George H.W. Bush Wrote a Letter to Donald Trump During the Central Park Jogger Case

Then-Vice President George Bush with Donald Trump and Don King at a fundraiser at the New York Plaza Hotel for Bush’s run for president on April 12, 1988 (Image: AP/David Bookstaver)

Back in May of 1989, President George H. W. Bush wrote a letter to Donald Trump. Bush’s letter was meant to congratulate Trump for being named “Man of the Year” by the Police Athletic League of New York. It was right in the middle of the Central Park Jogger case, and an early draft of the letter seems to hint at how obnoxious Trump could be.

I obtained both an early draft and the final draft of the letter through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library. I wasn’t searching for this letter specifically, let alone an early draft of it. But it’s a fascinating, if relatively minor, artifact that shows how the president’s diplomatic sausage gets made.

The beginning of the letter is about what you’d expect and doesn’t change at all from the first version to the one that was ultimately sent to Trump. From the perspective of the year 2017, where Donald Trump is now the most powerful person in the world, it’s almost amusing that Bush calls him “Don.”

Dear Don:

I have just learned that the Police Athletic League of New York is honoring you as their “Man of the Year,” and I simply wanted to add my heartfelt congratulations to the many coming your way. They could not have picked a more deserving individual for this prestigious tribute.

So far, so good. But the first version of the letter includes an interesting second paragraph. Bush had just been elected president the previous November, and thanked Trump for his support. Trump had donated money to Bush’s campaign, held fundraisers for him, and was a vocal supporter all around. But by the end of the paragraph in the original letter, things get a bit passive aggressive.

Before going any further, I want to personally thank you for your generous support during the last presidential election. Any campaign that hopes to succeed must have the ability to attract dynamic and dedicated individuals to its camp. With you, we were fortunate enough to have a man rich in those qualities who cares deeply about our Nation, and is not afraid to speak his mind from time to time. And judging by the newspapers I read, you are quickly redefining the term “from time to time.”


The paragraph has handwritten notes, presumably from an assistant to the president, circling the word “rich” and proclaiming “no pun intended I hope!”

An early unsent draft of a letter by President George H. W. Bush to then-businessman Donald Trump in May of 1989 (George H. W. Bush Presidential Library)

So what had Trump been doing in the newspapers where he was “speaking his mind”? On May 1, 1989 Donald Trump took out full-page ads in four New York newspapers proclaiming, “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” The ads called for the death penalty for the so-called Central Park Five, a group of young men (four of them black and one Hispanic) who had been accused of raping and brutally beating a woman who was jogging in Central Park.

Trump’s ads referred to “roving bands of wild criminals” and said that the perpetrators “should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.” The Central Park Five spent years in prison before another man, already serving prison time for rape and murder, finally confessed to the crime in 2001. DNA evidence proved that he was the real perpetrator. Donald Trump never apologized for calling for the deaths of the young men who turned out to be innocent.

The ad purchased by Donald Trump calling for the death penalty of young men who would later be found innocent (left) and Donald J. Trump, future president of the United States in 1988 (AP)

Another notable change from the first version of the letter to the second is a softening of the tone involving the “sickness” of crime.


From the original draft:

And I can think of no finer role models than the heroic men and women of the New York City Police Department who serve as veterans on the front line in our never ending war against the sickness that is crime.


That line was ultimately changed to:

I can think of no finer role models for children than the heroic men and women of the New York City Police Department—men and women who devote their lives to upholding the law and protecting the safety of others.


So why did the President bother to write this letter in the first place? Henry Kravis, the chairman of the dinner for Man of the Year, asked him to write something that could be read at the event. (Kravis is a personal friend of Bush’s and was at the time the head of R.J. Reynolds Nabisco, the tobacco and food company.)

Letter from 1989 by Henry R. Kravis asking President George H. W. Bush to write a letter congratulating Donald Trump for being named the Police Athletic League of New York’s “Man of the Year” (George H. W. Bush Presidential Library)

You can compare the first draft of the letter by Bush to the final letter that was sent to Trump on May 11, 1989 below.

The first draft of a letter from President George H. W. Bush to Donald Trump in May 1989 (left) compared to the final letter that was sent (right) (George H. W. Bush Presidential Library)

What does George H. W. Bush think of Trump today? Well, Bush didn’t endorse Trump during the campaign, and it was even rumored that Bush voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Bush did plan on going to the inauguration before he fell ill.

The 92-year-old sent Trump a letter on January 10, 2017:

Dear Donald,

Barbara and I are so sorry we can’t be there for your Inauguration on January 20th. My doctor says if I sit outside in January, it likely will put me six feet under. Same for Barbara. So I guess we’re stuck in Texas.

But we will be with you and the country in spirit. I want you to know that I wish you the very best as you being this incredible journey of leading our great country. If I can ever be of help, please let me know.

All the best,

G. Bush

I guess “Don” got upgraded to “Donald” this time.


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About the author

Matt Novak

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog