The harshest sanctions outlined in the order would be at 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 claimed 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 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 did not publicly confront 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 Intelligence Committee, said the order puts too much power in the hands of a president who has previously failed to demand accountability from Russia on the issue.
“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,” he said.
The executive order was also panned by some lawmakers and witnesses at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Russian interference Tuesday afternoon. Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), the top Democrat on the committee, 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.
Daleep Singh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that if sanctions are not made mandatory, the odds of Russian interference will only become greater. “At the risk of not knowing enough of the details, it strikes me as more of a press release than a change of policy. I don’t know what costs are now authorized to be imposed on Russia that were not authorized previously,” he said.
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.
The order did draw praise from some congressional Republicans.
“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,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday evening that the Trump administration had made the right move.
“You don’t want to federalize everything, and that’s why this is a delicate balance,” Ryan said during an interview with the news website WisPolitics. “But that’s why the the administration is right to say: ‘We are watching. We are coordinating and we will be penalizing if someone tries to mess with our election security.’ ”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.