DETER, Act – have been introduced recently, but have not yet been passed.

Congress passed a financial sanctions bill against the Kremlin over a year ago and since January 2017, over 200 individuals and companies with connections to Russia have been subjected to its penalties.

“We’re doing this to set up the mechanism that can gather the evidence, report to the president [and] have the intelligence community working under the director of national intelligence,” Bolton said.

The order also ensures that “law enforcement work under the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice,” he added.

“We needed to put this in a formal process and we need to make sure the State Department and the Department of the Treasury are authorized to go through the analysis they need to engage and determine what the appropriate sanctions are,” Bolton said. “That’s the framework.”

Bolton said over the last two weeks, he and Coats have spoken to over two dozen members of Congress to discuss possible ideas but said he believes the executive order is an “important step for the president to take as leader of the executive branch.”

“But we are willing to speak with other members of Congress who have similar ideas,” he added.

The issue with waiting on Congress, he explained, is “never knowing how long legislation will take.”

“The president has acted decisively today,” Bolton said.

Even if Congress fails to act, the national security adviser said there should be “full waiver authorities” for the president because the challenges and threats posed to the U.S. occur in a “broader world that is very complex.”

With “lessons learned” from the 2016 presidential election, Coats emphasized that the administration and intelligence community’s focus moving forward would be on the upcoming midterms and the 2020 presidential election.

The order does not target Russia in particular, but any entity that engages in election meddling.

Coats told reporters Wednesday the intelligence community has seen “signs” of interference attempts from China, Iran and North Korea.

“This is more than Russia and we will continue to look at that,” he said.

Attempts to infiltrate the U.S. election infrastructure have waned since 2016, the director said, but potential threats are “only a keyboard click away.”

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