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On-the-Record Press Call by Ambassador John Bolton and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on the Executive Order Entitled, "Imposing Certain Sanctions in the Event of Foreign Interference in a United States Election"

September 12, 2018

Via Telephone

12:16 P.M. EDT

MR. MARQUIS: Hi, everybody. This is Garrett Marquis with the NSC. I'm with Ambassador John Bolton and DNI Director Coats. This conference call is about the executive order, entitled "Imposing Certain Sanctions in the Event of Foreign Interference in a United States Election."

How this will flow: The Ambassador will make a few remarks, DNI Director Coats will follow those remarks, and then we'll open it up to Q&A.

We have no more than 30 minutes. And this is on the record. With that, I'll hand it over to Ambassador Bolton.

AMBASSADOR BOLTON: Thank you. Thank you very much, Garrett. Dan Coats and I are here to describe an executive order that the President has just signed. It will be published shortly and go through the Federal Register and normal process.

Basically, it's a further effort, among several that the administration has made, to protect the United States against foreign interference in our elections and really our political process more broadly. It includes not just interference with election or campaign infrastructure, but it also covers the distribution of propaganda and disinformation.

The President declares a national emergency, which is what's required under IEEPA, the sanctions authority.

The executive order requires the Director of National Intelligence to be conducting regular assessments about potential foreign interference in the election. It asks for reports by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security in the case of interference with election or campaign-related infrastructure. And it describes a process whereby the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury will decide on appropriate sanctions to recommend and to impose on the countries or other actors that have engaged in this interference.

The executive order is not country-specific because, as we've said on a number of occasions, threats to the integrity of the election process come from a number of sources.

We felt it was important to demonstrate the President has taken command of this issue, that it's something he cares deeply about, that the integrity of our elections and our constitutional process are a high priority to him. And so this order, I think, is a further demonstration of that.

I'd like to ask Dan -- maybe he can say a few words about the role of his office, which is central to this executive order. And then, I suppose, he and I are available to answer your questions.

Dan, do you want to go ahead?

DIRECTOR COATS: Yeah. Thank you, John. I want to start out by saying this is an ongoing effort here, and it has been for a significant amount of time, and will continue on a, literally, 24-hour-a-day basis until the election.

Subsequent to the election then, this order leads us and directs us as an intelligence community to assess whether or not there has been any individual, entity, country that has authorized, directs, sponsors, or otherwise supports interference in a U.S. election. And we will combine that effort throughout the agency and look to assess what has happened.

We then have a 40-day period of time in which to do that. And we will turn that information directly over to the Attorney General and to the Department of Homeland Security.

They then, within a 40-day period of time, will assess the validity of that, what the impact of that intelligence was. And if they determine and find anything that reflects an interference with our election, they then will report that and automatic sanctions will take place.

Beyond that, if -- State also, and Treasury, will have this information and have the capability of adding additional sanctions if the automatic sanctions we deem is not enough.

This clearly is a process put in place to try to assure that we are doing every possible thing we can, first of all, to prevent any interference with our election, to report on anything we see between now and the election, but then to do a full assessment after the election to ensure the American people just exactly of what may have happened or may not have happened. And if we see something has happened, then there's going to be an automatic response to that.

That's the gist of where we are. The DNI's responsibility is to do that assessment. But I just also want to say that we continue throughout the intelligence community to provide all the information to the President, to our policymakers, and to the Congress, of course, of anything we see in the interim.

I think, with that, I guess we're open for questions.

MR. MARQUIS: Hey guys, this is Garrett Marquis again with the NSC. So just a quick note: This is embargoed until after this call. Once it's finished, you're free to write.

With that, I'm going to hand it over to Q&A.

Q: Hi, Ambassador Bolton and Director Coats. Thanks for taking the call. Quick question. Typically, sanctions are undertaken after an action has happened as a punitive step. This would seem to be a proactive measure. I'm wondering what caused you to go proactive as opposed to punitive?

And secondly, what would these sanctions entail? Or would they be a (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON: This is John Bolton. Let me do that first. I mean, obviously, we're looking at having evidence that interference has occurred. As Dan said, the structure of the order allows that to happen after the election, when you can pull everything together. But it certainly doesn't preclude the possibility that there would be sufficient evidence during the course of the election, in the normal course, to impose the sanctions.

But it is intended to be active now, before the election, so that we're looking at the evidence that may or may not come to us through intelligence and law enforcement channels in a way that allows the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury to make the sanctions decision.

In terms of what the sanctions themselves would be, you'll see in the text of the executive order, when it comes out, Section 2 is a blocking assets provision -- fairly familiar, I think: Anybody that we think is engaged in something that interferes with the elections, or is complicit with it, could find their assets blocked.

But we also, in the executive order, ask the Secretaries of State and Treasury to come up with a way to calibrate what the sanctions ought to be, based on the seriousness of the interference.

And in Section 3, you'll see enumerated a long list of potential sanctions, fairly typical of the range of sanctions authority that Presidents have. As they say: blocking transactions and a person's property and interest; license -- export license restrictions; limiting access to American financial institutions; restraints on foreign exchange transaction, transfers of credit; prohibitions on U.S. citizens investing in companies that may be involved at keeping aliens out of the country. A whole long list of them that are available to the President and his designees at State and Treasury to impose these sanctions based on the evidence we have.

Q: Hi, thanks very much. Ambassador and Director, do you have any sense now of countries or individuals that you think may be targeted with this executive order? And can you explain why you needed an executive order in the first place? Do you feel that this is strong enough without legislation, or do you feel that legislation is required as well?

AMABSSADOR BOLTON: Well, let me take the first part -- or the second part on why we're doing the executive order.

To set up the mechanism to gather the evidence, to report to the President, to have the intelligence community under the DNI, to have the law enforcement side under DHS and the Department of Justice, we needed to put this in a formal process. We needed to make sure that State and Treasury are authorized to go through the analysis that they need to engage in to determine what the appropriate sanctions are.

So this sets up the framework within which these decisions on sanctions can be made for election interference. You know, we -- I've spoken in the past, I guess a couple of weeks, to over two dozen members of Congress, talking to them about ideas we know are up there. We think that this is an important step for the President to take as the leader of the executive branch. But we're perfectly prepared to speak with members of Congress who have proposed legislation and have other ideas. I think we all want to work to the same objective here on a bipartisan basis to prevent foreigners from interfering in our political process.

But, you know, you never know how long legislation is going to take. It can take a lot longer than people think. The President has acted decisively today, and we're eager to engage in further consultations with members of the House and the Senate.

DIRECTOR COATS: I might just add -- I need to make a correction. I think I said 40 days; it's really 45 days to assess the period of time. I don't know how relevant that is. But nevertheless, of course, we are tracking. And as I have said earlier, we have seen signs of not just Russia, but from China, of capabilities, potentially from Iran and even North Korea. So the others do incorporate -- it's more than Russia here that we're looking at.

And we continue to moderate what we -- moderate that. Monetize that --I'm sorry. I got the "M" word here. We continue to look at that, and will continue to look at that. We have not seen the intensity of what happened in 2016, but as I said back in that press conference, it's only a keyboard click away.

And so we are taking nothing for granted here, but we're putting a process in place. And we have significantly, I think, improved our ability to be able to warn state and local officials and federal officials as to what we see and what steps we can take prior to the election, in addition to what we'll be doing here after the election.

Q: Thank you, Ambassador and Director, for taking the call. Yeah, just to follow up on the legislation question: You know, there are some on Capitol Hill who are already sort of saying this executive order is a result of the pressure that they have put on trying to get something like this out through the DETER Act and other measures. I'm just wondering how you would respond to that, and also criticism from lawmakers anticipating this order saying it's too discretionary in the way that it can be interpreted and that we need more stringent, mandatory enforcement of sanctions. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BOLTON: Well, you know, neither Director Coats nor I really engage in politics in our current position, so I wouldn't want to say anything about accusations and motives by members of the House and the Senate. All I can say is the President felt very strongly about this. We talked about it weeks and weeks ago. It takes a while to draft it, get the lawyers together, and get everybody agreed.

But we do think the President has broad discretion in this area. We think it's critical for the effective conduct of American foreign and defense policy to be able to be flexible, and not to be bound by decisions that may seem like a good idea at the time, but six months later, don't work effectively. It's been a traditional executive branch position in administrations Republican and Democratic alike that, that even when Congress does act, there needs to be full waiver authorities for the President because the challenges we face in the broader world are very complex.

We're happy to discuss, as I said a moment ago, with the members of the House and the Senate, ideas and thoughts that they have. There's no doubt we can always improve what we're up to. I hope we all share the same objective, and we're happy to work with them further.

Q: Hi, Ambassador. Hi, Director. Thank you very much for taking this call. One question about the past; one question about the present. Do you believe this would have been triggered in 2016, before the election or perhaps after the election, given everything we know?

And, Director Coats, you mentioned that we're not seeing the intensity of what we saw in 2016. There are a lot of people also talking about growing activities, though, that we are seeing from the Russians. So if you could just put some meat on the bone on what we are seeing from the Russians so far, or if you want to talk about other countries as well. Thank you very much.

DIRECTOR COATS: On 2016, I think we've covered the waterfront on that. We've learned lessons from this, obviously. Our focus now is on the midterms and 2020, going forward: What do we know? What do we need to have in place to deal with this, to ensure the American public that their elections have not been manipulated; their vote has not been changed? That we have the integrity of an election system in place and we have processes in place to ensure that and to retaliate if possible.

So we're looking forward, using the basis of 2016 as a warning signal, and putting pieces in place here so that doesn't happen again.

Q: Hi, thank you both for doing this. I am so sorry but I hopped on a minute late. Is this on the record or on background? And I also just want to be clear: So there will be 45 days to review whatever interferences happened, and at that time the blocking of assets will happen, and from there the President and the Secretary of State and Treasury will come up with the calibrated sanctions thereafter. Is that right?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON: Well, I can correct that a little bit. There's a 45-day period of time in which the intelligence community, through the Office of Director of National Intelligence, assesses whether or not there has been a manipulation of an influence that affected the election outcome.

Subsequent to that, we will then pass on whatever information we gather to the Attorney General and to the Department of Homeland Security. They then have a 45-day period of time to assess whether or not they should go forward with the sanctions, what is the amount of things that have happened. If nothing happened, obviously we wouldn't go forward.

So there are two 45-day periods of time in which this process plays out.

Q: Got it. And just one follow-up on that. So if there was election meddling but it didn't impact the outcome of the election, then this executive order doesn't apply?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON: No, it very, definitely does apply. This is an executive order that goes to any action that's taken with the intent of interfering in the election. And it is not limited, as I said perhaps before you got on, to election infrastructure. It relates to much broader efforts of propaganda and other ways that can interfere with the political process.

And clearly, if there's evidence that comes in before the 45 days are up or during the election process itself, and it's actionable, the process can move forward more quickly. But it's clear that this is intended to be a very broad effort to prevent foreign manipulation of the political process.

DIRECTOR COATS: And let me just repeat what I said earlier. These are -- this executive order authorizes the development and application of sanctions against any individual, any entity, or country that authorizes, directs, sponsors, or otherwise supports interference in a U.S. election. So it's pretty broad in terms of what happens here, and then the process gets in place in terms of whether or not we impose sanctions for that activity.

MR. MARQUIS: And this is Garrett Marquis again with NSC. To answer your first question, this is on the record. And in case you missed it, it's embargoed until after this call ends.

Q: Hi, you mentioned that Iran, North Korea, and China have the capability of interfering with the U.S. elections. Have you seen evidence that any of those countries have done so? And in the Russia case, is there the belief that the entities that could be subject to sanction are different than the sort of previous rounds of sanctions in March and June for election- related interference?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON: Well, you know, we see attempts. We're monitoring it very, very closely. It's just an ongoing process. What we see is the capability and attempts. But in terms of what the influence will be -- is and will be -- we continue to analyze all that, and again, put in place the kind of deterrents in terms of keeping our election process free from that influence.

Q: Hi, yes, thanks so much for doing the call. I wanted to just ask more generally about the reason for doing this and doing it now. I know, Ambassador Bolton, you addressed the legislation that has been proposed, or could be proposed, and how your effort fits into that. The other impetus that some members of Congress and others have mentioned is an effort to try to counter the perception that the President was overly deferential to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, and has been overly deferential on this issue in general, willing to take the Russians' word for a lack of interference, when his own administration, the IC, and others have said very clearly that there was Russian interference.

Can you speak to what role the President's own actions and the perception of those actions played in drafting this now?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON: Yes, I can. Zero. The President has said repeatedly that he is determined that there not be foreign interference in our political process. He sent the heads of the (inaudible) departments and agencies out repeatedly to talk about what they're doing. And today, he signed this executive order.

So I think his actions speak for themselves.

Q: Hi. Thank you. I wanted to just really put a fine point on this. When it comes to Iran and North Korea and China, Director Coats, have they been attempting to interfere in the elections coming up in November? Can you say that, specifically, that those countries or any of those countries have made attempts?

And then, I also wanted to know, when would the public be informed? There are two 45-day periods. Would the public know when the intelligence community, I guess, informs DHS? Or would they find out after DHS has made a decision? Just, when would this process become public?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON: Yeah, this is John Bolton. Let me answer that part of it. Look, it will become public when the sanctions are imposed. A lot of this information comes from very sensitive sources and methods. This isn't a public rulemaking process, where we publish it in the Federal Register and ask for comment from people. These are very sensitive, sometimes very dangerous operations. And so we have to conduct it with respect for the sensitivity of the information, the risk to our sources and methods, and a range of other factors.

Q: Hi. Thanks to you both. Director, last time we heard from you, you took some heat for saying that you couldn't fully understand what the President -- what was the exchange between Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki. Have you now had a full briefing of the private portion of their meeting?

And I also just wanted to throw out there that Secretary Perry is in Moscow. Is he carrying any kind of message from the administration to the Russians, in addition to this, to say directly, "Let's not do this, back off" -- similar to the (inaudible) message that Mr. Bolton said about two weeks ago? Thanks.

DIRECTOR COATS: I'm not going to address why Secretary Perry is in Moscow. I think -- and the Department of Energy has made a clear statement of what his function there is. But relative to anything that the President and I discuss in the Oval Office or anywhere, that is just something that I don't discuss on a public basis.

MR. MARQUIS: All right, guys, that's actually it. We're going to wrap it up. I appreciate everybody joining, and please follow up with me if you have further questions. Thank you.

END 12:41 P.M. EDT

Donald J. Trump, On-the-Record Press Call by Ambassador John Bolton and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on the Executive Order Entitled, "Imposing Certain Sanctions in the Event of Foreign Interference in a United States Election" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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