In the spring of 2007, a story was bubbling around Washington, D.C., circles about a dramatic confrontation that had taken place at the hospital bed of former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The details were tightly held. But among those privy to them was a little-known congressional staffer who would go on to more famous trappings.
Preet Bharara was, at the time, senior counsel to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). And in a previous job, he had worked as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York where he served under then-U.S. Attorney James Comey ― a man who would go on to more famous trappings himself.
The two stayed in touch over the years, which is how Bharara became aware of the explosive story in which Comey was a main protagonist. The story itself dates back to March 2004, when Comey, then the deputy attorney general, made a mad dash to Ashcroft’s hospital to stop President George W. Bush’s Counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief of staff Andy Card from pressuring the attorney general to sign off on a reauthorization of a government surveillance program. Comey had concluded that the program was unconstitutional. And he and then-FBI Director Robert Mueller beat Gonzales and Card to the bed where Ashcroft lay stricken with gallstone pancreatitis. They threatened to resign if overruled. Though Bush would end up continuing the surveillance program without the Department of Justice’s approval, he directed officials to modify it in accordance with Comey’s legal concerns.
Details of the debate over the surveillance program made their way into the press subsequently. But the drama of the stand off remained unknown. Until 2007.
By then, Gonzales had gone on to become attorney general himself. And after he fired several U.S. attorneys for not taking on political cases, he was summoned to testify about the matter before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s oversight subcommittee, which Schumer chaired. Prior to the hearing, Bharara called up Comey, who had left the DOJ, to tell him to testify. And it was during that talk that Comey relayed the full account of the Ashcroft hospital bed confrontation.
Bharara, who served until recently as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District (yes, Comey’s old spot), told the New Yorker he was blown away. So was Schumer. The two worked with Comey to convince him to tell his story. And then, they told no one else.
When Comey sat down to testify, the usually loquacious Schumer asked a simple question (”why did you rush to the hospital?”) and let Comey speak. It was one of the most dramatic testimonies in recent congressional history. As The Washington Post’s Paul Kane wrote: “You could hear a pin drop in the Dirksen hearing room, and in fact we did, when one reporter ― stunned at what he was hearing ― literally just dropped his pen onto the press table.”
The legend of Jim Comey, man of immense integrity and fidelity to the law, was born in that moment. And it would follow him to the FBI, where he took over as director in May 2013.
His tenure there ended this week after he joined Bharara among those fired by President Donald Trump. The reasons for the dismissal remain disputed and unclear but, either way, Comey’s reputation had already grown more complicated by that point in time. He had muddied it himself with his handling of investigations into 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account and server, as well as his approach to potential ties between Trump and the Russian government during the 2016 elections. Trump’s sacking may have sparked outrage among Democrats. But few, if any, were rushing to make Comey a martyr.
In a teaser episode of this upcoming season of “Candidate Confessional,” HuffPost’s Ryan Reilly and Matthew Miller, a former Schumer aide and one-time press secretary of the DOJ, discuss the rise and fall of Comey; from the moment he emerged in that Judiciary Committee hearing room in 2007 to the comments that precipitated his dismissal this past week. Along the way, they entertained the possibility that the former FBI director with a flair for the dramatic congressional testimony, may have one more act left.
LISTEN TO THE EPISODE AT THE TOP OF THE ENTRY.
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Candidate Confessional is produced by Zach Young