Donald Trump and the sordid tradition of scrapping October surprises

Secret talks in the final days of a campaign. Stealth phone calls. Ardent public denials.

American history is full of October surprises – belated revelations, sometimes orchestrated by an opponent, that shock the trajectory of a presidential election and that candidates fear. In 1880, a forged letter ostensibly written by James A. Garfield claimed he wanted more immigration from China, a position so unpopular it almost cost him the election. Weeks before the 1940 election, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s press secretary kneeled a black policeman in the groin, just as the president tried to woo skeptical black voters. (Roosevelt’s response went down in history: he appointed the first black general and created the Tuskegee Airmen.)

But the scandal that ensnared Donald J. Trump, the silent money payment to a pornographic movie star in 2016, is in a rare class: an attempt not to spotlight an election-altering event, but to suppress one.

The Stormy Daniels win that has a Manhattan grand jury weighing criminal charges against Mr Trump can trace its lineage to at least two other episodes foiling an October surprise. The first was in 1968, when aides to Richard M. Nixon pressed the South Vietnamese government to thwart peace talks in the closing days of that election. The second dates back to 1980. New revelations have emerged that Ronald Reagan’s allies may well have worked to delay the release of American hostages from Iran until Jimmy Carter was defeated.

The tortured debate over the precise issue of which election law might have been violated in 2016 misses the larger point – the three events could have changed the course of history.

“There were at least three cases,” said Gary Sick, a former national security aide to President Carter who for more than two decades has been pursuing his case that the Reagan campaign in 1980 delayed the hostages’ release. from Iran. “And if you had the stomach for it, you’d have to say it worked.”

The potential criminal charges against Mr. Trump for his role in silently transferring money to Ms. Daniels – falsifying business records to conceal the payment and a possible violation of election law – may seem insignificant compared to earlier efforts to fend off a October surprise that changed history.

This month, a former Texas lieutenant governor came forward to say he had accompanied a Reagan ally to the Middle East to try to delay the release of American hostages from Iran until after the elections in 1980. And notes unearthed in 2016 seemed to confirm that top aides to Mr. Nixon worked through secondary channels in 1968 to prevent the start of peace talks aimed at ending the war in Vietnam — and securing victory for Vietnam. Mr. Nixon on Hubert H. Humphrey.

“Wait,” Anna Chennault, Mr. Nixon’s envoy to the South Vietnamese, told government officials in Saigon as she urged them to boycott the Paris peace talks. “We will win.”

But the 1968 and 1980 squabbles were left for historians and supporters to sort out and debate decades later. What separates the allegations against Mr Trump is that they could make him the first former president to be indicted by a grand jury, forcing him to answer the charges in court.

The concept of an October surprise has been part of American policy since at least 1838, when federal prosecutors announced their intention to indict top Whig party officials with “the most prodigious and atrocious fraud” for paying Pennsylvanians to vote in New York for their candidates.

Two weeks before the 1888 election, Republicans published a letter from the British Ambassador to the United States suggesting that the English favored Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate. This galvanized American Irish voters and Mr Cleveland lost the presidency to Benjamin Harrison.

Just days before the 2000 election, Thomas J. Connolly, defense attorney and former Democratic candidate for governor of Maine, confirmed that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in the State in 1976. Some said it cost Mr. Bush just enough votes to turn a narrow popular-vote victory into one of the most contested presidential elections in American history.

What ties the 1968, 1980 and 2016 allegations together is the fear that such a surprise will happen. In all three cases, those accused of perpetrating the scheme clearly feared it would happen.

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“It’s probably as old as the campaign itself,” said John Dean, Nixon’s White House attorney, whose testimony before Congressional Watergate committees helped shed light on perhaps the most famous campaign trick of all time. “I’m sure when campaigns learn of negative stories, they do everything they can to suppress them.”

The charges against Mr. Trump are of a different magnitude than those in 1968 or 1980. No Americans have been left to languish in captivity. No army stayed on the battlefield longer than necessary. No civilians died in the napalm conflagrations. Indeed, the silent transfer of money to Ms Daniels is not the worst accusation against a president who was impeached for refusing military aid to Ukraine in order to obtain political favor, and impeached again. for inciting a riot aimed at nullifying a legal election which he lost.

But because the 2016 election was so close, the suppression of a last-minute sex scandal delivered perhaps the White House to one of the most controversial leaders in American history. Mr. Trump lost the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points and won the presidency with victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined 78,652 votes, a total less than a sold-out crowd at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.

Mr Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, suffered her own surprise when days before the 2016 election, FBI Director James B. Comey reopened a closed investigation into emails she sent on a private server when she was Secretary of State. Considering the margin, that alone may have cost Mrs. Clinton the White House.

Ms Daniels’ claim that she had sex with Mr Trump in 2006 while his wife, Melania, was breastfeeding their only baby had been floating around since 2011, apparently sparking little fear in Trump’s world. But in early October 2016, that changed when the Washington Post released the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Mr. Trump described in obscene terms how he groped women.

Amid the ensuing furor and defections from some Republican leaders, efforts to buy Ms Daniels’ silence grew. Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, Michael D. Cohen, and others feared a second punch, landing just after the ‘Access Hollywood’ outrage dissipated, could knock their pugilist boss out of the race presidential election and expose them to legal action.

“It could look terribly bad for everyone,” wrote Dylan Howard, editor of The National Enquirer, in a text to Mr. Cohen, noting that if Ms. Daniels goes public, their job to cover up her story of a sexual encounter could also become known.

The 1980 election is remembered as a landslide victory, just one that seemed vulnerable to a last-minute change of course. But in fact, Mr. Reagan’s aides and allies openly feared that releasing the hostages in the final weeks of the campaign could re-elect Mr. Carter, so much so that the term “October Surprise” is often attributed to apprehensions. of Camp Reagan.

“All I know is there are concerns, not just with us, but I think in general among the electorate, well, this Carter is a politically tough man, he’ll do anything to get re-elected, and let’s get ready for an October surprise.” Mr. Reagan’s running mate, George HW Bush, said at the time.

Gerald Rafshoon, who was Mr. Carter’s White House communications director and campaign media adviser, said in an interview that he was confident the release of the hostages would have secured the president’s re-election. Polls had tightened this fall amid growing optimism over the release of captives. Then Mr. Carter’s position collapsed.

“If the little farmer can’t handle a two-bit ayatollah,” Mr Rafshoon recalled, a woman told him, “I’ll take a chance with the cowboy.”

He added: “It’s not that I have a grudge against these sons of bitches. I went on with my life, and so did Jimmy.

Mr Sick is not sure a hostage release would have had much impact. “It certainly would have changed some votes, but would Carter have won? He only won one state,” he said. “People running campaigns get very paranoid and talk about these things.”

The 1968 election is closer.

Ken Hughes, a researcher at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center whose book ‘Chasing Shadows’ chronicles the Nixon campaign’s efforts to prevent peace talks, said Mr Nixon had a strong lead in the polls over M Humphrey in mid-September. . By mid-October, Mr. Nixon’s lead had fallen to eight percentage points. Then, a few days before the election, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, and the media began reporting talk of impending talks to end the war.

Again, the winning candidate showed his fears, which were based on Mr. Nixon’s belief that the Democratic dirty tricks in 1960 had denied him the presidency. “Let Anna Chennault work on SVN,” or South Vietnam, Mr. Nixon implored, according to notes from senior official HR Haldeman.

On the eve of the election, The Christian Science Monitor was preparing an article on the Nixon campaign’s efforts to thwart the peace talks. Mr Johnson called a conference call with his security firm to seek advice on whether to confirm the story, which he knew to be true through wiretapping by the FBI and CIA.

“Certain elements of the story are of such a shocking nature that I wonder if it would be good for the country to get the story out and possibly get a certain person elected,” said his Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, about Mr. Nixon in a recorded call. “It could put his entire administration in such doubt that I would think it would be against the interests of our country.”

White House officials said nothing.


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