President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday authorizing sanctions against foreigners who meddle in USA elections, acting amid criticism that he has not taken election security seriously enough.
Trump was derided in July for not publicly confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin about the election interference during a summit in Helsinki.
Under the order, the government would punish intelligence community findings of foreign interference in US elections with penalties against culprits, as well as the threat of more penalties.
USA intelligence agencies concluded that entities backed by the Kremlin sought to boost Republican Trump's chances of winning the White House in the 2016 election against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. "We have several that we are tracking", he explained, "and have seen signs, from not just Russian Federation, but China, Iran, and North Korea".
Amid serious backlash from both sides of the aisle, the Republican president later explained that he "misspoke" and said he had "great confidence" in U.S. intelligence.
Sanctions could include freezing assets, restricting foreign exchange transactions, limiting access to U.S. financial institutions, and prohibiting United States citizens from investing in companies involved, said White House national security adviser John Bolton. Some lawmakers - including some Republicans as well as Democrats - have chafed at what they saw as the administration's reluctance to implement it. Trump signed the bill only after Congress passed it with huge majorities.
A special counsel has been investigating possible Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump's campaign colluded with Moscow. The attorney general and Department of Homeland Security then have another 45 days to assess whether sanctions should be imposed.
He said sanctions could be imposed during or after an election, based on evidence gathered.
Trump has also said he accepts the strong consensus view of USA intelligence agencies that Russian Federation did interfere, including through propaganda and falsehoods spread on social media. Following those reports, the Treasury and State Departments can decide on appropriate and additional sanctions to impose.
The order was described by a US official familiar with its drafting as "another tool in the tool kit" to deter election interference by foreign adversaries.
Bolton said Wednesday that the White House is open to ideas and proposals from lawmakers, but said new legislation might be slow in coming.
Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., the vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also criticized the executive order, which he said puts too much power in the hands of a president who has previously failed to demand accountability from Russian Federation on the issue.
"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.
Trump signed the order just two months before the midterms. Those backing the legislation say that under the bill, a nation would know exactly what it would face if caught. "Unfortunately, President Trump demonstrated in Helsinki and elsewhere that he simply can not be counted upon to stand up to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin when it matters", said Warner, who is sponsoring the bill. "And if we don't do something, they (the Russians) are not going to stop".
The sanctions themselves range from blocked assets, export licenses, access to banking and lending, credit transfers, or US investors, according to Bolton.