When Jim Comey first learned that Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales were on their way to the George Washington Hospital room of John Ashcroft, his first call for help was to Bob Mueller. Comey knew that the White House chief of staff and the White House counsel would try to push the attorney general to renew the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program, code-named STELLAR WIND. Comey, who was then Ashcroft’s deputy, had spent the preceding weeks leading the charge against the White House and especially Vice President Dick Cheney against the program, which the Justice Department’s lawyers had determined was illegal. For days, Comey had weathered intense pressure to reauthorize STELLAR WIND, the debate escalating as the program’s expiration date neared. Cheney’s office had told Comey in no uncertain terms that if the program wasn’t OK'd, Americans would die—and their blood would be on Comey’s hands.
That night, though, Comey knew he had an ally to call. He asked Mueller, the ramrod-straight FBI director, to meet him at the hospital, but as his own car raced toward the hospital—its grill lights flashing and siren wailing—Comey realized that Mueller wouldn’t make it before the White House officials, so he asked for help: Don’t let them remove me, he asked Mueller.
Comey knew that Card would have Secret Service protection with him, and he was worried about being forcibly ejected by agents from Ashcroft’s hospital room. Ashcroft, weakened from gallbladder problems, was in no condition to sign off on STELLAR WIND—he’d legally turned the reins over to Comey while he was incapacitated—but, Comey feared, if the White House could isolate Ashcroft, who knew what it would do? Comey thought fast: Ashcroft had his own FBI security detail, and so he asked Mueller to call ahead and tell them not to allow the attorney general to be left alone. It was, in an extraordinary showdown between the White House and Justice Department, perhaps the single most extraordinary moment of the tumultuous Bush years: The FBI director ordering his agents to resist the Secret Service if they tried to remove the deputy attorney general from the attorney general’s bedside. As motorcades converged on the hospital from across Washington, everyone involved wondered: Just how far would this situation escalate?
It was all the more remarkable because no one outside of a tiny circle of high-ranking officials had any idea the cinematic showdown was playing out. It would be more than three years before Comey first mentioned that night’s drama, and the full details would trickle out only in the years thereafter.
The story of that March 11, 2004, showdown—how it came to light and what it says about the motivations and the moral compass of the two men now at the heart of a new Washington showdown—should deeply worry the Trump White House.
Donald Trump, as it turns out, has stumbled into taking on two experienced Washington players on their home turf—in skirmishes that will play out in public Capitol Hill hearings with Comey even as Mueller slogs along with what is likely to be a quiet, tenacious and by-the-book investigation into the heart of the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia.
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