Early in the morning on September 13, 2000, a mysterious package arrived at the offices of the lobbying firm Downey McGrath Group, Inc. in downtown Washington D.C. Addressed to the firm’s principal, former Congressman Tom Downey, it had been delivered separate from the usual mail delivery and was postmarked Austin, Texas.
The firm never got packages from Austin, Texas. And Downey’s assistant, Kathy McLaughlin, was summoned by the office receptionist to come retrieve the box. McLaughlin opened it in her office, discovering a massive binder and a set of videotapes inside. She went to find Downey, a New York Democrat who was, at the time, helping out with Al Gore’s presidential campaign. The two of them went into his office, where there was a television set and a VCR.
Their hearts started to race as they popped in the tape and pressed play.
On the screen appeared grainy footage of what looked like the inside of a garage. A familiar face showed up on the screen. It was George W. Bush. Only, he was wearing shorts. A second person was there too. It looked and sounded like Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. They were conducting what seemed to be an interview along the lines of Meet The Press, the famed Sunday political talk show that, at that time, was hosted by the dean of interrogation journalism, Tim Russert.
Hearts were now fully racing.
Not even ten seconds had passed and Downey and McLaughlin knew exactly what they were watching. They had been sent footage of the Bush campaign’s debate prep sessions. It was a veritable cheat sheet for the most important event of the 2000 presidential campaign, a piece of intel that could change the course of the election, win Al Gore the presidency, and fundamentally alter history.
Another five or so seconds went by. Downey jumped up from his chair. He stood in front of the TV and turned to McLaughlin.
“Turn it off!” he demanded. “Turn it off right away.”
Presidential campaigns are a compilation of tension points: a critical juncture when a campaign suspends operations; a period of intense media coverage over unearthed video; the planning and delivery of a major speech on race; and so on.
During the heat of the 2016 presidential election, such a moment presented itself to Donald Trump’s campaign in the form of an invitation from Kremlin-linked officials promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. The president’s eldest son, Don Jr., along with key campaign officials, took the meeting. They never intended for it to become public. And when it did, they insisted that the purpose had been to discuss adoption policy in Russia. Only when emails revealed the true reason did Trump, his son, and allies defend the gathering as simply business as usual.
"I think from a practical standpoint most people would have taken that meeting," Trump said last summer. "Politics isn't the nicest business in the world, but it's very standard."
There are no perfect parallels to what happened in Trump Tower. The closest example may be what took place some eighteen years ago in Tom Downey’s office. And for those who lived through it, it is proof of the fallacy of Trump’s defense.
“It was like a Trump Tower moment in that we had been handed the goods on our opponent,” said Tad Devine, a senior adviser to the Gore campaign. “But, in the end, we actually did the right thing.”
Indeed, instead of using —or even looking into—the surreptitiously-provided material that had landed in their laps, Al Gore’s aides and advisers handed it over to the FBI. To this day, they aren’t entirely sure whether, in doing so, they blew the election.
“That’s some place I prefer not to think about,” Downey told me. “I have. I have thought about it. And I don’t think that doing the right thing is ever wrong. You have to believe that doing the right thing will stand up to the judgement of history.”
And yet, for the all relevance that episode of the 2000 election now enjoys, many of the details remain lost to history—details that illustrate those tension points that campaigns face.
Perhaps the biggest misperception is that Gore’s campaign immediately handed the material over to authorities. In fact, it was Downey—a Gore friend tasked with playing Bush in the mock debates—who received the contraband; and, for a brief moment at least, there was some disagreement over what to actually do.
“I called the campaign and said, ‘Look I’ve got some bad news here,’” Downey recalled. “Bill Daley [the campaign chairman] and I had a good relationship. That call did not go well. At first he said he may want to use it politically. I said, ‘Look Bill, a crime has probably been committed here, probably mail fraud’….And we had a very stilted conversation after that. He may have thought I was taping him. He just said, ‘Wait, hold on a minute. Let’s think about what we should do here.’ In fairness to him, he was reacting in a way you would expect a campaign manager to act.”
Daley, for his part, recalled the details differently. Downey did call him. But only to inform him that he’d made up his mind to go public and refer matters to the FBI. It was, he feared in that moment, a bit of “grandstanding.”
“I was saying, ‘Wait, let’s talk about this.’ We wanted to get the facts here but how do we do it? I was not saying let’s use this. I never would have fucking said that. No way, no way, no way,” Daley told me. “I’m a lawyer too. And that wasn’t going to happen.”
The Bush campaign had started prepping for the debates all the way back in April of 2000, cognizant that the election was likely to be close. It was done in secret so as not to raise expectations. The Texas governor may have been the progeny of political elite but he was shaky as a public speaker and his aides didn’t want it to be known that he was putting in intense work.
As part of the process, the campaign put together massive binders filled with descriptions of policy positions, question-and-answer scripts, and messaging points. These binders were handed out to roughly eight or so key advisers. Each one was numbered so that the respective recipient had an assigned copy. But to add a further level of protection, the campaign also put a distinct typo inside each book. The thinking was that if a photocopy of the book made its way into the opposition’s hands, the campaign would be able to trace the leaker back to the typo.
Early in September 2000, the campaign nearly lost a book after Mark McKinnon—one of Bush’s top media consultants—left his copy on a street near the campaign headquarters. He and Stu Stevens, another adviser, had been loading equipment into McKinnon’s car and drove off without the prized possession.
“The best part is the guy who found it was an architect with an office in the same big office building as Bush headquarters,” Stevens recalled. “He brought it into office and loudly announced something like, ‘I’m a Democrat and wasn’t planning on voting for Bush but I still didn’t think you guys were a bunch of morons. But I found this on the street and now I know I was wrong.’”
That particular crisis averted, the campaign continued prepping Bush at his compound in Crawford, Texas. At the time, Bush had not yet built his larger ranch and was, instead, living in a small house. The mock debate sessions were done in a nearby shed with a weight and bench set that, according to Stevens, future Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would “crush.” The air conditioning barely made a dent in the summer Texas heat and so everyone dressed casually.
Early on, there had been wrangling between the two campaigns over who would moderate the debates. The Bush team had proposed having Russert do at least one; and, perhaps, all three. So when they began practice sessions, they had Stevens play the role of the Meet the Press host (in the end, PBS’ Jim Lehrer would be the lone moderator). Gregg played the role of Gore. The campaign taped its sessions so that it could go back and critique the governor's performance.
Nothing about the process was notable until, just weeks before the debate was to happen, McKinnon went back to his firm’s office only to discover a team of FBI agents ripping out computers.
“What the fuck is going on?” he asked.
The agents explained that a debate prep book had been stolen, along with videos and that, having checked the number on the book, they believed it was his. McKinnon frantically checked the closet behind his desk, where he kept his book. It was not there.
“The whole investigation quickly swung down on me,” he recalled. “It was terrifying. It was Kafka-esque.”
For roughly two minutes after Downey had stopped the video and shut off the TV, he and McLaughlin sat in shock. It was clear what they had seen. Less clear was why the material had been sent to them in the first place.
A fear entered McLaughlin’s mind: What if this had been a set up?
Karl Rove, Bush’s political svengali, was infamous for double crosses and misdirection. During the 1986 gubernatorial campaign in Texas, he had claimed that his personal office was bugged by his opponents. Nothing was proven, but Democrats suspected that Rove had bugged the office himself in order to generate negative coverage for incumbent governor, Mark White, who went on to lose the election.
The thought that this was another page from the dirty trick playbook didn’t occur to Downey. The more pertinent question was what to do with the materials. Before placing the call to Daley, he called his lawyer, Marc Miller, and had him rush over to the office.
Less than an hour passed by the time Miller arrived. The three of them sat around discussing how to get the material to the authorities. “It was completely new to all of us,” Miller recalled. “None of us had ever dealt with anything like that.”
They decided that Miller would bring the package to his office—so as to get it out of Downey’s possession—and then hand it over to the FBI. Only, he couldn’t find an actual number to call. The main FBI headquarter in D.C. said the matter fell outside its jurisdiction. Other officials Miller reached just didn’t believe him.
“I’m literally getting on the phone and telling agents and administrators and secretaries this story and a few of them were just straight out skeptical,” Miller said.
By 2 pm Miller had finally gotten through to the FBI office in Tysons Corner, Virginia. They agreed to send someone to his office. Downtown D.C. traffic was horrendous that day and the two agents didn’t arrive till 5 pm. Miller told them the entire story as the tapes and the book sat on his desk. They asked a few questions, put on gloves, took the materials, and left.
At the Gore campaign offices, news trickled in slowly. Though Daley had talked with Downey, campaign manager Donna Brazile was largely unaware, focusing her efforts on debate prep and the actual day-to-day of the election. “We immediately got the lawyers involved,” she recalled. “It was so quick. It wasn’t like we even had a conversation about it.”
Soon, however, a major decision would confront her and others. Hours after the package arrived, Downey announced that he was fully removing himself from any element of the remaining campaign, including his role as the Bush stand in for the mock debates. His firm office, not the campaign, sent out the press release. It reads now like a relic of bygone, almost quixotic political era.
“That was not hard,” Downey explained to me. “I knew people simply wouldn’t believe that you were being honest. They would think you had made copies and read it.”
Downey’s recusal was no small act. The ex-congressman had spent months studying Bush’s mannerisms and talking points. He also had Gore’s utmost trust. He’d played the role of Jack Kemp for the 1996 vice presidential debate practice sessions. And he and Gore were personal friends, which was important for his job as unflinching, mock-debate sparring partner.
With Downey out, the campaign turned to Paul Begala. The longtime Clinton operative knew Gore from the White House. Moreover, he hailed from Texas and had followed Bush closely, having watched every debate of the governor’s career. Bush’s predictability made the task of stepping in at the 11th hour much easier. “You knew what the answers were going to be,” Begala recalled. But that wasn’t enough to fill Downey’s shoes.
“I think Gore likes me just fine but his relationship with Tom was so close,” said Begala. “With Tom you had something much more of a peer in Gore's eyes.”
At the Bush campaign headquarters, the mood was similarly frantic but for different reasons. News outlets descended down to Austin to chase the whodunnit mystery. McKinnon said reporters were trailing him to restaurants and rummaging through his trash cans. “It was like an LSD experience,” McKinnon recalled.
Though there was some skepticism among Bush’s aides over the idea that Gore’s team had not looked at the materials, Bush didn’t want to change his routine. “Guys we are going to do what we’ve got to do,” he told his staff. And so, they kept rehearsing as if nothing had happened.
The FBI, meanwhile, began interrogating individual campaign members in an attempt to sniff out a mole. They’d taken Miller, Downey and McLaughlin’s fingerprints; all of which were found on the package, briefing book, or videotape. But there was other pairs as well.
Forensic evidence led authorities to Juanita Yvette Lozano, a 31-year-old employee at McKinnon’s firm, Maverick Media. So too did security camera footage of a post office near the office, which showed Lozano mailing a package the exact day as the one sent to Downey. The FBI swooped in to question her.
“I vividly remember being down in that office and she came in and had these two FBI agents with her,” Stevens recalled. “I remember saying, ‘What is going on?’ And she said, ‘I have these two FBI agents who want to search my house.’ I said, ‘Yvette, do you have a lawyer?’ And she said, ‘Why would I need a lawyer?’ I said, ‘Yvette you need to get a lawyer.’”
McKinnon literally refused to believe it. Lozano wasn’t just an employee at his firm. She had been part of his personal life, having babysat his children. A hair sample on the tape proved inconclusive while the post office footage was dismissed away as a case of—as McKinnon put it—”highly embarrassing” timing. Lozano, he insisted, had been returning Gap retail pants he had purchased online.
The investigation continued through the debates. The Bush team still formally stood by her innocence, suggested that Democratic consultants who had shared the same office building as McKinnon’s firm may have been to blame. But as the election neared and then passed, the evidence became overwhelming.
Eventually, Lozano would plead guilty on counts of mail fraud and two counts of perjury. She was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $3,000.
Bush aides, then occupying the White House, were left stunned and confused by her motives. Maybe it was ideological. Lozano had been a former Democratic Party precinct chairwoman. Or maybe it was personal, since she was upset over having been left behind when the rest of the team went to the GOP convention. Perhaps, she had merely wanted to play a bigger role in the course of history and, when presented the opportunity, chose to take it.
Lozano could not be reached for comment. Her lawyer from the case, Chris Gunter, would only say that she was kind and pleasant as a client and aware of her guilt once the evidence was collected. Asked if she had gotten in over her head, he replied, “I think that’s an understatement.”
When Bush and Gore met for the first of their debates on October 3, the governor’s team anxiously watched to see if their leaked playbook had, in fact, been studied and used. The briefing binder, in particular, had specific answers that the Bush was to give to the expected questions. If Gore was able to anticipate those, it could inform his own comments and techniques.
Instead, it was a disaster. Gore invaded Bush’s space, sighed audibly a number of times, kept repeating the word “lockbox,” and seemed to have utter contempt for his opponent.
“The first debate was terrible,” said Daley. “But then again, every fucking debate was terrible.”
After the debate, Stevens sat down with an FBI agent as part of the inquiry into who had leaked the book and tapes. The agent had watched the debate himself. “I had the book in front of me,” he said to Stevens, “and if [Gore] had the book he would have done a lot better.”
Downey had watched the first debate on TV in a state of helplessness. He would attend the next one—in which Gore overcorrected from the first—but he refused to talk to the Vice President before or after. He wouldn’t reconnect with Gore until after the election. A year or so later, Downey would run into Bush at a NATO event in Prague (Downey was there as part of a lobbying effort for Estonia and Latvia). The then president saw him in a crowd, went over, and put his arm around him.
“This is a very good guy,” Bush said to the others. “He was me!”
By then, Downey had resolved not to dwell too hard on what could have been. A mere 537 votes in Florida had decided the outcome. And though it was well within reason to assume that a better debate performance would have made the difference, such mental games were far too bitter to play.
But not for others.
“Oh yeah, I’ve thought about it,” Miller said. “And when I do I would rather blame Ralph Nader.”
The hypotheticals for the Bush team are different. Looking back, they wonder what may have happened if Downey had simply decided to keep quiet; if, like Trump’s son, he had bit the bait and just kept on swimming.
History would have certainly been different. Perhaps the Gore campaign would have been caught, with the blowback all but crippling his presidential chances. But perhaps no one would have noticed at all. “We certainly wouldn’t have known they had the book,” Stevens conceded. “Nothing in our security would have triggered the fact that a book was missing or copied or that the tape had been copied.”
To rationalize that now is difficult for all who were involved. Electoral politics is, in the end, a zero sum game. Ethics and norms are lauded concepts but tangible power is the sole possession of the victor.
“The lesson here is good people do the right thing,” McKinnon said of his contemporaries on the opposite side.
But is it? After all, Downey lost and Trump Jr. won.
“Well,” he replied, choosing his words carefully. “That’s true. There is no question that had they listened to their darkest angels they could have won the presidency by keeping quiet about the materials they got.”