President Donald Trump will sign an executive order as soon as Wednesday aimed at deterring election interference from hostile foreign actors, a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the matter told The Daily Beast.
The move blindsided officials on Capitol Hill and within Trump’s own administration, who said they had not yet seen a draft of the order and were skeptical that it would do enough to deter election interference by Russia and others. America’s intelligence chiefs have warned that the Kremlin is actively looking to subvert the 2018 midterm elections. And Iranian propagandists have recently been caught setting up Russian-style disinformation campaigns on Facebook.
“We were given absolutely no heads-up, no indication whatsoever that this was coming,” said a congressional aide who works in sanctions policy, noting that it was customary for the White House to share plans for major executive actions with lawmakers ahead of time.
Or at least it used to be.
The aide said staffers who focus on sanctions and Europe immediately resorted to their back-channels to the Trump administration to try to obtain more information, but “couldn’t come up with anything.” Officials on both the House and Senate side have yet to see the draft executive order, multiple aides told The Daily Beast.
Reuters first reported on the presidential directive. It would automatically slap sanctions on individuals or entities who U.S. intelligence officials deem are trying to interfere in U.S. elections.
“This is a first step in stating boundaries and publicly announcing our response for bad behavior,” a U.S. official told Reuters. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump has been reluctant to fully acknowledge Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, which U.S. intelligence agencies have said was intended to help propel him to victory. Since taking office, Trump has been forced by Congress into signing tough sanctions legislation while his administration sought to push back against those efforts.
Lawmakers have in recent weeks been collaborating to develop a brand new sanctions regime aimed at specifically deterring Russian attempts to interfere in the upcoming midterm elections. In July, The Daily Beast revealed the first known target of the Kremlin’s election-meddling in the 2018 cycle, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), prompting top administration officials including the director of national intelligence to brief lawmakers on election security.
As recently as Tuesday morning, sources who have in recent months testified on Capitol Hill about sanctions told The Daily Beast that it was unlikely the administration would put forward a plan to punish Russia for interfering in U.S. elections.
“This is clearly a taking the wind of the sail exercise,” said Adam Smith, a partner at Gibson Dunn in Washington and a former senior advisor at the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the small federal agency in charge of sanctions enforcement.
“There are five bills on the Hill that basically say the same thing,” he said. “There was a fear, perhaps realistic, that there was going to be a bill passed on the Hill and the White House wanted to do something to stop that. They wanted to regain the narrative.” Smith said President Barack Obama used similar tactics during his administration to quash congressional efforts.
There is a chance the order will be a “naked EO,” Smith said, referring to a document that does not list specific entities or individuals, but rather lays out a plan for sanctioning foreigners in the future.
If that’s the case, Smith said, “this is more of a bureaucratic play than anything else.”
Former Treasury officials told The Daily Beast that if the executive order did not offer new restrictions on Russian entities, it would provoke Congress into moving more quickly to pass legislation that handicaps the president’s authority.
Both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Banking Committee have held hearings in recent weeks aimed at piecing together a new sanctions bill that does not harm U.S. allies in Europe, who rely heavily on Russian oil and natural gas imports. One bill, drafted by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), would sanction entities doing business with Russian-backed energy exporters and restrict Russian sovereign debt. Another, authored by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), would trigger automatic sanctions on the Russian energy sector if the director of national intelligence determines that the Kremlin is attempting to interfere in American elections, essentially taking the decision-making authority out of the president’s hands.
Signing an executive order to achieve the same goals would essentially amount to sidestepping Congress, experts said.
The Treasury Department did not provide comment to The Daily Beast. But Smith said officials in the department most likely helped draft the executive order, especially if it lays out specific designations for Russian entities and individuals.