The most dramatic hearing I helped to arrange as chief counsel to a Senate subcommittee took place 10 years ago Monday, when James B. Comey, then deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, described how he and FBI Director Robert Mueller intervened at the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The encounter occurred in 2004, after White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales tried to overrule Comey’s and Mueller’s legal objection to a secret terrorist surveillance program. When the White House nonetheless sought the ailing Ashcroft’s blessing to proceed, Comey prepared to resign. Ultimately, Comey and Mueller prevailed.
Jim Comey was once my boss and remains my friend. I know that many people are mad at him. He has at different times become a cause for people’s frustration and anger on both sides of the aisle. Some of those people may have a point. But on this unsettling anniversary of that testimony, I am proud to know a man who had the courage to say no to a president.
And in the tumult of this time, the question whose answer we should perhaps fear the most is the one evoked by that showdown: Are there still public servants who are prepared to say no to the president?
Now, as the country once again wonders whether justice can be nonpolitical and whether its leaders understand the most basic principles of prosecutorial independence and the rule of law, I recall yet another firestorm that erupted 10 years ago over the abrupt and poorly explained firing of top Justice Department officials in the midst of sensitive investigations. The 2007 affair was not Watergate, the more popular parallel invoked lately, but the lessons of that spring, after the Bush administration inexplicably fired more than eight of its own U.S. attorneys, are worth recalling.
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