Under fire over his handling of Russian election meddling, US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order to strengthen election security by imposing sanctions on foreign countries or people who try to interfere in the US political process.
The order, coming only eight weeks before congressional elections on November 6, drew immediate criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers as too little, too late.
Trump signed the order on Wednesday behind closed doors with no reporters present, a rare departure from what has been his standard practice.
"As I have made clear, the United States will not tolerate any form of foreign meddling in our elections," Trump said in a statement on Wednesday.
Sanctions could include freezing assets, restricting foreign exchange transactions, limiting access to US financial institutions, and prohibiting US citizens from investing in companies involved, national security adviser John Bolton told reporters.
Bolton said sanctions could be imposed during or after an election, based on the evidence gathered.
US intelligence agencies concluded that entities backed by the Kremlin sought to boost Trump's chances of winning the White House in the 2016 election against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. But Trump in July publicly accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin's denials at a joint press conference after they met for a summit in Helsinki.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller and congressional panels are investigating Russian interference, which Moscow denies. Mueller is also looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Trump dismisses the investigations as a political witch hunt.
Lawmakers said the executive order, which would give the president decision-making power on imposing sanctions, was insufficient.
"Today's announcement by the administration recognises the threat, but does not go far enough to address it," said Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen in a joint statement, advocating legislation.
The order represents an effort by the administration to look tough on election security before the voting in November, which will determine whether Trump's Republicans maintain their majorities in the US House of Representatives and the Senate.
Bolton said criticism of the president's response to the issue, which has included his controversial comments in Helsinki and numerous tweets, played "zero" role in driving the issuance of the executive order.
"The president has said repeatedly that he is determined that there not be foreign interference in our political process," Bolton said on a conference call. "I think his actions speak for themselves."
The order would direct intelligence agencies to assess whether any people or entities interfered. The information would be provided to the Justice and Homeland Security departments, and then based on their assessment of the validity and impact, trigger automatic sanctions, US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said.
Intelligence agencies would have 45 days to make an assessment. Then the two departments would have 45 days to determine whether action is required, Coats told reporters.
Australian Associated Press