Racing A Power Play Through D.C. Streets
Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card's hospital ambush three years ago wasn't just distasteful, improper and in bad taste. As recounted in electrifying congressional testimony this week by James Comey -- the man who beat the two White House aides to John Ashcroft's intensive-care bedside -- it was also wrong and exploitative.
Not to mention a rank violation of the sort of trust that must exist at the highest echelons of government.
Hoping to end-run the Justice Department's refusal to reauthorize a controversial anti-terrorist spying program, Gonzales and Card drove through the darkened streets of Washington, D.C., the night of March 10, 2004.
They wanted to get the temporarily incapacitated Ashcroft to sign off on the program instead.
At the time, Ashcroft was so ill he had temporarily handed his duties over to his deputy, Comey. And Ashcroft's wife had barred visitors -- until she got a call from the White House a little before 8 p.m., telling her that Gonzales and Card were on the way.
Alerted by an Ashcroft aide, the 6-foot-8-inch Comey raced to the hospital and sprinted up the stairs, beating Gonzales and Card just in time to brief Ashcroft.
As a gauge of how shockingly wrong the circumstances were, FBI Director John Mueller then deemed it necessary to instruct, over the phone, the agents guarding Ashcroft not to allow anyone to evict Comey from Ashcroft's room.
Yet what's most disturbing of all was how President Bush handled the aftermath -- by protecting and promoting Gonzales, instead of rebuking him.
The president surely knew that his then-White House counsel had just manhandled both propriety and a "very sick man" to try to get the White House's way.
President Bush must have known the next day, when he approved a continuation of the secret National Security Agency eavesdropping without Justice Department approval, that he was acting contrary to Justice advice and his own, oft-repeated, guidelines for the program.
In fact, he did know -- because President Bush had to intervene personally to avert a "Saturday Night massacre" over the fallout from his actions.
After the White House learned that Comey, along with a number of other top Justice officials, including possibly Ashcroft and Mueller, were thinking of resigning over the incident, Bush spoke privately with Comey and then with Mueller. He talked them into staying by authorizing Comey, through Mueller, to make whatever adjustments to the eavesdropping program they deemed necessary to make it legal.
Comey, in his testimony Tuesday, made clear how grateful he was for this highly unusual opportunity to talk at length with the president, without managers and handlers present, on "something this important."
Yet it was the exception to a very troubling rule in this administration.
The Ashcroft-Gonzales story -- in which, according to Comey, Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief counsel, David Addington, also personally lobbied against the Justice Department view -- fits an emerging pattern in which the president's aides are able to promote extreme ideological positions with few brakes from the Oval Office.
This president values loyalty over process, straight-line results over debate and compromise.
The degree of denial, deception and disdain for the conventions of constitutional checks and balances traces directly to this topsy-turvy set of priorities, in which loyalty is at the top and legality somewhere lower.
Why would President Bush promote the very man who had just tried to exploit the illness of the previous attorney general? Why would he later defend that man after it became clear that he had lied to Congress and failed to exercise due diligence in the management of the Justice Department?
For the same reason that President Bush squelched an internal Justice probe into the secret surveillance program a year ago, after Gonzales asked him to do it: blind loyalty.
Those who ambushed a very sick man in the hospital weren't the only ones engaged in serial misjudgments. Those who enabled them are just as guilty.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan firstname.lastname@example.org.
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