“People always joke that he’s the voice of God,” Rob Reiner says of Morgan Freeman. And while that is a role Freeman has portrayed in multiple films, he also has some experience playing the president of the United States.
The first time the Oscar-winning actor took on the role of president, in 1998’s Deep Impact, he was charged with protecting the human race from a giant comet. In a video released Tuesday for Reiner’s newly formed Committee to Investigate Russia, Freeman addresses a different type of existential threat.
“We have been attacked,” Freeman says into the camera. “We are at war.”
The actor is talking about the coordinated cyber attacks that intelligence agencies believe Russia executed against the U.S. in an effort to elect Donald Trump. “We need our president to speak directly to us and tell us the truth,” Freeman says, as he sits behind a desk and delivers the message he and Reiner want to hear from Trump.
“My fellow Americans, during this past election, we came under attack by the Russian government,” Freeman says in his most presidential voice. “I’ve called on Congress and our intelligence community to use every resource available to conduct a thorough investigation to determine exactly how this happened.”
In a phone interview with The Daily Beast on Tuesday, Reiner says that he enlisted Freeman to deliver this message because of the “weight and gravitas” his voice carries.
“We’re trying to break through and explain to people why this is important and that there is a serious problem here that people don’t seem to really grasp,” Reiner says. He’s spent all morning promoting his new project on cable news and sounds slightly exhausted but even more impassioned about his political cause than usual. “I’m trying to shine a light on all this and, using him, I think it helps people stand up and take notice.”
Joining Reiner on the committee’s advisory board are a bipartisan group of #NeverTrumpers that includes conservative radio host Charlie Sykes and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. George W. Bush’s speechwriter David Frum helped Reiner announce the project on CNN Tuesday morning.
Asked if he ever thought he would be sitting side by side in solidarity with a man who helped pave the way for the War in Iraq with his “Axis of Evil” rhetoric, Reiner, a lifelong Democrat, says, “Well, this is the funny thing about this. When it comes to our country being attacked, it would never cross my mind that I wouldn’t be sitting next to him. It’s only odd that I’m sitting next to him because the country is so partisan right now.”
“This is about America and we’re all patriots,” he adds.
The words spoken by Freeman in the video go far beyond what Trump himself has said about the Russian cyber attacks. “It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people,” Trump declared during the first general election debate last September. “It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” Even as more and more information pours in, he has barely wavered on that noncommittal stance since.
Reiner says he doesn’t know for sure why Trump won’t forcefully denounce Russian interference in the 2016 election. But he has some ideas.
“I can speculate that maybe President Trump feels like if he puts the proper emphasis on getting to the bottom of this or figuring out what we can do to prevent further insinuation into our democracy, maybe he feels it would delegitimize his election,” Reiner says. “Whatever the reason, it’s incumbent upon the president to alert the country when we’ve been attacked. And we have been.”
Reiner, whose upcoming film Shock and Awe deals with the run-up to the Iraq War, says he doesn’t believe President Bush was “all that thrilled about the idea of having a special commission” on the 9/11 attacks “because it could conceivably be quite embarrassing” for his administration. But he decided not to “stand in the way of it,” Reiner says, because “at the end of the day, it’s more important to protect the country than to protect your own hide.”
It’s a dilemma that Hillary Clinton addressed as well this past week during the book tour for her campaign memoir What Happened. In the same interview in which she said she would not “rule out” questioning Trump’s “legitimacy” as president if more information about the Russian attacks is uncovered, Clinton told Fresh Air host Terry Gross that if, like Trump, she had lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College and intelligence officials were pointing to Russian interference, she “would've never stood for it.”
“Even though it might've advantaged me, I would've said, ‘We've got to get to the bottom of this,’” Clinton added. “I would've set up an independent commission with subpoena power and everything else.”
“She’s right about that,” Reiner says of Clinton’s comments. “As painful as it was for her to be at the receiving end of all of these negative and false campaign propaganda, there is a bigger issue here.”
“It has the capacity to be as devastating as a nuclear attack,” Reiner says of cyber warfare. “People just don’t get the severity of it, because it’s insidious, it’s clandestine, it sneaks in there.” Reiner compares this type of warfare to high blood pressure. “You feel fine and the next thing you know you’re dropping dead of a heart attack.”
When I spoke to Reiner at Politicon in Pasadena, Calif. over the summer, he said it was only a “matter of time” before Special Counsel Robert Mueller uncovered “crimes” committed by Trump in relation to Russia. But now he insists that his reasons for forming the committee have “nothing to do with Donald Trump,” explaining that it’s about “something much, much bigger than that.” While Trump’s fate will be determined by Mueller’s investigation, Reiner has decided to focus his efforts on the potential future threats to American democracy.
“What we hope comes out of it is a bipartisan commission much like what happened with 9/11,” Reiner says, something President Bush was willing to embrace a decade and a half ago in a way Trump has refused to do today.
“It starts with the top. It starts with the president of the United States having to acknowledge that this happened, and how severe and serious this is,” he says. “You have to have leadership to say, ‘We’re not going to take this. We’re not going to allow other countries to come in and tell us how to conduct our government, how to run our democracy.’”
So far, the only president willing to say that is a fictional one.