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Why Trump's executive order on election interference falls short

If you're seeing headlines today about Trump finally taking steps to punish foreign actors targeting our elections, take the news with a grain of salt.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump signs an executive order on extreme vetting during an event at the Pentagon in Washington, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

A bipartisan legislative effort has been quietly advancing in Congress that would create mandatory economic sanctions on foreign entities that interfere in American elections. Donald Trump has said nothing publicly about the bill, and it's unclear whether the president -- who's repeatedly questioned Russia's 2016 attack -- would support it.

But in the meantime, Trump and his team have a related policy of their own. NBC News reported:

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order aimed at discouraging foreign countries and actors from tampering with U.S. elections, two top national security officials said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.The order creates a process by which the nation's intelligence agencies will assess whether foreigners have interfered with U.S. elections -- including spreading propaganda and infiltrating campaign infrastructure -- the Justice and Homeland Security departments will review their reports and the Treasury and State departments will recommend possible sanctions to the president, National Security Adviser John Bolton said.

The text of the order was published to the White House website last night.

There was some question about whether the sanctions provisions would be mandatory -- DNI Dan Coats said they would be, while John Bolton suggested the punishments would be optional -- but a Washington Post  report explained, "The harshest sanctions outlined in the order would be at the president's discretion."

And if that strikes you as weak tea, you're not alone. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement yesterday, "Given what the president did in Helsinki, giving himself the option of levying tough sanctions is hardly reassuring. The new executive order certainly does not absolve the Senate from passing much-needed legislation and funding to beef up our election security and prevent future attacks on our democracy from foreign adversaries."

The opposition wasn't entirely partisan. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the principal sponsors of the bill -- called the "Deter Act" -- that would impose mandatory sanctions, said in a joint statement that the president's new executive order "does not go far enough."

The New York Times' report added:

While the executive order would primarily target the people and entities that attack the election system, lawmakers said, the Senate legislation would have wider economic sanctions targeting financial institutions, oligarchs and others.In an interview, Mr. Van Hollen said the executive order was merely a version of his legislation "without the teeth.""The Russians need to know the response will be certain and severe, and the executive order provides neither of those key elements," he said. "As I look at this, it seems aimed more at deterring congressional action on the Deter Act than deterring Putin's interference in our elections."

In other words, if you're seeing headlines today about Trump finally taking steps to punish foreign actors targeting our elections, it's probably worth taking the news with a grain of salt.

The larger question, meanwhile, is whether the president's order will derail the push for bipartisan legislation on the subject. The decision will largely fall to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who, as of yesterday, hasn't shared his plans.