“The point of collusion is that it’s not a criminal charge,” the director says. “The Mueller report looked at whether or not there was conspiracy. That’s why, when Barr discredited it as saying it did not show collusion, that was just a falsehood—it clearly did show collusion. Collusion is not criminal, but there was a sense of aligned interests and cooperation between Russia and the Trump campaign. I don’t think there’s any question about it. It just didn’t happen in that kind of John le Carré spy stereotype way. It was much more corrupt, much more intertwined with commercial motives—like selling a Moscow Trump Tower or, for Paul Manafort, canceling his debts with a Russian oligarch named Oleg Deripaska. There’s no question, though, that when Donald Trump asked, Russia was listening and they were willing and able to help.”
When the U.S. government understood that Russia was interfering in the 2016 election, ostensibly with the goal of damaging Clinton’s campaign, it was understood within the White House that if President Obama announced what was happening, it might look like he was intervening in the election on behalf of his former Secretary of State. After a consultation with U.S. intelligence, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid spoke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about making a bipartisan statement. McConnell refused, on the grounds that such a message would be “partisan,” despite it being the literal opposite of that. Somehow, this revelation was never a major story of the 2016 election.
“I have no idea why all the things that Mitch McConnell does to enable the corrupt intent of a president go mostly unremarked upon, particularly by the rest of the GOP,” says Gibney. “What the GOP did in that moment was utterly unpatriotic. It was almost treasonous. if you know that your country is under attack by a foreign power, and you refuse to tell the American people, because you think that the attack might benefit your candidate, it means you have no principles. And if you have no principles, you’re basically saying the only thing that matters is power, and it doesn’t matter how you get it. That basically is the way Mitch McConnell thinks. Just look at what he did with the  Supreme Court nomination. [Ed. note: This interview was conducted the day before late SCOTUS Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away last week.] He doesn’t care about the rules. He’ll break them for partisan benefit every time, he’s completely unprincipled. [His refusal to make a bipartisan announcement] continues to enrage me to this day. It didn’t have to be partisan. In fact, I actually disagree with the U.S. intelligence assessment. I don’t think the attempt by the Russians was ever to get Donald Trump elected. They didn’t even think on the eve of the election that Trump was going to win. It was to undermine confidence in democracy and to show the American system to be deeply hypocritical. And Mitch McConnell colluded in that intent. He basically did his best to undermine the central tenets of democracy.”
If the Russians do indeed interfere in the 2020 election again, it will not be the only echo of 2016.
“I’m most struck by all the similarities,” Gibney says. “The wild difference is we’re in the middle of an election in the middle of a pandemic, which is made worse by Donald Trump. He may say, ‘Oh, the pandemic was on its own’, but the response to the pandemic is all on Donald Trump and the Trump administration. It didn’t have to be this way. So, that’s different, but the similarities to 2016 are eerie and scary. The Russians are coming back with their troll attacks to inflame passions, and never have we been so divided. Also, it’s clear that Trump is really ramping up, as he did in 2016, this whole, ‘the election is rigged if I don’t win’ campaign. And I would be shocked if the Russians don’t try more cyber incursions into registration rolls and other aspects of the various electoral systems, in order to be able to undergird that argument so that, if Trump loses, there will be all sorts of fake evidence to support his view that his loss was illegitimate. I think the biggest thing that we can all do is stop ourselves from rushing to judgment. Take a beat. We’re all so obsessed with moving so quickly. Sometimes it pays to take a moment to try to figure stuff out before we draw a quick conclusion. So much of TV news is based on these panels and you’re supposed to dispense instant opinions. Trump will say anything at any moment, and it doesn’t matter to him whether it’s contradictory or not. But I think often there are things that his mendacity and his corruption obscures that we miss, because we’re too quick to focus on outrage and not sufficiently digging deeper into the stuff that’s going on in the shadows—the stuff that takes a little more time to dig out.”