The Flood Gates Open
James Comey's astonishing testimony before the Senate Justice Committee has the potential of making impeachment charges stick. Comey's testimony was as riviting as any suspense movie even when we know what actually happened. Here's what he said about waiting for Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales to show up at Attorney General Ashcroft's bedside when Ashcroft was critically ill:
And a week before that March 11th deadline, I had a private meeting with the attorney general for an hour, just the two of us, and I laid out for him what we had learned and what our analysis was in this particular matter.
And at the end of that hour-long private session, he and I agreed on a course of action. And within hours he was stricken and taken very, very ill...
SCHUMER: (inaudible) You thought something was wrong with how it was being operated or administered or overseen.
COMEY: We had -- yes. We had concerns as to our ability to certify its legality, which was our obligation for the program to be renewed.
The attorney general was taken that very afternoon to George Washington Hospital, where he went into intensive care and remained there for over a week. And I became the acting attorney general.
And over the next week -- particularly the following week, on Tuesday -- we communicated to the relevant parties at the White House and elsewhere our decision that as acting attorney general I would not certify the program as to its legality and explained our reasoning in detail, which I will not go into here. Nor am I confirming it's any particular program.
That was Tuesday that we communicated that.
COMEY: The next day was Wednesday, March the 10th, the night of the hospital incident. And I was headed home at about 8 o'clock that evening, my security detail was driving me. And I remember exactly where I was -- on Constitution Avenue -- and got a call from Attorney General Ashcroft's chief of staff telling me that he had gotten a call...
SCHUMER: What's his name?
COMEY: David Ayers.
That he had gotten a call from Mrs. Ashcroft from the hospital. She had banned all visitors and all phone calls. So I hadn't seen him or talked to him because he was very ill. And Mrs. Ashcroft reported that a call had come through, and that as a result of that call Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales were on their way to the hospital to see Mr. Ashcroft.
SCHUMER: Do you have any idea who that call was from?
COMEY: I have some recollection that the call was from the president himself, but I don't know that for sure. It came from the White House. And it came through and the call was taken in the hospital.
So I hung up the phone, immediately called my chief of staff, told him to get as many of my people as possible to the hospital immediately. I hung up, called Director Mueller and -- with whom I'd been discussing this particular matter and had been a great help to me over that week -- and told him what was happening. He said, "I'll meet you at the hospital right now."
Told my security detail that I needed to get to George Washington Hospital immediately. They turned on the emergency equipment and drove very quickly to the hospital.
I got out of the car and ran up -- literally ran up the stairs with my security detail.
SCHUMER: What was your concern? You were in obviously a huge hurry.
COMEY: I was concerned that, given how ill I knew the attorney general was, that there might be an effort to ask him to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that.
SCHUMER: Right, OK.
COMEY: I was worried about him, frankly.
And so I raced to the hospital room, entered. And Mrs. Ashcroft was standing by the hospital bed, Mr. Ashcroft was lying down in the bed, the room was darkened. And I immediately began speaking to him, trying to orient him as to time and place, and try to see if he could focus on what was happening, and it wasn't clear to me that he could. He seemed pretty bad off.
SCHUMER: At that point it was you, Mrs. Ashcroft and the attorney general and maybe medical personnel in the room. No other Justice Department or government officials.
COMEY: Just the three of us at that point.
I tried to see if I could help him get oriented. As I said, it wasn't clear that I had succeeded.
I went out in the hallway. Spoke to Director Mueller by phone. He was on his way. I handed the phone to the head of the security detail and Director Mueller instructed the FBI agents present not to allow me to be removed from the room under any circumstances.
And I went back in the room.
Here's a very capable Deputy Attorney General who is at that time the acting Attorney General and he's worried about the equivalent of a coup. A situation where the White House wants something so bad they are willing to coerce it from a very sick man and to cut out the legitimate AG at the time. It is a telling tale that strips off the mask of normality from this White House.
Arlen Specter is finally upset enough to call for Gonzales' dismissal.
He added that it would be "embarrassing" for any self-respecting lawyer to work for the U.S. Justice Department so long as Gonzales remained at the helm of the nation's premier law enforcement agency.
"It is the decision of Mr. Gonzales as to whether he stays or goes. But it is hard to see how the Department of Justice can function and perform its important duties with Mr. Gonzales remaining where he is," Specter said at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Yet, the White House continues to stand by their man.
Here's how Dahlia Lithwick summarizes where things stand:
Today's revelations shouldn't be much of a surprise. Gonzales had nothing but contempt for the Justice Department back when he worked for the president, and he has nothing but contempt for the Justice Department now that he, well, still works for the president. Nevertheless, if this whole sordid U.S. attorney scandal wanted for a metaphor, it need search no longer. Here's the Rule of Law lying in critical condition in its hospital bed, while the man now charged with its stewardship runs roughshod over it, all in the name of expanding presidential power.
Although Bush clings to his man, the world now sees the true character of the man he put in charge of the Department of Justice. A snake and dissembler who has the chutzpah to say his out-of-the-loop Deputy Attorny General McNulty was totally responsible for selecting the attorneys to fire. Sure he was. Gonzales' ugly capo act is finally exposed for all to see.