Active Measures, a new documentary from director Jack Bryan, would be timely even without the presence of John McCain. And yet the senator, who died of brain cancer less than a week before this film’s August 31st release, adds an additional dose of relevance and urgency to its central thesis: that President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are far more intertwined than you know.
“The fact that there was an attack on the fundamental—the absolute fundamental—a free and fair election, should alarm all of us,” McCain says in the exclusive clip below. He’s referring to the reports from August of 2016 that Russian hackers were targeting voter registration databases in states like Arizona.
“This really spooked officials in the White House,” Michael Isikoff, the chief investigative correspondent at Yahoo News, adds. “And that’s the moment, I think, that the enormity of the Russian influence campaign really started to hit home.”
Along with McCain, the documentary is populated with talking heads like Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and others who express concern over both what happened during the 2016 election and what could take place in future elections.
But it is the many connections between Donald Trump and Russia that dominate the bulk of the film. As the first frame explains, “active measures” is a Soviet term for the “actions of political warfare conducted by the Russian security services to influence the course of world events.” Just as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait recently made the case that Trump may have been a Russian “asset” since 1987, director Jack Bryan spends nearly two hours arguing that Russia had been cultivating Trump years before he became a realistic presidential candidate.
“The Russians have a particular type of mark who they go after,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) says early in the film. “They go after someone who has business resources, perhaps some shady morals so they are amenable to bribery. Or perhaps they’re in a difficult financial situation or has either political connections or aspirations.” After a dramatic pause, he adds, “I’ve just described Donald Trump.”
From there, Bryan lays out multiple connections between the Trump Organization and Putin allies, most of which have been reported widely over the past few years. But it is striking to see them all in one place like this. By the time the documentary gets to the 2016 election, Russia’s interest in Trump and the degree to which Trump owed his business success to Russia has been made abundantly clear. Through it all, McCain is there, adding insight and context to that complex relationship.
Bryan told The Daily Beast by email this week that he wanted McCain in the film because he was “the most forceful voice in Congress at speaking out against Russian aggression and standing up for democracy worldwide.”
“In 2004 when Putin tried to rig an election in Ukraine, John McCain stood with the Ukrainian people. In 2016 when Putin tried to do the same thing in America, he was one of the few voices in his party who refused to remain silent,” Bryan added. “He and Hillary Clinton were Vladimir Putin's greatest adversaries in the United States, and without their voices it would be impossible to understand how and why our country arrived at this point.”
In contrast to Trump’s “sycophantic” commentary about Putin, McCain can be seen in the film decrying the Russian leader as “an individual who poses a threat to the world” and “has no moral standards that I’ve been able to detect.” His interview presumably came before Trump’s joint press conference with Putin in Helsinki, which McCain memorably described as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
The film also implies that Trump’s most damning attack on McCain came right out of Putin’s mouth. Before Trump infamously declared, “I like people that weren’t captured,” Putin noted, “Mr. McCain was taken prisoner in Vietnam and was put not just in jail but in a pit. He sat there for several years. Anyone would go nuts after that.”
The fact that Trump “despised” McCain (and vice versa) has been well documented, but McCain’s role as enemy number one in the Russian propaganda machine became more widely apparent after his death.
As New York Times Moscow correspondent Andrew Higgins reported this week, Russian state television has referred to McCain as “the chief symbol of Russophobia” in its coverage of his passing. Higgins quoted the man behind the “Russians for Donald Trump” Facebook page, who lamented that other hawkish senators like Lindsey Graham won’t be able to fill McCain’s shoes. “None of them is as charismatic as John McCain,” Alexander Domrin said. “It will be hard to find somebody who can replace him as the main Russophobe.”
McCain seems particularly disturbed in the documentary by the Trump campaign’s successful effort to remove from the Republican Party platform a provision condemning Russia’s annexation of Ukraine.
“I think that’s part of this whole scandal that needs to be resolved,” McCain implores. “Why would the Republican Party remove a provision that would help people who have been invaded and slaughtered defend themselves?” He smiles slyly, gives a slight roll of his eyes and adds, “Interesting.”
The film ends with a stark warning from McCain, Clinton, and others about the near certainty that Russia will continue to interfere with American elections this year, in 2020 and beyond. Taking one last shot at Trump for failing to take his own “active measures” against Russia for attacking American democracy, McCain says, “As long as people can do things without penalty, they’re going to continue to do them.”