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White House drafting sanctions order to punish foreign interference in U.S. elections

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, at their July news conference in Helsinki.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, at their July news conference in Helsinki. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)
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The White House is drafting an executive order that would authorize President Trump to sanction foreigners who interfere in U.S. elections, the administration’s latest effort to demonstrate it is serious about combating Russian disinformation and hacking.

The eight-page draft order, a copy of which was reviewed by The Washington Post, appears to be an effort to stave off aggressive legislation, including a bill introduced in Congress this month — and to quell criticism that Trump seems to give more credence to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s denials of interference than to U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the Kremlin sought to undermine the 2016 election.

As midterm elections approach, a growing concern that the nation is not protected from Russian interference

Trump has been under increasing pressure from his advisers to condemn Russia’s aggression, said current and former administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. His reluctance to do so is viewed internally as a liability, they said.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Aug. 9 U.S. "actions testify that they are not ready" to forge a better relationship with Russia (Video: Reuters)

One White House official emphasized that the document is a draft and that it could change but said it showed Trump is intent on safeguarding U.S. elections.

“Everybody knows something has to get done,” said a former senior administration official. “It has been a touchy subject.”

Trump administration stresses its focus on election security amid criticism

The draft order creates a category of offense — election interference, which includes “Internet-based disinformation efforts” — for which biting sanctions can be imposed.

But the most pain-inducing sanctions are discretionary.

The only mandatory sanctions would be against individuals found to have taken part in an interference campaign against a U.S. election, a step that the Obama and Trump administrations have taken against Russian intelligence officers. The Trump administration also sanctioned people working for a Russian “troll” factory, churning out divisive social media posts.

So far these steps have not prompted changes in Moscow’s behavior.

Trump administration hits Russian spies, trolls with sanctions over U.S. election interference

The draft order “looks much more like a cover-your-behind exercise to show the administration is doing something when in fact it doesn’t oblige them to do much of anything,” said Michael Carpenter, a former Pentagon and White House official who worked on Russia policy for the Obama administration. “The sanctions on foreign individuals for election interference are not going to dissuade anyone. To be a credible deterrent, a foreign country like Russia would need to think that sanctions would automatically go into effect if X, Y and Z happened.”

The draft order specifies that the president may impose sanctions on “10 of the 30 largest business entities” in a country whose government has interfered in an election. That measure could be quite powerful, experts said. But its discretionary nature, combined with the administration’s lack of a clear Russia policy, undermines its effectiveness, they said.

“If you’re the Russians looking at the United States, you have to ask yourself, is this something the president is going to allow to be used, and how much?” said Daniel Fried, a former diplomat in Republican and Democratic administrations who is an expert on Russia and Eastern Europe.

Last Thursday, Trump’s top national security aides, including Director of National Intelligence Daniel R. Coats and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, appeared in the White House briefing room and warned that Russia was, as Coats said, continuing its “pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values.”

But Trump, speaking at a political rally that evening in Pennsylvania, did not mention those concerns. Instead, he criticized special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference, dismissing it as the “Russia hoax,” and accused the news media of portraying as negative his “great meeting” with Putin in Helsinki last month.

Then on Saturday, at a rally in Ohio, the president equivocated. “We have to stop meddling and stop everybody from attacking us. But there are a lot. Russia is there, China is there. We are doing well with North Korea, but they’re probably there,” Trump said.

“Whom do you listen to — the intelligence chiefs who stood in the briefing room or the president of the United States, who blamed all the problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship on the United States?” said Fried, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The problem with the president’s language is, it undercuts the policy of his own administration and weakens the deterrent value, for example, of this prospective executive order.”

A senior White House official said Trump recently told his advisers to talk publicly about election interference — even if he calls it a hoax. The president approved last week’s White House briefing after hearing from a number of advisers that the narrative needed to change, the official said.

The draft order includes language that analysts interpreted as an effort to assuage Trump’s concerns. It includes references to apparent attempts by the Soviet Union to interfere in past U.S. elections, including to “frustrate President Nixon’s election in 1968 and President Reagan’s reelection in 1984.” Fried called those allegations debatable.

It appears “this was put in to make this executive order palatable to Trump by not singling out Russia in 2016,” said Peter Harrell, a former State Department sanctions official who is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

The draft notes that “there has been no evidence of a foreign power altering a single vote in a United States election,” echoing another of Trump’s repeated assertions about the 2016 election.

In October, when then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo stated that the intelligence community found “Russian meddling . . . did not affect the outcome of the election,” the agency later issued a clarification. The CIA noted that U.S. intelligence agencies, in their January 2017 report on Russian interference, “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”

Other experts said sanctions alone will not change Moscow’s behavior. “Putin will continue to push his overt and covert information war until he gets a clear message that he has gone too far,” said John Sipher, a former CIA officer who once ran the agency’s Russia operations. “In this sense, nothing is more important than a strong, consistent message from the president backed up by a unified administration and supportive Congress. If there are splits, Putin will exploit and amplify them.”