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Former Rep. Tom Downey On What Happened When He Received Opposition Research In 2000


Last night in an interview with ABC News, President Trump was asked what he would do if a foreign government offered dirt on an election opponent. He said, quote, "I think I'd take it." The context for the question was the Trump Tower meeting in 2016 when Russians offered the Trump campaign incriminating details about Hillary Clinton.

That was hardly the first time a candidate had been offered information on an opponent. In 2000, George Bush and Al Gore were vying for the presidency, and that September, Gore's campaign received an anonymous package containing Bush's debate prep material.

Former congressman Thomas Downey is here. He received that material. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

THOMAS DOWNEY: It's good to be here.

CORNISH: Take us back to that moment. You get this package. What's in it, and what did you think?

DOWNEY: So it was a large manila envelope, and what it contained was classic debate materials - my staff had provided them for my preparation for playing Bush for Gore, so I recognized it right away - and a number of videotapes.

CORNISH: So these are, like, briefing papers...

DOWNEY: Correct.

CORNISH: ...What the candidate might say...


CORNISH: ...And back-and-forth.

DOWNEY: Back-and-forth, funny lines, that sort of thing. So it was quite clear what that was. And also accompanying that were three videotapes, one of which was of Governor Bush doing a Tim Russert-style interview in his shorts. I watched that for a few seconds, and I realized I shouldn't be having these materials. And so right after that, I called up our campaign manager, and I said, we've got some problems here. I've gotten stolen materials. And my lawyer came not long after that, and we decided that we needed to turn those materials over to the FBI.

CORNISH: Not just the FBI, also the press, right? You guys sought sort of transparency in this.

DOWNEY: Yeah, well, we issued a very noble-sounding press release recusing myself from that. But we didn't disclose any of the materials. That actually - they left my office at about 1 o'clock. The FBI came over to interview me, oddly, that day, and I had found myself in an odd position of explaining to the agents why this was a crime. They were unfamiliar with it. And they didn't realize that these debate materials were probably some of the most valuable things in the United States at the time. And eventually Louis Freeh became the agent of record. He was the FBI director.

CORNISH: I want to follow up on that point because while you acted out of an abundance of caution, President Trump was considerably more nonchalant, let's say, about the idea of receiving dirt on an opponent. Were you surprised when you heard his comments?

DOWNEY: Well, no because nothing he says or does surprises me anymore.

CORNISH: But there was a kind of everybody-does-it added to it.

DOWNEY: Yeah, there...

CORNISH: As someone who's been in a campaign, is that true? I mean, we're all watching a lot of bad political television and thinking it might be.

DOWNEY: No, I think that politics is a noble and honorable profession. It's the way we decide who wins and who loses. It requires people to act honorably. President Trump in - he knew about his son's meeting in - during the campaign, and he then had to suffer through two years of the Mueller investigation because of Russian interference and his potential obstruction of justice or his actual obstruction of justice. So you would think that he would have learned, but he apparently hasn't.

And he believes - and I think - I saw that interview where he dismissively waves his hand and says, well, everybody does that. Well, no, everybody doesn't do it. And when it comes to foreign entities, it is a crime to take that information. So this is not a gray area of the law or morality.

CORNISH: That's Thomas Downey, former Democratic congressman from New York and former adviser to Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. Thank you for sharing your story.

DOWNEY: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.