Son, ghostwriter of late senator say Trump intervened to stop probe of Patriots' Spygate scandal

Who intervened in an attempt to stop the congressional Spygate probe? (3:51)

Who offered U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter campaign cash to stop investigating the New England Patriots? Specter's oldest son says it was Donald Trump. (3:51)

IN THE SPRING of 2008, the NFL was in crisis. A hard-charging United States senator from Pennsylvania named Arlen Specter had launched an investigation into the Spygate scandal. He tried to determine how many games the New England Patriots' illegal videotaping operation of opposing coaches' signals had helped the team win and learn why the NFL, under the orders of commissioner Roger Goodell, had destroyed all evidence of the cheating. By May, Specter -- a former Philadelphia district attorney and a lifelong Eagles fan -- was so angry at the "stonewalling" of his inquiry by the league and the Patriots that he called for an independent investigator, similar to the Mitchell investigation of steroid use in professional baseball. League executives and coaches might be forced to testify under oath. The prospect sent the league, and its new commissioner, into panic. "If it ever got to an investigation," Goodell said at one point, "it would be terrible for the league."

The NFL tried to combat the Specter inquiry with public statements from teams that were the primary victims of New England's spying saying the league had done its due diligence. It wasn't working.

But there was one man, a mutual friend of Specter and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who believed that he could make the investigation go away. He was a famous businessman and reality television star who routinely threw money at politicians to try to curry favor, whether it worked or not. He had been a generous political patron of Specter's for two decades.

One day in early 2008, Specter had dinner with the man in Palm Beach at his palatial club, not far from Kraft's Florida home. A phone call followed. The friend offered Specter what the senator felt was tantamount to a bribe: "If you laid off the Patriots, there'd be a lot of money in Palm Beach."

IN OCTOBER 2017, an ESPN reporter visited the University of Pittsburgh's Archives & Special Collections, housed in a five-story brick building in a neighborhood of warehouses and auto repair shops. For two days, the reporter sifted through Sen. Arlen Specter's letters, speeches, memos, notes and calendars, accumulated across a half-century career in public life, searching for evidence identifying the friend who had offered cash if the senator would shut down his pesky Spygate inquiry.

Two autumns earlier, the reporter had received a tip about the mutual friend's name. At the time, the man had just launched an outside and underdog campaign for president. But the tip was hard to confirm. Among Specter's papers, the reporter found a few clues but nothing conclusive. Before and after the visit to Pittsburgh, the reporter made more than a dozen calls to confidants of Specter, who died in October 2012 of complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but had failed to turn up anything definitive. Another ESPN reporter visited Washington, D.C., meeting with Specter's former staffers at fashionable Beltway gossip venues BLT Steak and Off the Record. Nothing conclusive turned up.

But recently and unexpectedly, there's been movement in the quest. Follow-up conversations with the people closest to Arlen Specter -- his oldest son, Shanin, a Philadelphia personal injury and medical malpractice attorney, and Charles Robbins, Specter's trusted longtime communications aide and the ghostwriter of two Specter memoirs -- revealed this: The man who dangled campaign cash if Specter were to drop the Spygate inquiry was none other than Donald J. Trump.

Not only that: Trump had told Specter he was acting on behalf of Robert Kraft.

Kraft and Trump, both responding to ESPN through spokespeople, denied involvement in any effort to influence Specter's investigation.

"This is completely false," said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump. "We have no idea what you're talking about." Miller declined to answer a series of follow-up questions. A Patriots spokesman said Kraft "never asked Donald Trump to talk to Arlen Specter on his behalf."

"Mr. Kraft is not aware of any involvement of Trump on this topic and he did not have any other engagement with Specter or his staff," the spokesman said via email.

THE ALLEGED SPYGATE connections among Arlen Specter, Donald Trump and Robert Kraft came up almost by accident. On July 1, 2010, Specter sat down with Robbins for one of their tape-recorded discussions to prepare for the writing of Specter's third and final book, a memoir titled "Life Among the Cannibals." Only six weeks earlier, Specter, who famously switched parties from Republican to Democratic, had lost a hard-fought Democratic primary to Congressman Joe Sestak. The defeat effectively ended Specter's five-term tenure in the U.S. Senate.

That evening, during a three-hour conversation inside the dark-hued den of Specter's Georgetown condo, the senator was in an expansive mood, discussing what he had considered his noble crusade for fairness in professional sports. For two decades, Specter was a frequent, loud critic of the NFL. It galled him that franchises extorted cities for new, mostly publicly financed stadiums. More than once, Specter had threatened to file legislation that would revoke the NFL's invaluable antitrust exemption. "This is part of Arlen Specter's thesis that the NFL owns America," Specter told Robbins that night, according to a transcript of their conversation. "They're addicted to pro football in a way they have never been addicted to baseball. Or heroin."

Specter then raised his quixotic inquiry into the Spygate scandal, a source of great frustration because, for one thing, he wondered whether the Patriots cheated to beat his beloved Eagles 24-21 in Super Bowl XXXIX in February 2005. And for another thing, he felt the NFL and the Patriots had stymied his bid to get the truth.

Specter's interest in Spygate began in late 2007. Then the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter wrote two letters to Goodell raising questions about the NFL's lightning-quick investigation. In September 2007, only four days after New England was caught taping the New York Jets' coaches' signals from the sideline, the league investigation ended when the commissioner fined the Patriots $250,000 and coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and confiscated the team's first-round draft pick. Goodell then briefly reopened the league investigation days later and ordered his most trusted aide, league general counsel Jeff Pash, to stomp a handful of spying videotapes to pieces inside a Gillette Stadium conference room. The punishments had been delivered before the evidence was collected and then quickly destroyed. To Specter and others, this looked, at best, like an amateur investigation or, worse, like a cover-up. And then Goodell did not respond to either of Specter's letters seeking an explanation.

Specter was still seething about that in January 2008 when Carl Hulse, a congressional reporter for The New York Times, asked Specter who he thought would win that year's Super Bowl, which eventually featured a clash between the undefeated Patriots and the New York Giants.

"It all depends," Specter deadpanned, "if there is cheating involved."

As he recited all of this to Robbins in 2010, Specter sipped a martini on the couch in his den and spoke about his lingering Spygate frustrations. Specter recalled that during a recent fundraising session, he had decided to call up "an unlikely candidate" but "illustrative of my chutzpah, bravado and self-confidence." He called Robert Kraft.

Surprisingly, still furious over Spygate, Kraft agreed to meet with Specter at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, March 15, 2010, in a hotel suite in Boston. Although Kraft says now through a team spokesperson that the meeting "wasn't memorable," Specter told Robbins that the two men "had a delightful conversation," according to the transcript. "And he said, 'Let me get off my chest some things you did to the Patriots which were very unfair. Just very unfair.' I decided not to argue with him." Eventually, Specter and Kraft discussed the purpose of their meeting, campaign money, with the senator's hope being that Kraft and his company would contribute to his Senate reelection campaign.

The Kraft discussion led Specter to offer Robbins an intriguing aside about his Spygate investigation: "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.'" Although that exchange is published in Specter's 2012 book, the senator did not identify the powerful friend -- nor did he reveal in print that the friend had told him he was acting as an emissary of Kraft.

It became a fascinating footnote to the Spygate saga, one of many lingering unanswered questions: Who was the mutual friend of Specter and Kraft who had offered "a lot of money" for a powerful senator's Spygate investigation to be dropped?

In an October 2017 interview with an ESPN reporter, Robbins said several possibilities for the mutual friend included the newly inaugurated President Trump. In a subsequent conversation initiated by the reporter, Robbins offered more details: "I asked Specter, and he said, 'It doesn't matter, let's move on,' and I didn't press it." Robbins added that it had bothered him that Specter didn't trust him with the name. But in the end, it didn't really matter, Robbins now says: "I was pretty darn sure the offer was made by Trump. At the time, it didn't seem like such an important moment. Back then, Trump was a real estate hustler and a TV personality."

He was also a prolific political donor. Trump and Specter's friendship began shortly after, according to Federal Election Commission records, Trump wrote his first $1,000 check to Specter's campaign on Aug. 19, 1983.

Over the course of three decades, Trump contributed a total of $11,300 to Specter's campaign committees, often giving the maximum amount allowed in each cycle, FEC records show. Trump and Specter also exchanged a series of friendly, handwritten notes in which Trump, more than once, referred to Specter as his "close friend." On Sept. 1, 2004, during the Republican National Convention in New York City, Trump hosted a fundraising luncheon for Sen. Specter at Trump Tower. Trump and Specter stood for photographs with more than 100 people who had written checks for Specter's reelection campaign. "This guy is a great character," Trump said of Specter, according to a report in The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania. "Arlen is quite simply a friend of mine. He's just someone I like." Trump then glanced at Specter, adding, "I don't know if that helps you or hurts you."

Trump and Specter also were linked by a mutual friend: Roger Stone. Stone had served as chairman of Specter's 1996 presidential campaign, and Trump later hired Stone to again help with political activities, a role that would lead to his conviction on charges of lying to Congress in connection with Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Stone, whose sentence was commuted by Trump in July 2020, declined repeated requests to comment for this story. He has said he often lobbied Specter on an array of issues.

With Robbins now on the record that he believed Specter's "mutual friend" who had offered him money in Palm Beach was Trump, an ESPN reporter reached out again to Shanin Specter, Arlen's son. In October 2017, Shanin Specter and the reporter had discussed a few people who could have made the call to his father. He says he left the conversation under the impression he had pointed to Trump as the person. But now, he's far more definitive: "It was Trump."

"My father told me that Trump was acting as a messenger for Kraft," Shanin Specter says. "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."

"He was pissed," Shanin Specter says about his father. "He told me about the call in the wake of the conversation and his anger about it. ... My father was upset when [such overtures] would happen because he felt as if it were tantamount to a bribe solicitation, though the case law on this subject says it isn't. ... He would tell me these things when they occurred. We were very close."

He insists his statements today are not politically motivated, although he supported former Vice President Joe Biden's election bid last fall. And, to be fair, this wasn't a piece of information he took the initiative to reveal; he answered a reporter's follow-up questions after Robbins said more definitely that the friend who made the cash offer to Specter could only have been Trump.

Arlen Specter did not report the offer to the authorities or to Senate ethics officials after he concluded that the case law stated the offer wasn't a bribe solicitation, Shanin Specter said.

Election experts say it's a close call as to whether such an offer would be a bribe in the sense that it would be a prosecutable offense.

Federal statute 18 U.S.C. 201 covers the bribery of public officials: The government must identify "a question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy" that "may at any time be pending" or "may by law be brought before a public official." The law also covers an offer made on someone's behalf for an official decision. The statute of limitations is five years.

Matthew T. Sanderson, a Republican election attorney and a partner at Caplin & Drysdale in Washington, says, "It is immaterial whether Specter took Trump up on the offer formally. You can't walk up to a U.S. senator and say my friend has a big bag of cash for you, even if it's campaign money, if you would drop your investigation. That's a bribe."

But the truth is, this kind of thing happens and is not prosecuted, two other experts said. There are bribes, and then there are bribes. "You'd think campaign contributions would be considered bribes, and it's hard to understand they're not," one of the experts told ESPN. "We've just decided they're not -- and senators and congressmen certainly don't believe they are."

Before he was elected president, Trump considered himself a one-man lobbying firm. Repeatedly during the 2016 campaign, Trump said he used campaign money, given frequently to Democrats and Republicans, as an effective way to get things done "for business."

"I support politicians," Trump said at the March 4, 2016, Republican debate in Detroit. "In 2008, I supported Hillary Clinton. I supported many other people, by the way. And that was because of the fact that I'm in business."

Despite Shanin Specter's allegation of a Trump offer on behalf of Kraft in 2008 and Sen. Specter asking Kraft for campaign money at their meeting in March 2010, FEC records show that neither Kraft nor his company, the Kraft Group, donated a single dollar to Arlen Specter's campaign committees. Kraft confirmed that neither he nor any of his entities ever donated to Specter. But amazingly, the Trump offer -- and Specter's fury about it -- wasn't enough to prevent Specter, two years after he closed his Spygate inquiry, from visiting Kraft in Boston seeking a campaign check. With his Spygate inquiry long dead, Specter figured, an opportunity to support his reelection campaign might have enticed Kraft.

TO UNDERSTAND WHY Trump might have intervened in a Spygate inquiry with a senator he considered an old friend, one needs to understand the origins of the nearly 30-year-old friendship between Donald Trump and Robert Kraft -- and how Trump often tried to ingratiate himself with the leaders of Kraft's team. The Trump-Kraft relationship was symbiotic long before it became controversial. It began in the 1990s, when Kraft and his wife, Myra, bought a place in Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago. Kraft and Trump played golf together, and Trump joined Jon Bon Jovi as regular celebrities at Patriots games during the first half of the team's dynasty. After New England upset the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI -- the game that launched the Patriots dynasty and that, years later, Specter was most interested in investigating for cheating -- 24-year-old Tom Brady found himself with Trump on the businessman's tricked-out Boeing 727, eating sandwiches, sitting on an Italian leather couch, in the mystical embryonic stage of fame, en route from New York to Gary, Indiana, where Brady would serve as a judge for Trump's Miss USA pageant. "Let me tell you," Trump later said to Sports Illustrated, "if one thing stands out about Tom Brady, it's that he loves those women. And guess what? They love him too."

The relationship strengthened as New England's Super Bowl rings added up. Trump considered himself a winner and liked to be around winners. To Brady, Trump was "Mr. Trump," which embarrassed the businessman. To Kraft and Belichick, he was "Donald," a good friend whose trademark was not his bombastic self-proclamations and loud narcissism but rather his thoughtfulness and unselfishness. Kraft attended Trump's wedding to Melania Knauss in January 2005 at Mar-a-Lago, and Donald and Melania attended Myra Kraft's funeral in July 2011. Kraft was devastated when Myra died, and Trump called Kraft every week for a year to check in on him. Kraft has spoken frequently about how much Trump's gesture meant to him. "Loyalty and friendship trumps politics for me," Kraft said. "I always remember the people who were good to me in that vulnerable time, and he's in that category."

At one point, Trump wanted his daughter Ivanka to date Brady. "You have to meet him!" Trump told her, according to the book "Raising Trump." Ivanka wasn't interested, and she married Jared Kushner in 2009 -- the same year Brady married Gisele Bundchen. Trump later reportedly mused to Kraft that he could have had Tom Brady as a son-in-law but instead ended up with Kushner, who "is about half the size of Tom Brady's forearm," according to the book "Kushner, Inc." Before one game, Trump boasted that Belichick hugged and kissed him. All the men -- Kraft, Belichick, Brady and Trump -- shared anger over the way Roger Goodell handled New England's two cheating scandals. Trump mocked Goodell during Deflategate, calling him a "dope," according to The New York Times, and publicly urged Brady to sue the league to clear his name.

By the time Trump ran for the White House, the Trump/Patriots alliance began to erode -- mainly due to Trump's divisive and racist rhetoric. When a red Make America Great Again hat was spotted inside Brady's locker in September 2015, the star quarterback dodged questions about it, saying he was merely supporting a golfing buddy. In the summer of 2016, Trump asked Brady to address the Republican National Convention, but the quarterback declined. Late in the 2016 campaign, after Trump read a letter of support from Belichick -- in which the coach groused about their shared contempt for the media -- it prompted so much fallout that Belichick was forced to address it in a Wednesday news conference, normally his most reserved day of the week. The coach described himself as apolitical and deflected all follow-up questions in the vein of "We're on to Cincinnati" by simply saying, "Seattle. Seattle. Seattle." On Instagram, Bundchen was asked whether she and her husband had backed Trump. "NO!" she replied. But through it all, Kraft remained a loyal friend. "For me," Kraft said in May 2017, "it's like having a high school buddy or fraternity brother become president. It's weird, but it's cool." Kraft opened his checkbook for his friend; he was one of seven NFL owners to each contribute $1 million to Trump's inauguration committee.

After New England won the Super Bowl over the Atlanta Falcons a couple of weeks after Trump's inauguration, the team was scheduled to visit the White House. Many players skipped it, including Brady. Hoping to avoid a lackluster turnout, Kraft showed players a photo of himself in the Lincoln Bedroom, hinting that the team would get a special tour of the White House residence. Sure enough, during the visit on April 19, 2017, Trump said before a small group of players and coaches, "Let's go to the Lincoln Bedroom!"

An aide told the president that visitors don't go up there.

"We take the Patriots!" Trump said.

But the relationship continued to be fraught with difficulties. After Trump went to war with the NFL during the fall of 2017 over players taking a knee during the national anthem, it was Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, not Kraft, who boasted in owners meetings about his direct line to the president. Kraft continued to see the president socially, including the occasional dinner at Mar-a-Lago. But when the Patriots won the Super Bowl a second time during Trump's presidency, over the Los Angeles Rams in 2019, the team never made it to the White House. Twice the Patriots had dates locked in. One time, the team had to reschedule; the other time, it was the White House. Neither side seemed eager to find a makeup date. In one of Trump's final acts in office, in January 2021, he offered to award Belichick the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was the type of honor that a student of the military, whose father was a World War II veteran who spent three decades at the United States Naval Academy, might have treasured. But the coach declined the award, citing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

SPECTER SAID HE decided to embark on a one-man Spygate investigation for a simple reason. "The NFL has a very preferred status in our country with their antitrust exemption," he told The New York Times in early February 2008. "The American people are entitled to be sure about the integrity of the game."

Two weeks after delivering that statement, Specter and his staff met with Roger Goodell and Jeff Pash for an hour and 40 minutes in his Senate office on Capitol Hill. The commissioner defended the punishments and offered scant new information in response to the former prosecutor's many questions. Danny Fisher, a counsel on Specter's Judiciary Committee staff and a lead investigator on the Spygate inquiry, had a list of 13 current and former Patriots to interview, including Robert and Jonathan Kraft, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Ernie Adams, Charlie Weis and a host of videographers. None of the current Patriots agreed to talk, referring Fisher to outside counsel.

Although his one-man inquiry lacked subpoena power, Specter's outspoken criticism of the NFL's Spygate investigation frightened the league and Kraft, who less than two years earlier had supported Goodell to succeed Paul Tagliabue as commissioner. Goodell persuaded the Eagles and Steelers to release statements insisting that the league had done its due diligence, even though executives with both teams were convinced the NFL investigation was flawed and deliberately incurious. Goodell also called Mike Martz, who had been the head coach of the Rams during Super Bowl XXXVI. In early 2008, the Boston Herald had reported that the Patriots videotaped the Rams' walk-through practice the day before the game -- a report that the Patriots denied and the Herald later retracted. (Patriots videographers witnessed the walk-through but did not tape it.) Sounding panicked, Goodell asked Martz to release a statement. "He told me, 'The league doesn't need this. We're asking you to come out with a couple lines exonerating us and saying we did our due diligence,'" Martz told ESPN in 2015. Martz was convinced that New England had cheated against his team in the Super Bowl, but he also believed a wider inquiry with subpoena power "could kill the league." Martz wrote a statement, which he later said had been significantly altered by the league before it was released.

Specter was furious that his investigation was being stonewalled. In his notes during the session with Goodell and Pash, he jotted, "Cover-up."

"At every turn, we were rebuffed from speaking with Patriots employees and personnel as well as others that had direct knowledge about the videotaping and the allegations of cheating," says Fisher, the counsel on Specter's staff. "It was extremely frustrating to Specter, especially in light of the NFL telling us there was no competitive advantage or benefit to the videotaping. If there's nothing to hide, why not be open and transparent?"

Before Specter had officially announced his inquiry, Donald and Melania Trump invited Specter and his wife, Joan, to a private dinner at Mar-a-Lago on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008 -- the day of the AFC and NFC championship games. Four days later, Specter wrote a handwritten card to the Trumps: "Dear Donald & Melania, Joan and I very much enjoyed our dinner with you. The food was excellent and the company was better. Donald, you ought to give some serious thought to becoming a Cabinet secretary. Meanwhile, we look forward to March 18th. My Best, Arlen."

March 18, 2008, was the date of a party in Philadelphia for Specter's recently published book, "Never Give In." Trump served as the book party's co-host, according to the Specter papers. By that time, Specter's investigation of Spygate had grabbed many headlines. Shanin Specter said he can't recall precisely when his father told him about the Trump offer, but he said it was shortly after the senator had received the Trump call during the first half of 2008.

Not long after the book party, on March 31, 2008, Trump wrote a $1,300 check to Specter's campaign committee. It would be the last campaign check Trump would write for Specter.

By mid-May of that year, after Goodell interviewed former Patriots videographer Matt Walsh and all but declared the league's third look at Spygate closed, Specter's Spygate inquiry was running out of momentum. Specter couldn't interest his fellow senators in exploring it, though he continued to threaten to introduce legislation that would revoke the NFL's antitrust exemption. Some columnists excoriated Specter for spending so much time on the Spygate inquiry while the economy was rapidly deteriorating and the United States was still fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Specter was also accused of fighting with the NFL over Spygate on behalf of one of his most powerful political patrons: Comcast, the Philadelphia-based cable TV company that was Specter's second-largest contributor. At the time, Comcast was engaged in a public war with the NFL over whether the cable company could charge its customers for carrying the NFL Network. The criticism outraged Specter, who adamantly denied such suggestions. Still, Specter later acknowledged in notes in his personal papers that the "stonewalling" of his inquiry, combined with the mounting criticism and questions about his motives, was wearing on him. At 78, he was fighting cancer by undergoing chemotherapy sessions and told friends it was time to conclude his one-man battle against the Patriots and the NFL.

On June 5, 2008, Specter delivered a lengthy speech on the Senate floor, one he wrote himself by hand over several weeks, intended as his final word on Spygate. He defended himself against the Comcast criticism while again ripping the league's Spygate inquiry and calling for an "impartial investigation."

Now Shanin Specter says he was proud of his father, who he felt "did a great job" in pursuing the truth about Spygate. "He was alone, but so what? He was used to that," he said. "He was a football fan who felt he'd been cheated and a senator who felt the NFL needed to police themselves in order to maintain their congressional-awarded antitrust exemption. He was right on both counts. Now we know Belichick was, and is, a serial cheater and, in this instance, his boss closed ranks behind him."

Arlen Specter told confidants that the mysteries of Spygate -- precisely how many games the spying operation helped New England win, why the league had so quickly destroyed all the evidence turned over by the Patriots -- would remain stubborn secrets. And in doing so, Specter kept a few secrets of his own. Why didn't the senator name Donald Trump in his last memoir? Was it because, even though he was insulted by the offer, Trump was his friend? Or was it because Specter knew Kraft hadn't given him any campaign cash, and no harm, no foul, so why name names?

"I'm not sure why he didn't disclose it was Trump in the book," Shanin Specter said. "But he liked Trump. They had a warm relationship. So that may explain it. But that, of course, was a different Trump. If my father were in the Senate today, a lot of things would be different."

As with so much about Spygate, nobody will ever know.

Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. are senior writers for ESPN. Reach them at Seth.Wickersham@espn.com and Don.VanNatta@espn.com. On Twitter, their handles are @sethwickersham and @DVNJr.