US presidential candidates are always worried about “October Surprises” causing upsets in their campaigns. On October 28, FBI director James Comey caused the first surprise by conveying to the US Congress that emails “pertinent to the closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server were discovered on a computer belonging to Anthony D. Weiner, the estranged husband of a top Clinton aide”. However, he added that the said emails had surfaced in an unrelated case, which was an FBI investigation into illicit text messages from Weiner to a 15-year- old girl in North Carolina. He also conveyed that the FBI would review the mails “to determine if they improperly contained classified information”.
Comey’s letter gave an immediate boost to the Trump campaign, which had sagged due to allegations of his sexual deviations. There were calls to arrest Hillary Clinton. Reince Priebus, Republican committee chairman, said that FBI’s decision to reopen the case 11 days before the election “shows how serious this discovery must be”. He called for her disqualification from the elections. Faced with this, Hillary Clinton issued a strong message to Comey to release “all the information that it has”. Even President Obama, who never gives his opinion on FBI cases, came out with a statement that opinions should be based on facts and not on innuendos.
NBC News had in fact forewarned on July 27, 2016 itself that Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning elections could be sunk due to an “October Surprise”. It feared that Russian spy agencies that had broken into the deleted Clinton emails might reveal something adverse against her to cause a surprise just prior to the elections. That was the time when Julian Assange had already leaked 19,000 Clinton emails. Democrats had then hired a cyber security firm which found that two Russian security agencies were accessing Democrat National Committee servers. One Russian agency had even hacked into the joint chiefs of staff and other important US agencies.
On November 6, 2016, Comey caused a second surprise by conveying to the Congress that the agency had worked “around the clock” to complete its review of newly discovered emails and found no reason to change its July finding. In effect it meant that the Bureau stood by its earlier recommendation that no criminal charges were warranted against Hillary Clinton for using a private email server for government work. US media announced that the Dow Jones Industrial Average futures and the Mexican Peso had surged in apparent response to Comey’s announcement. Trump, who had earlier praised FBI for being “thorough” in investigation, challenged its ability to review the newly discovered emails so quickly and alleged that Hillary Clinton was being protected by a “rigged system”. He asked Americans to “deliver justice at the ballot box on November 8”.
US politicians are always worried about such last minute surprises, which in 1968 had totally overturned the final result. Hubert Humphrey, sitting vice president, was then the Democratic party’s presidential candidate. He was facing Richard Nixon who wanted to take advantage of President Lyndon Johnson’s unpopular Vietnam War. To Nixon’s disappointment, Johnson started reversing American offensive by announcing partial bomb halts. This paved way for the Paris Peace Talks from May 1968 with North Vietnamese participation. On October 9, North Vietnamese allowed South Vietnam’s participation in peace talks. A peace deal was about to be achieved, which would have favoured Humphrey during the elections on November 5, 1968.
All of a sudden, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu went cold and withdrew from the talks. Nixon was keeping tabs on the White House to sabotage any successful outcome. Bryce Harlow, who was Nixon’s speech writer, said later that a double agent in Johnson’s White House was leaking information. William Bundy, former CIA analyst, recalled that intercepted cable traffic from Saigon had revealed the Republican Party urging President Thieu through Anna Chennault, a well-known socialite anti-communist, that Nixon would offer a better deal than Hubert Humphrey.
This was confirmed by Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A History of the FBI. He says the FBI had noticed Anna Hainault’s “Lincoln Continental” going frequently to Vietnamese embassy and 1701, Pennsylvania Avenue, Nixon’s campaign office. Bundy says that Johnson confronted Nixon on November 3 about Chennault’s activities. Nixon denied any role in President Thieu’s stand. Finally, he won the elections with a narrow margin.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘The October Surprise’)