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Cheney Shielded Bush From Crisis

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft told the president's men that he never should have certified the wiretapping program.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft told the president's men that he never should have certified the wiretapping program. (Ezio Petersen - Newscom)
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Did peripheral vision mean a broader view of the consequences?

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"Yes," Card replied. "It was like -- I don't want to limit it to this particular matter, but that's part of a chief of staff's job. A lot of people who work in the White House have tunnel vision, and not an awful lot of people have peripheral vision. And I think the chief of staff is one of the people who should have peripheral vision."

Card didn't really need the corner of his eye to see a disaster at hand. Even so, Bush didn't know what his subordinates knew that Thursday morning.

Cheney, Addington, Card and Gonzales had plenty of data. Card had heard the news directly from Comey the night before. On Thursday, the FBI director delivered much the same warning.

For Cheney, it didn't matter much whether one official or 10 or 20 took a walk. Maybe they were bluffing, maybe not. The principle was the same: Do what has to be done.

"The president of the United States is the chief law enforcement officer -- that was the Cheney view," said Bartlett, Bush's counselor, who was later briefed into the program and the events of the day. "You can't let resignations deter you if you're doing what's right."

Cheney and Addington "were ready to go to the mat," he said, and the vice president's position boiled down to this: " 'That's why we're leaders, that's why we're here. Take the political hit. You've got to do it.' "

* * *

Addington opened the code-word-classified file on his computer. He had a presidential directive to rewrite.

It has been widely reported that Bush executed the March 11 order with a blank space over the attorney general's signature line. That is not correct [15]. For reasons both symbolic and practical, the vice president's lawyer could not tolerate an empty spot where a mutinous subordinate should have signed. Addington typed a substitute signature line: "Alberto R. Gonzales."

What Addington wrote for Bush that day was more transcendent than that. He drew up new language in which the president relied on his own authority to certify the program as lawful. Bush expressly overrode the Justice Department and any act of Congress or judicial decision that purported to constrain his power as commander in chief. Only Richard M. Nixon, in an interview after leaving the White House in disgrace, claimed authority so nearly unlimited [16].

The specter of future prosecutions hung over the program, now that Justice had ruled it illegal.

"Pardon was in the air," said one of the lawyers involved.

It was possible to construct a case, he said, in which those who planned and carried out the program were engaged in a criminal conspiracy. That would be tendentious, this lawyer believed, but with a change of government it could not be ruled out.

"I'm sure when we leave office we're all going to be hauled up before congressional committees and grand juries," Addington told one colleague in disgust.

* * *

Bush signed the directive before leaving for New York around lunchtime on Thursday, March 11, 2004.

Comey got word a couple of hours later. He sat down and typed a letter.

"Over the last two weeks . . . I and the Department of Justice have been asked to be part of something that is fundamentally wrong," he wrote [17]. "As we have struggled over these last days to do the right thing, I have never been prouder of the Department of Justice or of the Attorney General. Sadly, although I believe this has been one of the institution's finest hours, we have been unable to right that wrong. . . . Therefore, with a heavy heart and undiminished love of my country and my Department, I resign as Deputy Attorney General of the United States, effective immediately."

David Ayres, Ashcroft's chief of staff, pleaded with Comey to wait a few days [18]. He was certain that Ashcroft would want to quit alongside him. Comey agreed to hold his letter through the weekend.

Bush was not a man to second-guess himself. By Friday morning, he would need new facts to save him. Somebody, finally, would have to tell him something.

It was Rice, largely in the dark herself, who threw the president a lifeline. She had a few minutes alone with him, shortly before 7:30 a.m., on the day after he renewed the surveillance order. She told Bush about Comey's agitated approach, the day before, to Frances Fragos Townsend, the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism. This was no way to keep a secret.

"It was a compartmented issue," Rice recalled in an interview [19]. "Obviously, there was a security issue here and not just a legal one, because you didn't want this sort of bumping around."

Rice made a suggestion.

Comey is "a reasonable guy," she told the president. "You really need to make sure that you are hearing these folks out."

An hour later, Comey and Robert Mueller arrived at the White House for the regular 8:30 terrorism briefing. They had a lot to cover: Bombs aboard commuter trains in Madrid had killed 191 people.

Both men told aides that this would be their last day in government. There would be no door-slamming, but the president had made his choice and they had made theirs.

Bush stood as the meeting ended, crossing behind Cheney's chair. Comey moved in the opposite direction, on his way out. He had nearly reached the grandfather clock at the door, two witnesses said, when the president said, "Jim, can I talk to you for a minute? [20]"

Bush nodded toward the private dining room a few steps from his desk, the one he shared with Cheney once a week. This time the vice president was not invited.

"I'll wait for you downstairs," Mueller told Comey.

* * *

By now, around 9:15 Friday morning, Bush knew enough to be nervous about what the acting attorney general might do. That did not mean he planned to reverse himself. One high-ranking adviser said there was still an "optimism that maybe you can finesse your way through this."

Afterward, in conversations with aides, the two men described the meeting in similar terms.

"You don't look well," Bush began.

Oldest trick in the book. Establish dominance, put the other guy off his game [21].

"Well, I feel okay."

"I'm worried about you. You look burdened."

"I am, Mr. President. I feel like there's a tremendous burden on me."

"Let me lift that burden from your shoulders," Bush said. "Let me be the one who makes the decision here."

"Mr. President, I would love to be able to do that."

Bush's tone grew crisp.

"I decide what the law is for the executive branch," he said.

"That's absolutely true, sir, you do. But I decide what the Department of Justice can certify to and can't certify to, and despite my absolute best efforts, I simply cannot in the circumstances."

Comey had majored in religion, William and Mary Class of 1982. He might have made a connection with Bush if he had quoted a verse from Scripture. The line that came to him belonged to a 16th-century theologian who defied an emperor.

"As Martin Luther said, 'Here I stand; I can do no other,' " Comey said. "I've got to tell you, Mr. President, that's where I am."

Now Bush said something that floored Comey.

"I just wish that you weren't raising this at the last minute."

The last minute! He didn't know.

The president kept talking. Not the way it's supposed to work, popping up with news like this. The day before a deadline?

Wednesday. He didn't know until Wednesday. No wonder he sent Card and Gonzales to the hospital.

"Oh, Mr. President, if you've been told that, you have been very poorly served by your advisers," Comey said. "We have been telling them for months we have a huge problem here."

"Give me six weeks," Bush asked. One more renewal.

"I can't do that," Comey said. "You do say what the law is in the executive branch, I believe that. And people's job, if they're going to stay in the executive branch, is to follow that. But I can't agree, and I'm just sorry."

If they're going to stay.

Comey was edging toward a breach of his rule against resignation threats.

This man just needs to know what's about to happen.

"I think you should know that Director Mueller is going to resign today," Comey said.

Bush raised his eyebrows. He shifted in his chair. He could not hide it, or did not try. He was gobsmacked.

"Thank you very much for telling me that," he said.

Comey hurried down to Mueller, who sat in the foyer outside the Situation Room. A Secret Service agent followed close behind. The president would like to see you, the agent told Mueller.

Comey pulled out his BlackBerry and sent a note to six colleagues at 9:27 a.m.

"The president just took me into his private office for a 15 minute one on one talk," he wrote [22]. "Told him he was being misled and poorly served. We had a very full and frank exchange. Don't know that either of us can see a way out. . . . Told him Mueller was about to resign. He just pulled Bob into his office."

The FBI director was no more tractable than Comey. This was a rule-of-law question, he told the president, and the answer was in the Justice Department [23]. The FBI could not participate in operations that Justice held to be in breach of criminal law. If those were his orders, he would respectfully take his leave.

And there it was, unfinessable. Bush was out of running room, all the way out. He had only just figured out that the brink was near, and now he stood upon it.

Not 24 hours earlier, the president had signed his name to an in-your-face rejection of the attorney general's ruling on the law. Now he had two bad choices. March on, with all the consequences. Or retreat.

The president stepped back from the precipice. He gave Mueller a message for Comey.

"Tell Jim to do what Justice thinks needs to be done," he said.

Seven days later, Bush amended his March 11 directive. The legal certification belonged again to the attorney general. The surveillance program stopped doing some things, and it did other things differently. Much of the operation remained in place. Not all of it.

* * *

Because Bush did not walk off the cliff, and because so much of the story was suppressed, an extraordinary moment in presidential history passed unrecognized.

"I mean, it would be damn near unprecedented for the top echelon of your Justice Department to resign over a position you've taken," Bartlett said.

There might be one precedent, he allowed. He did not want to spell it out.

"Not a good one," he said.

During the Watergate scandal, the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned, refusing to carry out Richard Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor. Nixon lost his top two Justice officials, and that was called the Saturday Night Massacre.

Bush had come within minutes of losing his FBI director and at least the top five layers at Justice. What would they call that? Suicide, maybe?

"You don't have to be the smartest guy to figure out that [mass resignations] would be pretty much the most devastating thing that could happen to your administration," said Mark Corallo, Ashcroft's communications director and, during Bush's first race for the White House, chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "The rush to hearings on the Hill, both in the House and Senate, would be unbelievable. The media frenzy that would have ensued would have been unlike anything we've ever seen. That's when you're getting into Watergate territory."

Long after departing as chief of staff, Card held fast to the proposition that whatever happened was nobody's business, and no big deal anyway [24].

"I think you're writing about something that's irrelevant," Card said. "Voyeurism."

Because?

"Nobody resigned over this," he said. It all boiled down to trash talk: " 'Oh, I was gonna swing at the pitch but it was too high.' "

That seems unlikely to stand as history's verdict. In the fourth year of his presidency, a man who claimed the final word was forced by subordinates to comply with their ruling on the law. Ashcroft, Comey, Goldsmith, Philbin -- believers, one and all, in the "unitary executive branch" -- obliged the commander in chief to stand down. For the first time, a president claimed in writing that he alone could say what the law was. A rebellion, in direct response, became so potent a threat that Bush reversed himself in a day.

"This is the first time when the president of the United States really wanted something in wartime, and tried to overrule the Department of Justice, and the law held," said Goldsmith, after studying similar conflicts under Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the aftermath, the White House senior staff asked questions. Was the president getting timely information and advice? Had he relinquished too much control to Cheney?

Bush, aides said, learned something he would not forget. Cheney was the nearest thing to an anti-politician in elected office. Bush could not afford to be like that. In his second term, his second chance, the president would take greater care to consult his own instincts.

"Cheney was not afraid of giving pure, kind of principled advice," Bartlett said. "He thinks from a policy standpoint, and I think he does this out of pure intentions. He thinks of the national security interest or the prerogatives of the executive. The president has other considerations he has to take into account. The political fallout of certain reactions -- he's just going to calculate different than Cheney does."

"He grew accustomed to that," Bartlett said.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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