One of the small footnotes to the Donald Trump Jr. story on Russia deserves an elaboration. Many commentators have compared the president’s son’s naive eagerness to use damaging information about Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer with the 2000 Gore campaign’s wise decision to turn over a dossier on George W. Bush to the FBI. While the comparison is not inaccurate, the full story was a little more interesting.
In 2000, I was helping to organize the debate prep for then-Vice President Al Gore. He was a seasoned debater with an expert team, and one of the most important members was former congressman Tom Downey, an old friend and Gore’s debate sparring partner in many previous elections. Downey not only had a proven ability to mimic Gore’s opponents debating styles but also was a trusted adviser in his own right. Downey, to get into character, had been studying all of Bush’s previous debates as a primary candidate and as governor.
So imagine Downey’s surprise when he received an envelope containing a briefing book and a videotape at his home address. He said he looked only long enough to determine that it was a book purporting to help Bush prepare for his 2000 debates and a tape supposedly of actual practice sessions. He called me and Bill Daley, the campaign chair, and while being very careful not to divulge any of the contents he might have gleaned, said that he was turning the materials over to the FBI.
The only brief discussion, as I recall it, was whether the materials were real and stolen, or whether it was an attempt to set up our campaign for an eventual accusation of dirty tricks. Either way, it was a hot potato that we never saw nor had described beyond its physical format, and couldn’t get rid of fast enough. But we decided to go further. To remove any doubt that the Gore campaign had any involvement in what, by today’s standards, seems relatively innocent high-jinks, and to cut off any suspicion that we had in any way benefited from the materials, we supported Downey’s decision not to participate in any of the debate preps or even communicate with the campaign on any debate-related matters.
All this is but a quaint footnote to recent revelations of Trump Jr.’s decision to meet with a Russian lawyer to collect political dirt and then lie about it, aided and abetted in his initial lie by the White House. But here’s another footnote that Trump Jr. and others in his orbit might want to know about the 2000 case: The FBI’s investigation into the “Debate-gate” matter of 2000 led to the indictment of the woman who sent the tape. The potential sentence of 10 years and a $500,000 fine was plea-bargained down, but nonetheless, the defendant received a year in prison on charges of mail fraud and perjury.
Many things in today’s politics seem tolerated that would have been ruinous 17 years ago. Is the same true of our political justice system, or has it maintained its standards?