After living through the first few years of the Trump administration, one could be forgiven for not being in a rush to talk about Russia again.
Ice cold in both temperature and political temperament, Russia seemed either to be in bed with one candidate in America’s 2016 election, or a supreme scapegoat for the one that lost.
It all depends on whom you asked.
After 2019’s predictably anticlimactic release of the official government inquiry into it, aka the Mueller report, both sides mostly moved on to other topics. The political ubiquity of Russia, Russia, Russia faded as primary season heated up.
One pandemic-packed, impeachment-implemented year later, however, and Russia is back in headlines again—with credible intelligence reports warning of an imminent disinformation campaign against Democratic candidate Joe Biden. It appears the past may be prologue to a near-future of endless debates about Russia.
But before all voters make like Republican candidate Donald Trump and completely ignore fresh warnings about interference, there’s a lot to learn from taking a look back at what exactly did happen last time.
Prolific filmmaker Alex Gibney’s epic four-hour documentary, Agents of Chaos, the first half of which debuts on HBO Wednesday, September 23, is the most comprehensive and comprehensible look yet at Russia’s role in the 2016 election, far surpassing the Mueller report both in scope and digestibility.
The new film carefully constructs a third option, between total scapegoat and kompromat-creator, presenting Russia as an agitator who used America’s worst tendencies to sow chaos into our electoral process.
The idea for Agents of Chaos arose back in 2017, when two things happened almost simultaneously. First, Gibney was called to a mysterious interview in California with Glenn Simpson, who runs Fusion GPS, the research firm hired first by Marco Rubio’s campaign and later Hillary Clinton’s, for gathering oppo research on then-candidate Trump. Simpson was concerned about possible blowback for hiring independent investigator Christopher Steele, who produced that notorious dossier, and wanted a filmmaker to get his story on the record.
Second, Gibney got a call from legendary reporter (and Agents of Chaos executive producer) Lowell Bergman, about doing a deep dive into Russian interference. Between what he learned from Simpson, and the promise of having Bergman’s journalistic Spidey sense and hefty Rolodex by his side, Gibney brought the idea to HBO, who give him the time and resources to properly conduct a sprawling investigation.
Nearly four years later, Agents of Chaos is here to dispel misconceptions about Russian interference. It begins by showing how troll farms work and how effective they can be, tracking the birth of Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) in 2013 and how it was used to manipulate Ukrainians when Russia invaded that country the following year. We also see how this troll farm is linked to Putin through an associate named Yevgeny Prigozhin, and how IRA eventually applied the same tactics it used in Ukraine to America, in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Anyone who dismisses the impact of the IRA as mere memes will be surprised to learn the extent of this “trolling,” which spans fake social media accounts, fake publications, fake organizations, fake protests, and more—all highly tailored to specific goals.
The documentary also explains in detail how the DNC hack was conducted, who is responsible, and how the media attention around it focused almost exclusively on its revelations, which were legitimately damning, rather than its provenance.
In the second half, Gibney traces the ins and outs of the collusion that occurred between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, which involves a proposed deal for a Trump Tower Moscow, and a collection of shady Trumpworld characters acting on venal motives.
To get the whole story, Gibney interviewed major players from all along the ideological spectrum, including Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe; Margarita Simonyan, an editor at Russian news organization RT; and controversial Trump associates Felix Salter and Carter Page.
As he gears up for the premiere, Gibney also spoke with Fast Company about what he learned about the 2016 election from making Agents of Chaos—and what’s keeping him up at night about the 2020 election.
Embracing the contradictions
When Gibney started making this film in 2017, he was caught in the grip of conspiracy theory fever. Over time, though, by focusing on fringe players like Page and slightly more central figures like former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, understanding what they did and why, the director began to see how all the details fit together.
“Once you dig into those details, that’s where the devil is,” Gibney says. “Doing that gave me a much better sense of how to put together a story like this that could embrace the contradictions instead of trying to ignore them. I think it’s fair to say that the troll farms and the hacking of the DNC had an impact, but it would be wrong for anybody to suggest that they know exactly how to quantify that impact. That’s the problem, what had a bigger impact: Russian incursion, Comey’s reopening of the email investigation, or Hillary [Clinton]’s failure to go to Michigan? How do you quantify these things? We know that they focused a lot of troll attacks on Michigan and Detroit, and we do know that 75,000 people who turned out for Obama in Detroit didn’t turn out for Hillary in 2016, and she lost Michigan by 10,000 votes. But we don’t know exactly why they didn’t turn out. So it’s very fraught. That’s why I think it’s better to focus on the facts of what happened rather than whether it had an impact or not. What matters is that we permitted a foreign power to use our own worst instincts against ourselves and erode faith in our own processes. That’s what we should be more concerned about. There was a foreign attack, and it had some kind of impact.”
Collusion need not leave a smoking gun
While well-meaning liberals waited for a deus ex machina of proof that Trump and Putin were officially in cahoots during the 2016 election, they may have missed the bigger picture.
“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.”
Collusion didn’t end with Team Trump either
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.”
The danger of drawing quick conclusions
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.”