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Ashcroft and the Night Visitors

Jim Comey tells of Alberto Gonzales's bedside manner.
Jim Comey tells of Alberto Gonzales's bedside manner. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

As if Attorney General Alberto Gonzales didn't have enough trouble, now comes word that, before coming to the Justice Department, Gonzales preyed on the infirm.

In hair-raising testimony before a Senate committee yesterday, Jim Comey, the former No. 2 official at the Justice Department, described what might be called the Wednesday Night Massacre of March 10, 2004. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card staged a bedside ambush of Attorney General John Ashcroft while he lay in intensive care. Comey, serving as acting attorney general during Ashcroft's incapacitation, testified about how, on a tip from Ashcroft's wife, he intercepted the pair in Ashcroft's hospital room.

"The door opened and in walked Mr. Gonzales, carrying an envelope, and Mr. Card," Comey told the spellbound senators. "They came over and stood by the bed." They wanted Ashcroft to sign off on an eavesdropping plan that Comey and others at the Justice Department had already called legally indefensible.

Ashcroft "lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter" -- that Comey was right. "And as he laid back down, he said, 'But that doesn't matter, because I'm not the attorney general. There is the attorney general.' And he pointed to me."

Gonzales and Card "did not acknowledge me," Comey testified. "They turned and walked from the room."

The Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee stared. The lone Republican in attendance, Arlen Specter (Pa.), looked down. The 6-foot-8 Comey, slightly hunched in the witness chair, swallowed frequently and kept his hands in his lap as he spun a narrative worthy of Dashiell Hammett.

"I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man," Comey told the quiet chamber. His voice grew thick and he cleared his throat as he explained how he prepared to resign. "I couldn't stay, if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis."

Comey had come before the committee to discuss Gonzales's botched firing of U.S. attorneys. Instead, under questioning from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), he gave his account of Gonzales's dark-of-night attempt to emasculate the department he would soon lead. The testimony had all the more impact because it came the morning after Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty became the fourth senior official to resign in the prosecutor mess.

If Comey's testimony had the grip of mystery yesterday, Gonzales's defense had the feel of farce, as he heaped blame on McNulty for the mishandled firings. "The deputy attorney general is the direct supervisor of the United States attorneys," Gonzales volunteered at a National Press Club breakfast. He added: "I went back to the deputy attorney general and I asked Paul, 'Do you still stand by the recommendations?' And he said, 'Yes.' "

At the hearing, Specter offered a different view of McNulty's departure. "It's embarrassing for a professional to work for the Department of Justice today," he said, calling the resignation "evidence that the department really cannot function with the continued leadership or lack of leadership of Attorney General Gonzales."

Despite public pleas from a "lonely" Specter, the other Republicans on the committee didn't risk an appearance. Even the White House declined to counter Comey, who has a reputation for honesty. "You've got somebody who has splashy testimony on Capitol Hill -- good for him," presidential press secretary Tony Snow dodged.

In truth, nothing Snow could have said would have matched Comey's testimony. Comey recounted how, while driving home at 8 p.m. on that day in 2004, he got word that Mrs. Ashcroft had received a call -- possibly from President Bush himself -- to say Gonzales and Card were coming.

"I told my security detail that I needed to get to George Washington Hospital immediately. They turned on the emergency equipment and drove very quickly," Comey testified. "I got out of the car and ran up -- literally ran up the stairs with my security detail. . . . I raced to the hospital room, entered." The room was dark, and Ashcroft was "pretty bad off."

In Comey's account, he got FBI Director Robert Mueller to tell his agents guarding Ashcroft not to let Card and Gonzales evict Comey from the room. A few minutes after the bedside confrontation, Card called the hospital. He "demanded that I come to the White House immediately," Comey testified. "I responded that, after the conduct I had just witnessed, I would not meet with him without a witness present."

"He replied, 'What conduct? We were just there to wish him well.' " After Card demanded to know if Comey was "refusing to come to the White House," Comey, with the solicitor general, finally arrived at the West Wing at 11 p.m. His narrative covered the next two days, ending when Bush intervened and avoided a spate of resignations.

The senators had some trouble finding words for what they had heard. "This story makes me gulp," Schumer said.

Specter invoked the firing of the Watergate prosecutor. "It has some characteristics of the Saturday Night Massacre," he said. And the senator left little doubt about whom he blamed.

"Can you give us an example of an exercise of good judgment by Alberto Gonzales?" he asked.

This time, Comey had no narrative. "Let the record show a very long pause," Specter said.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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