President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday allowing for a broad range of sanctions to be imposed against any entity that attempts to interfere with US elections, with perceived potential threats coming not only from Russian Federation but also China, Iran and North Korea, Trump administration officials said.
Administration officials said the executive order sets up a framework for assessing interference, reporting it to the president and punishing it with sanctions.
The order will direct the intelligence community to assess if any foreign individual, entity or country has interfered in a USA election, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told reporters at a conference call held at Wednesday noon.
Trump, who has sought warmer relations with Moscow, has frequently suggested he sides with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies, including during a controversial meeting between the two leaders in Helsinki in July.
Trump's executive order declares that a "national emergency" exists linked to possible foreign interference in the United States elections, a declaration that creates a legal basis for the future imposition of sanctions linked to that issue.
Coats told reporters on Wednesday the intelligence community continues to monitor attempts to influence USA elections, but "we have not seen the intensity of what happened in 2016". He said the U.S.is also anxious about the cyber activities of China, North Korea and Iran.
Coates said that the administration acknowledges that there was interference in the 2016 election, and "we've learned our lessons".
However, in a conference call, Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence identified Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea having capabilities to do so.
After the reports are complete, the Treasury and State Departments would decide on appropriate sanctions to impose on the potential actors or countries.
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The executive order comes as bills in the House and Senate have gained support that would require sanctions against any government or person determined to have engaged in electoral interference. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would mandate tough sanctions on major sectors of the Russian economy, including finance, energy, and defense companies.
"We felt it was important to demonstrate the president has taken command of this issue, that it's something that he cares deeply about", national security adviser John Bolton said on a call with reporters.
The administration has also leveled sanctions against Russian Federation on numerous occasions as punishment for the Sergei Skripal nerve agent attack, interference in the 2016 election and other "malign" activity.
"My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, and said they think it's Russia", Trump said.
Congress has been purposefully left out of the executive order drafting process, the official said, because the administration wants to preempt legislation being considered in the House and Senate that addresses similar issues.
But, unlike a bipartisan bill now making its way through Congress, the order does not require Trump to issue stiff sanctions on such meddlers. He called it a necessary response to Russia's "hostile acts against America's democratic system that were created to cause division and discord within our nation".
In the discussion on Tuesday evening, Rogers also recounted his conversations with Trump about Russia's continued attempts to disrupt the U.S. electoral system through cyber means in 2016 and beyond.
"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. "And if we don't do something, they (the Russians) are not going to stop".