In October 1972, despite a sizable lead in all the pre-election polls, President Richard Nixon had his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, convene a press conference a mere 12 days before the November 7th presidential election to announce that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam. Nixon had pledged to end the Vietnam War during his first term as president but, notwithstanding his failure in achieving that goal, the announcement effectively negated any advantage that his opponent, George McGovern, may have held on the Vietnam issue, and Nixon cruised to victory in one of the largest presidential landslides in history.
Since then, the specter of an “October Surprise” has loomed over many a presidential campaign. In 1980, Ronald Reagan feared a last-minute deal with Iran that would release the American hostages and, perhaps, swing the election to the incumbent, President Jimmy Carter. In 1992, the independent counsel’s indictment of several Reagan administration officials, who were also linked to candidate George H.W. Bush, for alleged misdeeds in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal, was viewed by many as deliberately timed to harm Bush’s reelection. Then, in 2016, there was a barrage of competing disclosures in October, which were viewed by many as timed to influence the outcome of the election. First, an audio tape was released on which Republican nominee Donald Trump, using explicit language, claimed that women let him kiss and grope them because he is “a star.” That same day, WikiLeaks began a two-month campaign of releasing hacked emails and excerpts from the account of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, leading to news stories that cast Clinton in a strongly negative light. Still later in October 2016, FBI Director James Comey wrote to Congress advising that he intended to take “appropriate investigative steps” to review recently discovered emails related to the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server.
So, the “October Surprise” has a notable, if not necessarily laudable, place in the annals of American presidential politics. Now, as the calendar moves toward November 3, one wonders whether the long-running investigation shepherded by John Durham, U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, and hand-picked by Attorney General William Barr, is being readied for a role as the next election-shaping “October Surprise.” If true, the reported nature of Durham’s investigation poses a serious threat to US foreign intelligence collection and analysis extending well beyond any political impact.