Let’s start with this: ESPN’s latest Spygate story is an absolutely delicious, dead-of-the-offseason mystery for NFL fans. It's both believable and perhaps less so. It features backroom deals, political corruption, football, loyalties (real and perceived), quiet martinis, Mar-a-Lago dinners, hotel confrontations, campaign money, cheating and, well, so much more. You should read it in full.
They could have made it a cable drama — "Arlen of Eastown," maybe. Or just the next season of "Billions."
The central question that ESPN investigated is this:
In 2008, did Donald Trump, then a real estate developer and reality television personality, get Arlen Specter, then a United States senator from Pennsylvania, to back off an investigation into the New England Patriots Spygate scandal by promising that Pats owner Robert Kraft would make a political donation and/or payoff?
The answer isn’t 100 percent clear. The question and the reporting is fascinating though — unless you’re one of the many people in modern American society that only want to hear exactly what you want to hear about Trump, Kraft, Bill Belichick, the Pats, the NFL, Roger Goodell or a U.S. senator.
If you are one of those people, if you are too sensitive to handle any examination of impropriety by your hero (whomever that is), then go read something else.
For the rest of us, here’s my deep dive into this rather entertaining plot twist.
In 2007, the Patriots were caught videotaping the defensive signals of the New York Jets from an unauthorized area of the old Meadowlands Stadium. Three days later the NFL stripped the Pats of a first-round draft pick and fined the team and head coach Bill Belichick.
Within a week, the NFL said it had destroyed all evidence and deemed the case closed. This led to critics arguing the investigation was rushed and didn’t adequately look into any prior acts, including previous Super Bowl triumphs. That group included Specter, a longtime critic of the NFL who by February 2008 began an investigation and threatened to bring NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in front of Congress to testify.
The investigation eventually went nowhere. Specter lost a primary election in 2010 and died two years later due to complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Did Trump steer Specter away?
Maybe. In an autobiography published in 2012, Specter wrote that: “On the signal stealing, a mutual friend had told me that 'if I laid off the Patriots, there'd be a lot of money in Palm Beach.' And I replied, 'I couldn't care less.’”
In the book, Specter didn’t identify the “mutual friend” although records show he had dinner about that time with Trump at Trump’s Palm Beach social club, Mar-a-Lago. Trump was friends with both Specter, whom through the years he donated $11,300 to various campaigns dating back to 1983, and Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, who also maintained a home in Palm Beach.
Specter’s son and the ghost writer of the book say the “mutual friend” was Trump.
"My father told me that Trump was acting as a messenger for Kraft," Shanin Specter told ESPN. "But I'm equally sure the reference to money in Palm Beach was campaign contributions, not cash. The offer was Kraft assistance with campaign contributions. ... My father said it was Kraft's offer, not someone else's."
So Trump was the go-between?
Yeah, but …
There are no records that Kraft or any of the billionaire’s businesses ever donated any money to Specter. The two did meet in 2010 at a hotel suite in Boston where Specter sought campaign donations.
Instead, according to tapes of Specter talking for the 2012 book, Kraft brought up the congressional investigation and deemed it “very unfair” to the Patriots. Specter wound up with no money.
So, if Trump was working to set up campaign donations in exchange for Specter to stop poking around about Spygate, then it doesn’t appear Kraft was down with the plan or even knew about it. He never gave any money and instead aggressively confronted Specter.
Perhaps Trump just tricked Specter, doing a favor for his buddy Kraft, who as a fellow businessman he probably liked more than a politician he needed to be friends with. Maybe Trump just bluffed and made Specter think Kraft would provide a campaign windfall if Specter backed off the Spygate stuff.
Trump certainly knew that politicians are easily, and often unduly, influenced, not just by a campaign donation but by the prospect of future contributions. After all, here was a Pennsylvania senator having dinner in Florida with a New York businessman even though Trump gave him only a little over $11,000 in nearly 30 years of campaigns.
And there was that same Pennsylvania senator traveling to Boston to seek money from a Massachusetts businessman. That's odd behavior from a senator who supposedly “couldn’t care less” about money.
Any suggestion that this was a bribe and not a possible campaign donation makes little sense. There is almost no way that Kraft would risk imprisonment, not to mention the loss of his franchise, to bribe an adversarial U.S. senator over a matter this trivial. Besides, per ESPN, Specter never reported an illegal bribe offer to Senate ethics officials.
What we do know is that Specter’s congressional investigation essentially ended. Maybe it was because lacking subpoena power, the concept was doomed. Or maybe it was because he thought he’d get that “Palm Beach money.”
Whatever it was, Specter did what Kraft wanted and didn’t get a dime for it. That’s embarrassing and just one reason Specter looks far, far worse in this than Trump or Kraft, who don’t seem to have done much of anything wrong here.
As for the NFL ...
The ESPN report looks terrible for the league. It reminds that Goodell’s office, in an effort to squash criticism of Spygate, “persuaded the Eagles and Steelers to release statements insisting the league had done its due diligence, even though executives with both teams were convinced the NFL investigation was flawed and deliberately incurious.”
It also notes that Goodell personally called Mike Martz, the head coach of the 2001 St. Louis Rams who lost to New England in the Super Bowl that season, and asked him to release a similar statement. Martz told ESPN that the statement that was eventually released “had been significantly altered by the league.”
This also may explain some of Goodell and the NFL’s actions on the Patriots second famous scandal — 2015’s Deflategate.
In that one, the league went scorched earth and operated beyond ethical norms to label the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady as cheats for playing with allegedly underinflated footballs. The league never proved the footballs in the 2015 AFC championship game were deflated, and most of the case stemmed from its initial lack of understanding of the science behind Ideal Gas Law.
This is speculative, but you can see why Goodell, who had minimized Spygate and then had to fend off a powerful U.S. senator who was threatening the league’s coveted antitrust exemption, would be particularly angered, and even vengeful, when the same team came up in a cheating scandal a few years later.
It’s a hell of a way to run a business.
First off, Spygate may never end. It’s been nearly 14 years and now it's dragging a former president into its retelling.
As for this story, no one knows for sure but we’re going with Trump fooled Specter into thinking he’d get big money out of Kraft if he backed off, only for Specter to go seek out that money and have Kraft stiff him.
In all likelihood, Kraft didn’t even know what Trump was up to. If there is one thing we’ve learned about Donald Trump, he has a way of outmaneuvering Washington politicians in ways they never saw coming.
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