James Comey Talks Barr, Mueller, and Trump on CNN
Comey’s ubiquity stands in stark contrast to Mueller, whose resolute commitment to silence lasted, perhaps to a fault, for the entirety of his two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump had obstructed justice by trying to thwart his probe. While Mueller’s position has clearly been to let his work do the talking, Comey’s career has been defined by moments in which he has chosen to speak up, either in public or in private.
It seems a lifetime ago now, but the formative moment in Comey’s time as a public figure occurred a decade before he was fired as FBI director, nearly to the day. That was the day he gave riveting testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about his role in an episode in which he resisted, verbally and, in a way, physically, an attempt by the George W. Bush White House to persuade an ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft to certify the legality of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. Hospitalized for pancreatitis, Ashcroft had transferred his powers as attorney general to Comey, his deputy, who had refused to recertify the program ahead of a swiftly approaching deadline. Bush was adamant that the program continue, so he dispatched his chief of staff, Andrew Card, and the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to get Ashcroft’s signature instead. At first hesitantly, then dramatically, Comey recounted how he rushed to the hospital— “I got out of the car and literally ran up the stairs”—and stood sentry with Ashcroft’s wife waiting for the Bush aides to arrive.
Ashcroft was barely lucid. When Card and Gonzales showed up, Comey told the committee, Ashcroft “stunned” him by fully backing Comey on the substance and deferring to him as the acting chief of the Justice Department. “There is the attorney general,” Ashcroft said, pointing at Comey. When Bush reauthorized the program anyway the next day, despite lacking certification from the Justice Department, Comey prepared a resignation letter, along with, in his telling, then–FBI Director Robert Mueller and several other senior Justice Department officials. Bush backed down.
The comparisons to a Hollywood movie were inescapable—not only the inherent drama of the climactic hospital-room confrontation, but Comey’s sober but jaw-dropping retelling of it. A star was born. Here was Mr. Comey Goes to Washington, a humble public servant heroically standing up to political pressure and upholding the rule of law. “I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man,” Comey told the Senate.
That testimony set the stage for all that was to follow. It established Comey’s reputation as a Republican who would confront his own party, culminating in a Democratic president, Barack Obama, naming him to succeed Mueller as FBI director in 2013. And though it wasn’t necessarily apparent at the time, the hearing revealed Comey’s flair for the dramatic. Here was someone who not only did the right thing, but wanted the world to know he had done the right thing.