When Justice is Hospitalized

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007; 8:28 AM

By the standards of Washington, where the most exciting development usually involves someone writing a memo or inserting an amendment, what happened with Alberto Gonzales and John Ashcroft is right out of a Hollywood movie. A low-budget B-movie, perhaps, but it has a cinematic quality nonetheless.

The attorney general, seriously ill and hospitalized. The president, wanting to get his secret eavesdropping program authorized by the Justice Department. The White House counsel (Gonzales), rushing to the hospital to try to get the incapacitated Ashcroft to sign the document. The deputy attorney general (James Comey), convinced that the program is illegal, racing to the scene to foil the plan. The weakened Ashcroft refusing to sign. The deputy threatening to quit.

And this is no mere rumor or secondhand account. Comey described the 2004 incident in dramatic fashion in his congressional testimony this week. And that prompted this question yesterday, at the Bush-Blair farewell presser, from NBC's Kelly O'Donnell:

"Sir, did you send your then Chief of Staff and White House Counsel to the bedside of John Ashcroft while he was ill to get him to approve that program? And do you believe that kind of conduct from White House officials is appropriate?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Kelly, there's a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn't happen; I'm not going to talk about it. It's a very sensitive program."

Excuse me, it's not speculation. It is the sworn testimony of the man you appointed as the second-ranking law-enforcement officer in the land. And while the program may be sensitive--it's no longer secret--the question wasn't about the inner workings of attempts to spy on terrorists. It was about whether the attempt by Gonzales and Andy Card to get the ailing Ashcroft to sign from his sickbed was proper. Bush chose to dodge the question instead.

"Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's standing in Congress became even shakier today as Senate Democrats called for a vote of no confidence in him," the New York Times reports, "and the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and others predicted that the furor over Mr. Gonzales's leadership of the Justice Department would end with his resignation."

How many times have we heard that prediction?

"Mr. Gonzales's position was weakened by disclosures this week about his involvement in 2004, when he was White House counsel, in an attempt to circumvent Justice Department officials who had refused to renew authority for the Bush administration's secret domestic eavesdropping program.

"Those disclosures were cited this afternoon by Senators Charles E. Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, both Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, called for a no-confidence vote on Mr. Gonzales."

Says the L.A. Times: "After appearing to have weathered the worst of the Justice Department scandal, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales found himself under fresh assault Thursday on the heels of this week's revelations about his conduct in the Bush administration. Gonzales suffered withering attacks from two Republican senators and a former prosecutor as Senate Democrats added pressure of their own, calling for a no-confidence vote on the attorney general's performance."

But the Gonzo-Meter is only up to 57 percent. It used to be so much higher.

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