Trump signs order to punish foreigners meddling in US polls

Democratic, Republican lawmakers criticise US President's move as 'too little, too late'

WASHINGTON • Under fire over his handling of Russian election meddling, US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order meant to strengthen election security by slapping sanctions on foreign countries or people who try to interfere in the US political process.

The order, coming weeks before congressional polls on Nov 6, drew immediate criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers as too little, too late.

Mr Trump signed the order behind closed doors on Wednesday, 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," Mr Trump said in a statement.

Sanctions could include freezing assets, restricting foreign exchange transactions, limiting access to US financial institutions and prohibiting US citizens from investing in companies involved, national security adviser John Bolton said. Sanctions could be imposed during or after an election, based on the evidence gathered.

US intelligence agencies concluded that entities backed by the Kremlin sought to boost Republican Mr Trump's chances of winning the White House in the 2016 election against his Democratic opponent, Mrs Hillary Clinton. But Mr 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. Mr Mueller is also looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Mr 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.

SANCTIONS INSUFFICIENT

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.

DEMOCRATIC SENATOR MARK WARNER, who is vice-chairman of the intelligence committee.

"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 the Republicans maintain their majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The order would direct intelligence agencies to assess whether any people or entities interfered in the political process. 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, said 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, Mr Coats said.

Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat who is vice-chairman of the intelligence committee, said: "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."

Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview published yesterday that Moscow is taking seriously Mr Trump's willingness to forge a normal dialogue, though anti-Russia sentiment in the US establishment was a hindrance.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2018, with the headline 'Trump signs order to punish foreigners meddling in US polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe