The nation was on judicial pins and needles, just as it could be again, with President Trump demanding Friday that the Supreme Court rule on the 2020 election, which he falsely claims have won.
“I easily WIN the Presidency of the United States with LEGAL VOTES CAST,” Trump claimed on Twitter. “The OBSERVERS were not allowed, in any way, shape, or form, to do their job and therefore, votes accepted during this period must be determined to be ILLEGAL VOTES. U.S. Supreme Court should decide!”
Nearly two decades ago, reporters camped out on the Supreme Court steps in heavy winter coats, anxiously awaiting a decision the court would disseminate not on a website, or in an email, and certainly not via Twitter, which wouldn’t be born for another six years.
The opinion was printed on paper and handed out in the Supreme Court press room. Reporters ran outside to the steps and began reading it live on TV. On ABC News, anchor Peter Jennings asked legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin what the decision said — and what it meant.
“The um…” Toobin said, holding the decision.
“Take your time Jeffrey,” Jennings said.
“The…” Toobin said flipping a page.
But no other words come out.
Finally, Toobin said, “Peter, if you would give me one minute it would be better.”
In an election marked by epic chaos, the final moments were no different — and just as close. The decision was 5 to 4. Some reporters read it as favorably for Bush, then Texas’s governor. Others read it favorably for Gore.
As Bush’s lawyers began faxing the decision to each other, Karl Rove, Bush’s chief campaign adviser, was in a McLean, Va., hotel room watching the coverage.
He was also in his pajamas.
“I have NBC on, and Pete Williams and Dan Abrams are outside the Supreme Court trying to describe the opinion,” Rove told the Atlantic in an oral history of the election. “As I recall, Williams had somebody feed him the opinion from the back to the front. So he is reading the conclusion, and it is that the court finds that the Florida Supreme Court violates the equal-protection clause and Article II, and the election is over.”
Rove called Bush, who was in bed reading when the decision came out.
When the governor answered, Rove said, “Congratulations, Mr. President.”
Bush was confused.
“What are you talking about?” Bush said, according to Toobin’s book, “Too Close to Call: The Thirty-Six-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election.” “This is terrible.”
Bush was watching CNN. Its analysts seemed to think Bush was the loser.
Rove tried to convince Bush he’d won, but Bush was skeptical.
“You know what,” Bush said, according to Toobin. “I’m going to call a lawyer.”
Meanwhile, Gore and his campaign staff were engaged in a similarly challenging reading of the decision.
“Among the many bad things about Bush v. Gore, one of the worst is it takes, like, till page seven until you find out the outcome of the case,” Ron Klain, a Gore aide, told the Atlantic. “It’s a horribly written opinion. So I’m reading along, reading along, reading along. I have Gore on the phone, people are bringing me pages one page at a time. Finally, we hit the seventh page.”
By page 12, he tells Gore, “I think we’re kind of hosed here.”
In Texas, Bush was about to feel less hosed.
Former secretary of state James Baker, a close family friend and Bush’s point person on the Florida recount, had been on the phone discussing the opinion with the governor’s lawyers. It is not known whether they were also in their pajamas, but they concluded the election was over.
Baker called Bush, and when the governor answered he said, “Congratulations, Mr. President-elect.”
This time, Bush believed the news.
The next day, Gore worked on his concession speech. He had conceded the night of the election, but then called Bush back with second thoughts.
“Circumstances have changed dramatically since I first called you,” Gore told Bush, according to Toobin's book. “The state of Florida is too close to call."
Bush was miffed.
“Let me make sure that I understand,” Bush said. “You're calling back to retract that concession?"
Gore was miffed that Bush was miffed.
“You don't have to be snippy about it,” Gore said.
But now, more than a month later, Gore was ready to concede — for good.
Facing television cameras, Gore said, “Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the forty-third president of the United States — and I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time.”
The election was over.
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