On Wednesday President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would automatically impose sanctions against any person or group attempting to interfere in United States elections. “The proliferation of digital devices and internet-based communications has created significant vulnerabilities and magnified the scope and intensity of the threat of foreign interference [to elections],” Trump writes in the order. “I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with this threat.” The order covers attacks not just on vote integrity and election infrastructure, but also disinformation campaigns, information leaking, propaganda, and other types of interference like what took place during the 2016 presidential campaign. Since then, efforts to improve election infrastructure defenses around the country have been uneven. President Trump himself has sent mixed messages on his willingness to prioritize election security and hold Russia accountable for its interference.
The White House says that the new executive order represents the President’s commitment to addressing the issue. “This sets up the framework within which these decisions on sanctions can be made for election interference,” National Security Advisor John Bolton told reporters.
Under the order, the Director of National Intelligence would assess any possible foreign meddling within 45 days of a US election. Then the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security would have another 45 days to formulate a proposal to enact sanctions and deliver it to the President, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of Defense.
Trump’s order comes just 55 days before the US midterm elections and amidst continued threats to the integrity and security of the election process, including phishing attacks reminiscent of those from the 2016 election season against a handful of campaigns. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told reporters on Wednesday that the intelligence community has not seen the same intensity of attacks in the lead-up to the midterms that it saw in 2016, but he cautioned that more could come at any time. He also noted that the executive order isn’t directed at Russia alone, and that countries like China, North Korea, and Iran have the capabilities and potential motivation to launch similar assaults.