The Administration

OPINION | Trump says anyone would collude, but in 2000 election, I called the FBI


In September of 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush were tied in the polls in their race for the White House, I was preparing to play Bush as Gore’s debate prep sparring partner. What happened next ended my role in that campaign, but serves as a contrasting precursor to events in a presidential campaign 16 years later.

The day before our first practice, I received a package of materials from an anonymous source that contained several VHS tapes and “debate materials” and a letter indicating that more documents where on the way. Naturally, I popped in one of the VHS tapes.

{mosads}The minute I saw George Bush dressed in shorts practicing for a Tim Russert style interview, I knew my role in the Gore campaign was over. The hundreds of hours of preparation studying public tapes of Bush, reading volumes of briefing books, practicing speech patterns and phraseology even at the dinner table, much to the chagrin of my family, was utterly wasted. I stopped the tape after about 15 seconds, picked up the phone and notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation and immediately recused myself from the campaign. I never watched the full tape, never read the materials, and never spoke to my friend, Al Gore, about the situation.

It was later determined that the sender of the Bush campaign documents was an aid to Mark McKinnon, Bush’s media advisor. She was ultimately charged with a crime and sentenced to a year in jail.

Then-Governor Bush said at the time that if he ever met me he would shake my hand and tell me that I had done the right thing. In November of 2002, at the NATO accession conference in Prague, we did meet. He put me in a mild “bear hug” and introduced me to three very surprised Eastern European leaders by saying, “He was me, he was me. This is a good guy.” It took some explaining but they eventually understood what he meant. It was quite a moment.

While President Bush and I didn’t share many of the same policy goals we both understood that preserving the integrity of the American electoral process is essential. I had successfully run for office 11 times and knew firsthand that keeping elections fair and honest wasn’t a Democratic or Republican issue — it was an American value. The debate materials sent to me were intended to create an inappropriate advantage for the Gore campaign. I could have used the materials, I could have told no one and destroyed them, but the appropriate course was to turn over the evidence to the FBI.

Seventeen years later, the times really have changed.

Donald Trump Jr.’s response to an email from a foreign operative claiming to have damaging information from the Russian government on Hillary Clinton was “I love it.” He agreed to meet with them to learn more about the dirt they claimed to have. It apparently never occurred to him to contact the authorities.

While President Trump’s war against long-standing democratic institutions like the media and the truth is well known, we still don’t know the full truth about his campaign’s interactions with Russia. Even Don Jr.’s account of his interactions have changed several times.

When confronted with the facts about his family and campaign representatives meeting with operatives from a foreign power to discuss materials that could influence the election, President Trump didn’t acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.  Instead, he launched a blanket assault claiming all democrats would have “taken the meeting” with the Russian operatives. He’s dead wrong.

It’s a sad commentary on the current status of our political discourse that a presidential candidate’s son, son-in-law, and top campaign official put the outcome of one election before the integrity of all elections.

Even during a bitterly contested campaign, President Bush understood what was at stake in the 2000 election. To put at risk the credibility of our election process is to put at risk everything that makes us a great democracy and does nothing to make America great.

Thomas J. Downey served New York’s 2nd Congressional District from 1975 until 1993.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Al Gore Donald Trump Donald Trump Donald Trump Jr. Hillary Clinton russia meeting
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