Hill aides were unsure what the next step would be in following up on Comey’s explosive remarks. Though the late-night hospital visit to Ashcroft in March 2004 has been previously reported, the story had not been told by Comey.
Named acting attorney general while Ashcroft was hospitalized with pancreatitis, Comey told the committee of receiving a phone call from Ashcroft’s chief of staff while headed home on the night of March 10. He was told that Ashcroft would soon be receiving some unexpected visitors, and he immediately rushed to the hospital.
Comey and two senior Justice Department staffers stood guard at Ashcroft’s bedside, where Ashcroft’s wife held her husband’s hand. Soon, Gonzales and Card arrived “carrying an envelope.” Comey understood that Gonzales and Card were attempting to get Ashcroft to sign off on a program that Ashcroft and Comey had previously agreed had no legal basis.
According to Comey, Ashcroft “stunned me” by lifting his head and “in very strong terms” defended his views of the matter and said authority to sign off was in Comey’s hands.
“I was very upset. I was angry. I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man,” Comey recalled. “I thought it was improper.”
Comey later attended a late-night meeting at the White House with Card and Gonzales in which they disagreed with the department’s position that the program was illegal, and decided to sign off on it — without Justice approval — anyway.
On March 11, Comey prepared a letter of resignation and testified that Ashcroft, Ashcroft’s chief of staff and Comey’s own chief of staff also were prepared to resign.
The next day, Comey said he and FBI Director Robert Mueller, who also was at the hospital that night, went to the White House to give a regular briefing to President Bush. Afterward, they each met privately with the president, who conveyed that they should do what they thought was right. Under his guidance, the program was altered — though Comey wouldn’t specify how — in order to comply with the law.
Comey, who is now general counsel at Lockheed Martin, remained deputy attorney general for another year and a half until resigning in August 2005.