President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Sept. 12 directing the government to impose automatic sanctions on foreign individuals, entities, and nations in retaliation for attempts to interfere in U.S. elections.
"Although there has been no evidence of a foreign power altering the outcome or vote tabulation in any United States election, foreign powers have historically sought to exploit America's free and open political system," Trump wrote in the order.
"In recent years, the proliferation of digital devices and internet-based communications has created significant vulnerabilities and magnified the scope and intensity of the threat of foreign interference, as illustrated in the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment."
National security adviser John Bolton and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced the details of the order shortly before it was made public. With less than two months before the crucial 2018 midterm elections in November, Bolton described the order as an additional layer of defense against election meddling.
"We felt it was important to demonstrate that the president has taken command of this issue, that it's something he cares deeply about, that the integrity of our elections and our constitutional process are a high priority to him," Bolton said. "And so this order, I think, is a further demonstration of that."
U.S. officials say the intensity of foreign influence is lower this year than in 2016, when Russia attempted to interfere in the presidential election. But the threat isn't limited to Moscow, according to Coats, who said China, Iran, and North Korea have shown they have the capability to interfere.
The order counts the distribution of propaganda and disinformation as attempts at interference. Russia used both tools in 2016 to sow division among Americans online.
"We've learned lessons from this obviously. Our focus now is on the midterms and 2020 going forward," Coats said. "What do we need to have in place to deal with this, to ensure the American public that their elections have not been manipulated; their vote has not been changed?"
The order gives the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) a 45-day window after an election to assess whether influence attempts took place. Once complete, the ODNI would deliver the assessment to the to the president, attorney general, and the secretaries of treasury, state, defense, and homeland security.
Within 45 days of receiving the intelligence assessment, the attorney general and the secretary of homeland security have 45 days to make a determination based on the intelligence assessment. If the departments of justice and homeland security concur with the intelligence assessment, the executive order provides for automatic sanctions, which would block all property of the affected parties within the United States.
After the automatic sanctions are enacted, the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury would be required to determine if additional sanctions are in order based on the scale and intensity of interference.
The drafting and signing of the executive order had "zero" to do with the media narrative that Trump is deferential to Russia, according to Bolton. Democrats in Congress have continued to push the narrative that the president is lax with Moscow despite tough steps from the White House to punish Russia for destabilizing activity in the United States and around the world.
Defending Election IntegrityIn May last year, Trump signed an executive order directing the government to strengthen and modernize cybersecurity in critical infrastructure. During the 2017 elections, the administration provided states with on-site cybersecurity support. In March, Congress authorized $380 million in grants for election assistance.
Confronting RussiaThe Trump administration has ordered successive waves of sanctions and expulsions against Russia in response to Moscow's malign activity in the United States and abroad.
In March, the White House expelled 48 Russian intelligence officers and ordered the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, in response to Russia's alleged use of a chemical agent in the United Kingdom. The administration expelled an additional 12 Russian intelligence officers the same month.
In April, the Trump administration sanctioned seven Russian oligarchs and 12 of their companies as well as 17 senior Russian government officials in response to Moscow's destabilizing activity around the world. In June, the administration sanctioned three Russians and five Russian entities for aiding Moscow's offensive cybersecurity capabilities.