The White House proudly trumpeted an executive order Wednesday that it promises will slap sanctions on foreign actors found to be interfering in America’s elections.
One problem: the order doesn’t actually punish anyone, lawmakers and former and current U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast. Instead, it merely provides a pathway toward determining those punishments—a pathway that critics say already existed, and one that is not likely to result in any specific designations until well after the 2018 elections.
“This executive order authorizes the development and application of sanctions against any individual, any entity, or country that authorizes, directs, sponsors, or otherwise supports interference in a U.S. election,” said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. “So it’s pretty broad in terms of what happens here when the process gets in place.”
The order authorizes Coats to identify attempts to interfere in U.S. elections that include, but are not limited to, social-media influence campaigns and efforts to hack into election infrastructure and voting systems. Multiple federal agencies, including the Justice Department and Treasury Department, will then have 45 days to determine the appropriate punishments, Coats and John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, said Wednesday.
Three current and former U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that they viewed the executive order as another measure by Trump to appear publicly as if it is exacting harsh measures against Russia. In reality, the sources said, the White House is not committed to hitting Russia with sanctions that will change its behavior—the original goal of the sanctions system drafted in 2014 under President Obama. A harsher executive order would have designated specific entities and individuals, the officials said.
“The executive order will become effective upon a determination by the Director of National Intelligence that Russia has done something,” one former Treasury official told The Daily Beast. “How that question is scoped and what level of certainty is required will go a long way in determining whether this is an empty gesture.”
Two former officials said Trump’s executive order was a way to counter action on the Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have proposed a series of bills that attempt to hit the heart of the Russian economy with sanctions.
Many of those lawmakers characterized the announcement of the executive order as little more than a face-saving measure.
“Today’s announcement by the Administration recognizes the threat, but does not go far enough to address it. The United States can and must do more,” said Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who crafted their own sanctions bill, said in a joint statement. “Mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks our electoral systems serve as the best deterrent, which is the central tenet of the bipartisan DETER Act.”
Bolton said the Trump administration was still willing to work with Congress on a broader sanctions package but noted that the legislative process wasn’t likely to take hold any time soon. He also said it was important for the president to have “full waiver authority”—something Congress has been hesitant to give him, in part because the administration has yet to fully implement last year’s Russia sanctions package.
“It is outrageous that it has taken 21 months for President Trump to begin to respond to the Kremlin’s interference in our democracy,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
One of those bills, co-authored by Menendez and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), would immediately impose sanctions on Russian energy exports and sovereign debt. Another, crafted by Rubio and Van Hollen, would empower the director of national intelligence to identify election interference and therefore trigger automatic sanctions. Both pieces of legislation restrict the president’s authority to make those determinations on his own.
“The White House just wants to take control over what is going on on the Hill,” said Adam Smith, a partner at Gibson Dunn in Washington and a former senior adviser to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the small federal agency in charge of sanctions enforcement. “There’s really not much else going on. There’s nothing really new.”