In his interview with George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday, President Donald Trump tried to imagine a scenario in which someone involved with a presidential campaign would call the FBI if that person was offered dirt from a foreign government on the opposition.
“Okay, let’s put yourself in a position,” the president begins. “You’re a congressman. Somebody comes up and says, ‘Hey, I have information on your opponent.’ Do you call the FBI? … You don’t call the FBI. “Life doesn’t work that way,” Trump added.
In 2000, life did work that way for Tom Downey, a former Democratic representative from New York who was helping his friend, Vice President Al Gore, run for the White House. Downey, who had served in the House for 18 years until becoming a lobbyist in 1993, had been preparing to play Gore’s opponent, George W. Bush, in the presidential debates when, in mid-September, he received a package in the mail. It contained briefing materials and a videotape. When Downey started watching the tape, along with his assistant, he quickly realized it was a video of Bush practicing as if he were being interviewed by Tim Russert, the late Meet the Press host who was a contender to moderate the first debate.
“I remember watching the video thinking, Uh oh, we shouldn’t have this,” Downey, now 70, told me in a phone interview on Thursday. “I got up and turned it off. I didn’t rewind it.”
He immediately called his lawyer. “I handed him the material and said, ‘Let’s just turn this stuff over to the FBI,’” Downey recalled. Within 90 minutes of receiving the package, he said, it was out of his possession.
The package didn’t come from a foreign government, but from an employee of a media firm contracted by Bush’s campaign. It contained both the tape and more than 120 pages of debate prep and strategy documents kept by Mark McKinnon, then a Bush adviser. The FBI investigation that ensued led to the arrest of Juanita Yvette Lozano, who ultimately was sentenced to a year in prison for mail fraud and perjury.
Downey didn’t just turn over the package to federal authorities; he recused himself from the campaign, forcing Gore to find a new sparring partner (the former Bill Clinton strategist Paul Begala) just weeks before the first contest. The debates went poorly for Gore, and he went on to lose the closest presidential election in more than a century.
When I first caught Downey on the phone on Thursday morning, I asked him whether, after all that’s happened since, he still thinks he made the right decision. He laughed. “Yes,” he said. But he added: “After eight years of the Bush presidency, I sometimes question that myself.”
Later, during our interview, he was more reflective. He said he wondered about what would have happened if he had kept the material and if the Bush campaign had discovered it had been stolen. “How do you answer the question: Why did you keep it?” Downey said.
I spoke with Downey about his experience in 2000, his view of the president’s attitude toward foreign election interference, and whether he thought the Tom Downey of 2020 would do the same thing. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Russell Berman: So tell me what happened in 2000.
Tom Downey: In 2000, I was preparing to play Bush, and I’d seen all his debates and tried to get his mannerisms down. On September 13, literally the day before we were going to do one of our mock debates, we get a package in the mail, and it contains all their debate materials—including videotapes of Bush doing Tim Russert–style interviews. And I remember watching the video thinking, Uh oh, we shouldn’t have this. I got up and turned it off. I didn’t rewind it.
I called my lawyer, who was also my first administrative assistant and a good guy with good political judgment. I handed him the material and said, “Let’s just turn this stuff over to the FBI.”
The FBI eventually came and interviewed me. I remember it was pretty funny, because I had to explain what the crime was to them. You’d think they would have had this down. Ultimately, the FBI agent [leading the investigation] was Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI. So at one point they understood how important it was.
That same day, I called Gore’s campaign manager, Bill Daley, and told him that I was going to recuse myself. In both our minds, this was an unpleasant situation. I just said, “Look, no one’s going to believe I hadn’t read this stuff and learned from it, so I’m just going to recuse myself from the campaign.” It was hard to do, because (a) this was my friend running for president, and (b) I had Bush pretty much down by then. But I didn’t talk to Al until, actually, all of the debates were done. And the rest is history.
[Downey then explained that, at the time, Bush said that if he ever saw Downey, he’d like to thank him for doing the right thing.]
Ironically, like, two years later, I’m in Prague. There’s a NATO summit. I’m at a cocktail party and he’s there, and I walk over to him and say, “Well, Mr. President, my name’s Tom Downey. I’ve been waiting two years for that handshake you wanted to give me.” And I thought he wouldn’t have any idea who I was, but he grabs my hand. He was talking to someone from the Czech Republic, someone from Hungary, somebody from Slovakia. Their English was okay, but it wasn’t great. And Bush tells them, “He was me! He was me!” They don’t have a clue what he’s talking about. I was surprised and pleased. Laura was there. He brought her over: “You remember—he did that right thing of turning over the debate tapes.” He was going on and on and on. I thought it was very nice. I said to him, “You know, Mr. President, I spent 70 hours trying to be you.” And he goes, “That must have been boring as hell.”
Berman: Did you recuse yourself from helping Gore because you were worried about the perception that even though you had turned over the material, you still might have used it? Or did you simply feel honor-bound, that it was the right thing to do?
Downey: I thought a little bit of both, to be honest with you. I thought, Look, this is a presidential election. Presidential campaigns should act honorably, even though most politicians are not perceived as being honorable creatures. But that’s because they don’t act honorably. If you act honorably, people have a different attitude about politics. Or, at least, they can expect some version of the truth in a debate without one side having seen the materials of the other.
And then I just had the cold-eyed worldview that some people are going to think, Downey seems like an honorable guy, but I’m sure he read all this stuff, and I’m sure he watched it all. So rather than face that, I basically decided, I’m not going to have anything to do with this campaign.
I knew as soon as I saw the video that my role in the debates was over. A crime has been committed to get it to me. I’m in the process of involving myself in the furtherance of mail fraud. So it really wasn’t a hard decision.
Berman: But by taking that extra step, you’re almost making yourself, or making the Gore campaign, the victim of the crime instead of the Bush campaign. The Gore campaign ends up being disadvantaged, in a sense, because you had to step aside and you couldn’t help anymore.
Downey: Ironically, I was in fact the victim of a crime! I got paid to fly down to Austin, Texas, to appear before the grand jury. I kept saying to them, “I’m happy to pay for this. This is my responsibility as a citizen to appear before a grand jury.” And they said, “Oh no, you’re the victim of a crime.” I said, “What crime? They sent me the materials.” And they said, “Yeah, that’s it.”
Berman: Did you believe, at the time, that if the same thing happened to the Bush campaign, they would have done the same thing?
Downey: The other question my staff had was, Were we being set up? But I never thought for a minute that this was anything other than what it was. I never thought about whether they would have behaved the same way or not.
Berman: How many other people in the campaign besides your lawyer did you tell about the package before you went to the FBI? Did anyone say, “Let’s use this”?
Downey: Looking back, we thought for a few minutes, but we had a pretty good idea that this had to go to the FBI. I did not have the materials in my possession for more than an hour and a half.
Berman: And there was nobody in the small group of people who were looped in on this who said, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t go to the FBI”?
I’ll tell you a funny story: I don’t want to mention his name, because it would somehow besmirch his memory, and I don’t want to do that. But Chris Dodd said one of his Senate colleagues said to him, “You’re friendly with Tom. Please tell me he read every page and made copies of all that.” And Chris said to this guy, “Uh, no.”
Berman: So did you ever have any regrets about it, knowing how close the election was and everything that’s transpired since?
Downey: That’s a good question. No. I mean, at the time, I thought we’d win. I thought it would be close.
Looking back on it, you could make the case that they would have discovered that the book was missing, that during the first debate maybe they would have seen Gore answer a question and then make an allegation that the materials had been stolen and used by the Gore campaign. And then you wind up losing a close election because you decided to play fast and loose.
How do you answer the question: Why did you keep it?
Berman: Given your rather unique vantage point, what’s been your reaction to everything that’s transpired over the last three years with Trump and Russia, and to the comments the president made to George Stephanopoulos?
Downey: The original Trump Tower meeting was a mistake, but the president said he didn’t participate in that. So it’s his son and his campaign making that decision.
But rather than having learned from that, Trump himself says, “Yeah, I’d have to look at it.” Really? What part of “Foreign interference is bad” don’t you understand? Why do you disrespect the American people so much that you can’t even have an election that isn’t tipped by one side or the other?
When I was in Congress, I served on the board of visitors for the military academies. And at West Point, the cadets have an honor code, and it says a cadet shall not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do. And I remember thinking, in this latest episode, Well, if it’s good for the officer corps, why isn’t it good for the commander in chief? The fact is, the American people, who are the real losers here, overwhelmingly disagree with the idea that somehow you should use material from the Russians or the Chinese.
Berman: Do you think that because of Trump’s actions and attitude, the Tom Downey of 2020—a campaign adviser in either party—would be more or less likely to do what you did?
Downey: I would like to think that in any era we have our heroes and our villains, and I would much prefer to be the example to whatever future generation that it’s not hard to do the right thing. It’s the only thing to do, and you’d need to let the judgment of history determine whether you were right or wrong at the time. But doing the right thing is always the right thing.
Read more: theatlantic.com