Secretive talks in the waning days of a campaign. Furtive phone calls. Ardent public denials.
American history is full of October surprises — late revelations, sometimes engineered by an opponent, that shock the trajectory of a presidential election and that candidates dread. In 1880, a forged letter ostensibly written by James Garfield claimed he wanted more immigration from China, a position so unpopular it nearly cost him the election. Weeks before the 1940 election, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s press secretary kneed a Black police officer in the groin, just as the president was trying to woo skeptical Black voters. (Roosevelt’s response made history: He appointed the first Black general and created the Tuskegee Airmen.)
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But the scandal that has ensnared Donald Trump, the paying of hush money to a pornographic film star in 2016, is in a rare class: an attempt not to bring to light an election-altering event, but to suppress one.
The payoff to Stormy Daniels that has a Manhattan grand jury weighing criminal charges against 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 was in 1980. Fresh revelations have emerged that allies of Ronald Reagan may well have labored to delay the release of American hostages from Iran until after the defeat of Jimmy Carter.
The tortured debate over precisely which election law might have been violated in 2016 is missing the broader point. All three events might have changed the course of history.
“There have been three cases at a minimum,” said Gary Sick, a former national security aide to Carter who for more than two decades has been pursuing his case that the Reagan campaign in 1980 delayed the release of the hostages from Iran. “And if you had the stomach for it, you’d have to say it worked.”
The potential criminal charges against Trump for his role in the passing of hush money to Daniels — falsifying business records to cover up the payment and a possible election law violation — may seem trivial when compared with the prior efforts to fend off a history-altering October surprise.
This month, a former lieutenant governor of Texas came forward to say that he accompanied a Reagan ally to the Middle East to try to delay the release of American hostages from Iran until after the 1980 election. And notes discovered in 2016 appeared to confirm that senior aides to Nixon worked through back channels in 1968 to hinder the commencement of peace talks to end the war in Vietnam — and secure Nixon’s victory over Hubert Humphrey.
“Hold on,” Anna Chennault, Nixon’s emissary to the South Vietnamese, told Saigon government officials, as she pressed them to boycott the Paris peace talks. “We are gonna win.”
But the chicaneries of 1968 and 1980 were left to historians and partisans to sort out and debate decades later. What separates the allegations against Trump is that they could make him the first former president to be indicted by a grand jury, forcing him to answer for charges in a court of law.
The concept of an October surprise has been around American politics since at least 1838, when federal prosecutors announced plans to charge top Whig Party officials with “most stupendous 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. It galvanized Irish American voters, and Cleveland lost the presidency to Benjamin Harrison.
Just days before the 2000 election, Thomas J. Connolly, a defense lawyer and former Democratic candidate for governor in Maine, confirmed that George W. Bush had been arrested for driving while intoxicated in the state in 1976. Some have said it cost Bush just enough votes to turn a narrow popular vote victory into one of the most contested presidential elections in American history.
What links the allegations of 1968, 1980 and 2016 is the fear that such a surprise would happen. In all three cases, those accused of perpetrating the skulduggery palpably worried that it would.
“It is probably as old as campaigning itself,” said John Dean, the Nixon White House lawyer whose testimony before the congressional Watergate committees helped bring to light perhaps the most famous campaign dirty trick of all time. “I’m sure that when campaigns learn of negative stories, they do all they can to suppress them.”
The accusations against Trump are of a different scale than 1968 or 1980. No Americans were left to languish in captivity. No armies remained on the battlefield longer than necessary. No civilians died in napalm conflagrations. Indeed, the passing of hush money to Daniels is hardly the worst accusation leveled against a president who was impeached for withholding military aid to Ukraine to extract a political favor, and impeached again for inciting a riot designed to overturn a lawful election that he lost.
But because the 2016 election was so close, the suppression of a late-breaking sex scandal just may have delivered the White House to one of American history’s most divisive leaders. Trump lost the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points, and won the presidency by securing victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined 78,652 votes, a smaller total than a sellout crowd at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Trump’s opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, suffered her own surprise when just days before the 2016 election, then-FBI Director James Comey reopened a closed investigation into emails she sent on a private server when she was secretary of state. Given the margin, that alone may have cost Clinton the White House.
Daniels’ claim that she had sex with Trump in 2006 while his wife, Melania, was nursing their only baby had been floating around since 2011, seemingly raising few fears in Trump world. But in early October 2016, that changed when The Washington Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump described in lewd terms how he groped women.
Amid the ensuing furor and defections from some Republican leaders, the effort to buy Daniels’ silence went into overdrive. Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and others feared that a second punch, landing just after the “Access Hollywood” outrage was dissipating, could knock their pugilistic boss out of the presidential race and expose them to legal action.
“It could look awfully bad for everyone,” Dylan Howard, the editor of The National Enquirer, wrote in a text to Cohen, noting that if Daniels went public, their work to cover up her account of a sexual encounter might also become known.
The 1980 election is remembered as a landslide victory, hardly one that seemed vulnerable to a late-breaking course change. But in fact, aides and allies of Reagan openly feared the release of the hostages in the campaign’s final weeks could reelect Carter, so much so that the term “October surprise” is often attributed to the Reagan camp’s trepidations.
“All I know is there’s concern, not just with us but I think generally amongst the electorate, well, this Carter’s a politically tough fellow, he’ll do anything to get reelected, and let’s be prepared for some October surprise,” Reagan’s running mate, George H.W. Bush, said at the time.
Gerald Rafshoon, who was 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 reelection. The polls had been tightening that fall amid rising optimism about the captives’ release. Then Carter’s position collapsed.
“If the little farmer can’t handle a two-bit ayatollah,” Rafshoon recalled one woman telling him, “I’ll take my chances on the cowboy.”
He added: “It’s not that I hold any grudges about those sons of bitches. I’ve gotten on with my life, and so has Jimmy.”
Sick is not so sure a hostage release would have had much impact. “It would certainly have changed some votes, but would Carter have won? He only won one state,” he said. “People who run campaigns get very paranoid and talk themselves into these things.”
The election of 1968 is a closer call.
Ken Hughes, a researcher at the Miller Center of the University of Virginia, whose book “Chasing Shadows” chronicled the Nixon campaign’s efforts to impede peace talks, said Nixon had a strong lead in the polls over Humphrey in mid-September. By mid-October, Nixon’s lead was down to 8 percentage points. Then, days before the election, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, and the news media began reporting chatter of looming talks to end the war.
Again, the candidate who went on to win showed his fears, which were based on Nixon’s conviction that Democratic dirty tricks in 1960 had denied him the presidency. “Keep Anna Chennault working on SVN,” or South Vietnam, Nixon implored, according to the notes of a top aide, H.R. Haldeman.
On the eve of the election, The Christian Science Monitor was preparing an article on the efforts of the Nixon campaign to thwart the peace talks. Johnson convened a conference call with his security Cabinet to seek advice on whether to confirm the story, which he knew to be true from FBI and CIA wiretaps.
“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual elected,” his secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, said of Nixon on a recorded call. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I would think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
White House officials said nothing.
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