By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Under fire over his handling of Russian election meddling, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday meant to strengthen election security by slapping sanctions on foreign countries or people who try to interfere in the U.S. political process.
The order, coming only eight weeks before congressional elections on Nov. 6, drew immediate criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers as too little, too late.
Trump signed the order behind closed doors with no reporters present, a rare departure from what has been his standard practice.
“As I have made clear, the United States will not tolerate any form of foreign meddling in our elections,” Trump said in a statement.
Sanctions could include freezing assets, restricting foreign exchange transactions, limiting access to U.S. financial institutions, and prohibiting U.S. citizens from investing in companies involved, national security adviser John Bolton told reporters.
Bolton said sanctions could be imposed during or after an election, based on the evidence gathered.
U.S. 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. But Trump in July publicly accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials at a joint press conference after they met for a summit in Helsinki.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller and congressional panels are investigating Russian interference, which Moscow denies. Mueller is also looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Trump dismisses the investigations as a political witch hunt.
Lawmakers said the executive order, which would give the president decision-making power on imposing sanctions, was insufficient.
“Today’s announcement by the administration recognises the threat, but does not go far enough to address it,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen in a joint statement, advocating legislation.
The order represents an effort by the administration to look tough on election security before the voting in November, which will determine whether Trump’s Republicans maintain their majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.
Bolton said criticism of the president’s response to the issue, which has included his controversial comments in Helsinki and numerous tweets, played “zero” role in driving the issuance of the executive order.
“The president has said repeatedly that he is determined that there not be foreign interference in our political process,” Bolton said on a conference call. “I think his actions speak for themselves.”
The order would direct intelligence agencies to assess whether any people or entities interfered. The information would be provided to the Justice and Homeland Security departments, and then based on their assessment of the validity and impact, trigger automatic sanctions, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said.
Intelligence agencies would have 45 days to make an assessment. Then the two departments would have 45 days to determine whether action is required, Coats told reporters.
The State and Treasury departments would decide on additional sanctions to recommend and impose.
Bolton said the order was necessary to ensure a formal process and authorization for sanctions. He said he was in talks with lawmakers about possible legislation.
Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat who is vice chairman of the intelligence committee, said, “Unfortunately, President Trump demonstrated in Helsinki and elsewhere that he simply cannot be counted upon to stand up to Putin when it matters.”
“While the administration has yet to share the full text, an executive order that inevitably leaves the president broad discretion to decide whether to impose tough sanctions against those who attack our democracy is insufficient,” Warner said.
DNI Coats said the measure was being put in place as part of government efforts to report on any suspicious activity between now and November’s elections and to do a full assessment after the election that would trigger sanctions if necessary.
Coats said the United States had seen signs of election meddling from Russia and China, and potential capabilities for such meddling from Iran and North Korea.
“It’s more than Russia here that we’re looking at,” he said.
U.S. lawmakers have introduced various pieces of Russia-related legislation urging punishments for election meddling.
Congress passed a Russia sanctions bill more than a year ago. Some lawmakers have chafed at what they saw as the administration’s reluctance to implement it.
Trump signed the bill into law only after Congress passed it with huge majorities. Acting on the law, the Treasury Department has imposed sanctions against 24 Russians, striking at allies of Putin.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Christopher Bing and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Grant McCool)