Trump Promises Sanctions If Foreign Powers Meddle in Midterms

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump issued an order threatening financial sanctions if foreign powers interfere in the November midterm elections, a move that failed to assuage lawmakers who have called for a tougher stance.

The executive order Trump signed Wednesday directs the government to impose sanctions on any foreigner who participates in disrupting a U.S. election.

“Some are full blocking sanctions,” the president said in a statement released Wednesday evening, “others are to be designed and calibrated in light of specific facts — against any individual, foreign entity, or country that authorizes, directs, sponsors, or otherwise supports foreign interference in a United States election.”

“In the United States, primary responsibility for managing elections resides with state, territory, and local authorities,” Trump added. “The federal government, however, plays an essential role in identifying and deterring foreign interference and supporting state and local officials to secure election infrastructure.”

Lawmakers from both political parties have blasted Trump for refusing to embrace the American intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election that he won. Many members of Congress have raised fears that the Trump administration isn’t adequately prepared to defend the 2018 vote.

Senate Sanctions Bill

“This executive order has no teeth,” Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said on Twitter. “Russia is actively seeking to interfere in our elections, and if the President wants to hold Putin accountable he should say he supports passing the sanctions bill in the Senate.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, sponsors of the Senate legislation requiring sanctions for election meddling, said Trump’s order “does not go far enough.”

“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,” Rubio and Van Hollen said in a joint statement.

National Security Adviser John Bolton and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats portrayed the order as a serious effort to bolster protection against foreign interference.

“It’s more than Russia here that we are looking at,” Coats said on a conference call with reporters, adding that intelligence agencies are worried about Iran, North Korea and China’s ability to interfere in the election. Coats has warned that hackers are only “a keyboard click away” from serious interference.

“If we see something has happened, then there’s going to be an automatic response to that,” Coats said.

Range of Options

Bolton said there would be a range of options for retaliation, including limiting access to U.S. financial institutions.

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, called Trump’s order a “strong response.”

“I applaud the President for sending a clear message to bad actors who wish to undermine our democratic process and for taking steps to improve election security moving forward,” Cornyn said in a statement.

Foreign influence campaigns that appear to be based in Russia and Iran have already cropped up on social media. Russian hackers also have appeared to target congressional campaigns, the Senate, and a conservative think tank with phishing emails.

Trump’s top national security officials warned reporters of possible foreign interference in the election at a press briefing this summer.

Trump’s order covers propaganda and disinformation on social media as well as direct interference in campaigns such as the email hacks the Democratic National Committee suffered in 2016, Bolton said.

Under the order, intelligence agencies are instructed to report within 45 days after the Nov. 6 congressional elections on whether any foreign governments interfered, Coats said. There will then be another 45-day period for the attorney general and Homeland Security Department to recommend a response. It also applies to future U.S. elections.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.