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Senators Cheer Trump Order on Election Meddling, but Want More Action

Democrats, especially, are skeptical of president’s commitment

Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo and ranking Democrat Sherrod Brown have been holding a series of hearings on Russia sanctions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo and ranking Democrat Sherrod Brown have been holding a series of hearings on Russia sanctions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senators are pleased to see the Trump administration doing something about election interference, but they don’t think Wednesday’s executive order will be enough.

Some of the concern comes from the fact that even if federal agencies report evidence of Russian evidence to interfere in the 2018 midterms, President Donald Trump could still waive the imposition of sanctions.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Senate Banking Committee was holding a hearing Wednesday afternoon with outside witnesses to discuss new tools to counter Russia. The Banking panel has lead jurisdiction when it comes to developing sanctions legislation.

Democrats pounce

Sen. Elizabeth Warren was among the most direct in her criticism during the hearing.

“President Trump’s mixed signals send the message to Putin that he will not face maximum punishment for trying to interfere in our democracy,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “That’s not good for our security, that’s not good for the security of our allies.”

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The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee offered a similar critique.

“Unfortunately, President Trump demonstrated in Helsinki and elsewhere that he simply cannot be counted upon to stand up to Putin when it matters,” Sen. Mark Warner said in a statement, referring to the Trump-Putin summit this summer in Finland, where the U.S. president deferred to the former KGB chief on conclusion about Russia’s past meddling in the 2016 election.

The Virginia Democrat, who is also a member of the Banking panel, said legislative action is still required, particularly as it pertains to sending a message to Russia to avoid further attempts to undermine U.S. democracy.

“If we are going to actually deter Russia and others from interfering in our elections in the future, we need to spell out strong, clear consequences, without ambiguity,” Warner said. “We remain woefully underprepared to secure the upcoming elections, and an executive order is simply no substitute for congressional action, such as the strong measures included in the bipartisan DETER Act.”

That’s a reference to legislation led by Florida Republican Marco Rubio and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen. Those two senators said earlier Wednesday that their bill was needed to impose mandatory sanctions upon the discovery of interference in the midterms.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, the ranking Democrat on the Banking Committee, echoed much of that sentiment. 

“If this executive order signals a newfound willingness by the president to actually sanction Putin and other Russians responsible for attacks against our elections, that would be an important change,” Brown said in a statement. “Even so, an order which effectively authorizes, but does not automatically require, sanctions for continued illegal Russian attacks on our democracy is no substitute for broader mandatory sanctions required by law that target not only Russia’s interference in US elections, but its election meddling elsewhere, and its aggression in Syria and Ukraine.”

Get it right

In his opening statement at the Banking hearing, Chairman Michael D. Crapo stressed the importance of getting sanctions “right.”

“There is no question that Putin must pay for his actions and that the United States has the ability to impose real costs against Moscow, even as it increases its own defenses against future attacks,” the Idaho Republican said. “The only question is how the United States will go about imposing those costs.”

One of the most interesting exchanges during the Wednesday afternoon hearing came during questioning by South Dakota GOP Sen. Mike Rounds about whether the executive order represents a “line in the sand” by the Trump administration regarding Russia’s election meddling efforts.

“I think it’s absolutely crucial that the United States make clear to Russia or anyone who would mettle in U.S. democratic institutions and processes that … this is the core of our sovereignty, and it is only a space in which U.S. citizens can participate,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Atlantic Council senior fellow Daleep Singh said he did not entirely concur with the characterization made by Rounds in setting up the question.

“I don’t see how it’s a line in the sand. It would be if there were clearly delineated consequences, or if there were clearly spelled out costs for actions that have already occurred,” Singh said. “To my knowledge, those are not laid out in the executive order.”

“I agree that there must be consequences,” Rosenberg responded. “That’s an excellent area for congressional oversight in order to clarify what the line is across which the United States will not permit Russia to go.”

Republicans, including some members of the Intelligence Committee, seemed more willing to take Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ announcement of the executive order at face value.

“This Executive Order marks a strong response by an administration who committed to ensuring our elections can remain free and fair,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said in a statement. “I applaud the president for sending a clear message to bad actors who wish to undermine our democratic process and for taking steps to improve election security moving forward.”

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