As political disinformation about the 2020 election continued into December 2020, its purveyors turned to Executive Order 13848 — more precisely, claims that EO 13848 existed to ensure that U.S. President Donald Trump would remain in power for a second term — even after voters resoundingly rejected him in favor of Democratic Party opponent Joe Biden:
General Rumors About Executive Order 13848 and the 2020 Election
December, 50BC: Julius Caesar was enormously popular and commanding an army of fiercely loyal soldiers. The Roman swamp wanted nothing to do with him and in January 49BC the Roman Senate ordered Julius Caesar to disband his army and return home or become an “Enemy of the State”.
Julius Caesar, with the popular support of the Roman populace, and the loyalty of the military, marched his army over the Rubicon river in the North of Italy and became a LEGEND in history.
Donald Trump is enormously popular and commanding an army of fiercely loyal soldiers. The US swamp wants nothing to do with him.
Election infrastructure was allegedly attacked and he now has his back to the wall.
The courts have failed him.
His own political party has failed him.
Trump still has immensely popular support within the US populace, and the fierce loyalty of the military.
Trump has EO13848 which allows him to take drastic measures and could potentially be used to restore the Republic.
Seven tweets in, Watkins introduced EO 13848, adding in the next two tweets:
Does Trump utilize EO13848 and become a LEGEND in history?
Does Trump submit his family to the mercy of the incoming administration who will be hellbent on making an example of them?
Does Donald Trump want to restore the Republic to greatness and become a LEGEND?
Does Donald Trump want to be known forever as one of the greatest leaders of all time?
EO13848 is Trump’s Rubicon.
Watkins was far from the first conspiracy pusher to speculate that EO 13848 was Trump’s “ace in the hole” or “secret weapon”; on TheDonald.win, as Trump’s fans continued to try to cope with his loss, EO 13848 was the subject of myriad threads in the post-election period. One from December 13 2020 was titled “Trumps tactical nuke has been sitting right in front of us this whole time. Just ticking away. We’ve heard of Executive Order 13848 but I don’t think most realize how powerful it really is. This is a 100 megaton bomb with China’s name on it. Allow me to break it down for you.”
What followed was a 1,400-plus word long post, which began with the assertion that Trump had enacted EO 13848 in 2018 as part of “the plan” so often referenced in the QAnon axiom “trust the plan”:
So most of you have heard of Executive order 13848: Imposing Certain Sanctions in the Event of Foreign Interference in a United States Election. I’m sure some of you already have an inkling of how badass this EO is but for the rest of you, please allow me to reveal what I believe to be one of Trumps most beautiful machinations.
This seemingly unsuspecting edict that has been quietly ticking since it was crafted in 2018 is actually ‘the plan’ that many of us have prayed for. I know, I said it but bear with me. Something so conspicuous as to be overlooked by most since the day of it’s conception is actually a 100 mega ton thermonuclear device with one singular goal. Ending China’s influence in our great nation, once and for all. Yes, there are other bad actors across the globe that will be devastated in the fallout of this behemoth but I think it’s safe to say, China is our main concern and therefore the primary target. With that, I will break down the components of this diabolic instrument, to the best of my ability.
First, we’ll discuss the fuses on this beast. The time frames and subsequent deadlines built into this monster that give rise to future dates with destiny. There are three clocks that dictate when certain aspects of this EO will trigger. The first activated no later than 30 days from the date this Order was crafted, September 12, 2018. I will discuss it now and the other two fuses, I will discuss at the end.
That poster went on to claim that the “first fuses deadline can be found in section 1(f) and dictates something magical,” referencing a “framework … which may be classified in whole or in part” and continuing:
What this means is within a month of Trump signing the EO, a massive plan was devised, almost assuredly in complete secrecy, to build the framework needed to see this Order through. Ergo, the building of the bomb. Trumps Manhattan Project, so to speak. Since that faithful day, patriots have been toiling tirelessly to construct the enormous framework needed to achieve what this Order hopes to accomplish … The teeth of this Order can be found mainly in sections 2, 3, 6, and 9.>
From there, the post touched upon several issues, among them relations between the United States and China and immigration, before attaching dates to the “fuses” mentioned throughout the post:
Now for the last two fuses. Saved for the end as they dictate our relative time frame for when this nuke will detonate. Firstly, Section 1(a) states, “Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the heads of any other appropriate executive departments and agencies (agencies), shall conduct an assessment of any information indicating that a foreign government, or any person acting as an agent of or on behalf of a foreign government, has acted with the intent or purpose of interfering in that election.” This assessment must be conducted no later than 45 days after the election. Or that is, by no later than December 18th , our DNI will have assessed the situation and determined if interference actually occurred. So by next week Friday [December 25 2020], if it hasn’t already happened, the first fuse on this bomb will trigger the second and final fuse.
That can be found in section 1(b) and it states, ( I had to paraphrase for brevity) within 45 days of receiving the assessment a report will be delivered to the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of Defense that outlines who interfered in our election, to what extent, and recommend what actions should be taken. This is the final fuse that will detonate the bomb and the latest we can expect this report is February 1st . A little over a week after Inauguration day [January 20 2021] … Please forgive any oversights and mistakes I may have made in dictating this for you. I’m sure there’s a few but I wanted to get this out as soon as I realized what it really was.
Outside social media enclaves like TheDonald.win and Parler, little to no interest in EO 13848 had been expressed in December 2020. A date-restricted search for analysis of EO 13848 returned 92 results, primarily links to social media posts or YouTube videos from conspiracy theorists and magical thinkers promising a “huge” revelation about Trump’s efforts to nullify the 2020 election.
EO 13848 on Reddit, and the Role of ‘Trust the Plan’
On Reddit, discussion of EO 13848 presented in a more broad fashion, with some subredditors describing it as a tool for Trump to retain power, and others asking for fellow redditors to explain rumors they had seen about the edict on social media after the 2020 election.
A user on r/law asked if Trump could “circumvent the election” via EO 13848″:
A top comment on the r/OutOfTheLoop responded to the post by saying they had “glanced the order but have a hard time understanding what he can actually do to use it to turn the election”:
You have a hard time understanding, because there’s nothing in the order [EO 13848] that allows it to overturn the election. The order details procedures for investigating foreign interference and for applying sanctions to foreign entities that interfered in the election, but it does not allow for the election results to be altered or dismissed.
It is just yet one more desperate conspiracy that is making it’s way through conservative circles.
Unsurprisingly, another poster noted that Ron Watkins had already been pushing the theory:
Tweet in question is from former 8kun admin, Ron Watkins, who resides in Japan. His dad is Jim Watkins aka Q. Both grift and have pushed wild, degenerate conspiracy theories for years. Ron pushed the Dominion bullshit and quickly changes his tune to fit whatever narrative. Of course, people who still think Trump won or can win (fact: Trump lost. It is over), eat this sort of garbage up. Ron is sort of a mystery, but his dad has a larger paper trail. Both a two peas in a pod and pathetic individuals.
A Brief History of Overturning the Election, Before EO 13848
In that reply, u/digableplanet made an important and accurate observation, explaining that Watkins and his ilk tend to retrofit disinformation to account for none of it ever panning out in order to keep their grifts going as long as they possibly can.
Early on, purveyors of weaponized and anti-democratic disinformation (such as Ron Watkins) focused on localized purported errors, including falsehoods about Wisconsin having more votes than registered voters, or that Arizona’s results would be found invalid because Sharpies were used to fill out ballots.
Undeterred when those claims amounted to nothing, conspiracy theorists resorted to more ephemeral claims — such as “special watermarked ballots” that would be traced back to China, or purported software glitches in Antrim County, Michigan that revealed a false Biden win. (Again, neither claim held water, and all were packaged as the “key” to Trump’s second term.)
Up next chronologically was an argument based on mathematical principles, holding that Biden’s victory was “literally impossible” due to the fundamental tenets of math (Benford’s Law). No dice. Then came claims that RealClearPolitics had “rescinded” Biden’s win in Pennsylvania (a lie refuted by the site’s editor), talk of a 9,000 vote error in Georgia (misleading), and claims a Biden operative was arrested in Texas (using photographs of Cuba Gooding, Jr. to advance the false claim).
Rapidly advancing, new theories were peppered with alarmist rumors, such as a fabricated story that Mexico and Canada planned to uninstall President Trump (no), or that Facebook had revoked Trump’s title as President (also no). Claims of that sort were designed to agitate those vulnerable to election disinformation, or exacerbate sentiment that something was amiss and that everyone was in on it.
Eventually the rumors went big and ventured into fan-fiction territory, with a popular and utterly false constellation of rumors about a grand firefight over a Dominion server in Germany — a story unfortunately that pulled in the real-life and unrelated deaths of American troops in a helicopter crash (attributing them to Americans shooting at one another):
That one was persistent:
The Dominion-server-in-Germany rumors seemed to usher in a period of simply making things up entirely, as seen in bizarre viral testimony provided by a Michigan poll contractor, error-laden court filings, and generalized false claims that “whistleblowers” were being “silenced” by tech giants:
Examined chronologically, the pattern is easier to spot. A particular detail is presented as the linchpin of the day, milked for engagement, and discarded in favor of the next big mechanism for un-electing Joe Biden.
After the Electoral College affirmed President-Elect Biden’s win on December 14 2020, Watkins repeatedly pushed claims that EO 13848 was “the plan” all along. When December 18 2020 came and went, a new “ace in the hole” was certain to emerge and be labeled “the plan all along.”
Is Executive Order 13848 Real? Can Trump Use It to Stay in Power?
On FederalRegister.gov, Executive Order 13848 (“Imposing Certain Sanctions in the Event of Foreign Interference in a United States Election”) is accessible and dated September 12 2018; a version also existed on WhiteHouse.gov.
Executive Order 13848 begins innocuously:
I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, find that the ability of persons located, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States to interfere in or undermine public confidence in United States elections, including through the unauthorized accessing of election and campaign infrastructure or the covert distribution of propaganda and disinformation, constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States. Although there has been no evidence of a foreign power altering the outcome or vote tabulation in any United States election, foreign powers have historically sought to exploit America’s free and open political system. In recent years, 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, as illustrated in the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment. I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with this threat.
Accordingly, I hereby order:
Section 1. (a) Not later than 45 days after the conclusion of a United States election, the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the heads of any other appropriate executive departments and agencies (agencies), shall conduct an assessment of any information indicating that a foreign government, or any person acting as an agent of or on behalf of a foreign government, has acted with the intent or purpose of interfering in that election. The assessment shall identify, to the maximum extent ascertainable, the nature of any foreign interference and any methods employed to execute it, the persons involved, and the foreign government or governments that authorized, directed, sponsored, or supported it. The Director of National Intelligence shall deliver this assessment and appropriate supporting information to the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Circling back to the lengthy TheDonald.win post quoted above, 45 days after November 3 2020 was either December 17 or 18 2020 (depending on whether the end date was counted). From there, the order allowed for another period of 45 days for relevant agencies to prepare a report for the president. However, 45 days was simply the end of the period outlined, not a mandatory waiting period:
(d) Nothing in this order shall prevent the head of any agency or any other appropriate official from tendering to the President, at any time through an appropriate channel, any analysis, information, assessment, or evaluation of foreign interference in a United States election.
A less cautious reading of Executive Order 13848 might suggest that the period of 45 days was otherwise relevant, but the order itself indicated any relevant information could be delivered “at any time”; December 17 or 18 2020 was simply when the window closed.
Moreover, as Reddit commenters pointed out, nothing in the order suggested any effects on the outcome of an election. It appeared that the primary objective of the order was to impose economic sanctions on any foreign entity attempting to influence American elections:
All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in: any foreign person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security.
That matter was reiterated in Section 3, subsection (b):
(b) the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the heads of other appropriate agencies, shall jointly prepare a recommendation for the President as to whether additional sanctions against foreign persons may be appropriate in response to the identified foreign interference and in light of the evaluation in the report mandated by section 1(b) of this order, including, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, proposed sanctions with respect to the largest business entities licensed or domiciled in a country whose government authorized, directed, sponsored, or supported election interference, including at least one entity from each of the following sectors: financial services, defense, energy, technology, and transportation (or, if inapplicable to that country’s largest business entities, sectors of comparable strategic significance to that foreign government). The recommendation shall include an assessment of the effect of the recommended sanctions on the economic and national security interests of the United States and its allies. Any recommended sanctions shall be appropriately calibrated to the scope of the foreign interference identified, and may include one or more of the following with respect to each targeted foreign person[.]
Finally, Section 14 maintained the “order shall be implemented consistent with 50 U.S.C. 1702(b)(1) and (3),” a section of U.S. Code which pertained to economic sanctions “of any foreign country or a national thereof.”
Legal Analysis of Executive Order 13848 in 2018
In September 2018, a legal blog analyzed EO 13848, explaining that it a) identified the scope of the order and b) outlined applicable sanctions to parties outside the United States identified as having interfered in an American election:
The document opens by finding that foreign persons’ “ability … to interfere in or undermine public confidence in [U.S.] elections … constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the [U.S.],” thus triggering the president’s authority under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), codified at 50 U.S.C. §1701.
The document then details the potential measures which could be imposed which include, among others, the blocking of property, restrictions on access to financial institutions, and “any other measures authorized by law.”
A separate September 19 2018 analysis examined EO 13848 in a more granular fashion, addressing the backdrop against which it was issued, possible applications, and partisan calls for stricter action on election interference:
President Trump issued Executive Order 13848 on Sept. 12  declaring election interference a national emergency. The order also sets up a protocol for applying sanctions to persons who conduct cyberattacks against the electoral system or engage in disinformation … While this latest directive is a welcome addition to the United States’ arsenal of responses to further election interference, are the sanctions it contains capable of deterring adversaries?
The administration deserves praise for issuing this order; it places the administration on the side of protecting the United States over appeasing our adversaries. And while the document restates Trump’s frequent critique of the focus on election interference—that “there has been no evidence of a foreign power altering the outcome or vote tabulation in any United States election”—it also seems to recognize that whether or not an attack is successful, it still deserves a response. Given Trump’s equivocation this summer at the Helsinki summit — where he seemed to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of interference over the findings of the U.S. intelligence community—this Order stands in contrast to any squishiness by taking a clear stand against our adversaries.
Despite the change in course from this summer’s summit, the order has received mixed reviews. Legislators are generally praising the administration for responding to intelligence reports that there is continued foreign interference and meddling in the run-up to the midterm elections (with intelligence agencies specifically naming Russia as the adversary intent on interfering). However, legislators seem to question whether the provisions in the directive are strong enough to actually deter Russia or others from further interference.
Deterrence is about changing an adversary’s calculations by showing a willingness to execute a response that’s even greater than the harm the adversary intends to carry out. In the nuclear context, that meant declaring a willingness to use nuclear weapons in the case of a large-scale conventional attack against us or our allies. In the context of sanctions, one would assume that a declared response—one that would deter a state-sponsored cyberattack or disinformation campaign—would be one that had the potential to inflict enough financial pressure on the state to prevent it from engaging. Importantly, for a deterrent to be effective, the adversary should have the reasonable expectation that any threat will be followed by action.
Both analyses from LawFareBlog.com in September 2018 pored over the practical applications of the executive order, examining its details and placing them in the context of ongoing discourse about the effects of election interference and foreign agents. Each time, legal analysts and cybersecurity experts explained how EO 13848 might effect potential efforts to interfere with American elections.
At no time did any legal analysis address, discuss, mention, or reference any proviso enabling a defeated incumbent president the ability to weaponize EO 13848 to overturn the results of any American election. Legal experts’ examination of the order turned up nothing about it being a “secret” weapon or “nuke” or “key” or “ace in the hole” enabling the subversion of democracy.
Among microscopic threads of speculation seized upon by disinformation purveyors and consumers in December 2020, Executive Order (EO) 13848 and its impact emerged — often cited as the culmination of “trust the plan,” and evidence that lame-duck U.S. President Donald Trump prognosticated his 2020 defeat two years in advance. However, no element of EO 13848 held for the overturning of any American election, and it had to do solely with putative sanctions and seizure of assets for any nation believed to have interfered in the outcome of American elections.