Monday, September 03, 2018

The Inside Story of Al Gore’s ‘Trump Tower Moment

Sam Stein

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.


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.


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.”


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."


“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.”


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.”


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