The revelation by fired former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey’s close friends that he has kept meticulous records detailing President Donald Trump’s alleged attempts to improperly influence an ongoing FBI investigation has sent Washington into a tailspin. Did Trump really threaten a sitting FBI director in a private meeting? Did the former FBI director accurately record what happened? Could this be the beginning of the end of Trump?
At the moment, untangling fact from fiction is difficult, given that the event Comey allegedly describes took place only between Comey and the president. With no ability at this time to independently verify either man’s account, we are instead left with a he-said/he-said explanation of events, which means the credibility of the two men involved becomes the prime determinant of one’s view of the situation.
The narrative from the Acela corridor media establishment is that Trump is a known liar and Comey is an honest public servant above reproach, so clearly Comey’s word must be believed, the total absence of any other corroborating evidence notwithstanding. An examination of Comey’s history as the consummate Beltway operator, however, raises questions about whether the towering former U.S. attorney, deputy attorney general, and FBI director is as open and forthright as his allies would have you believe.
In fact, the current episode is not the first time Comey and his associates plotted to oust a sitting Republican official through highly orchestrated political theater and carefully crafted narratives in which Comey is the courageous hero bravely fighting to preserve the rule of law. To understand how Comey came to be FBI director in the first place, and how he operates in the political arena, it is important to review the last scandal in which Comey had a front-row seat: the 2007 U.S. attorney firings and the fight over the 2004 reauthorization of Stellar Wind, a mass National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program designed to mitigate terrorist threats in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
The pivotal scene in the Comey-crafted narrative, a drama that made Comey famous and likely paved the road to his 2013 appointment by President Barack Obama to run the FBI, occurred in a Beltway hospital room in early 2004. In Comey’s view, Comey was the last honest man in Washington, the only person standing between a White House that rejected any restraints on its power, and the rule of law protecting Americans from illegal mass surveillance.
A former White House counsel and attorney general with extensive first-hand experience dealing with Comey, however, paints a very different picture of what happened in that hospital room, and disputes numerous key details. In this account, Comey’s actions showcase a duplicitous, secretive schemer whose true loyalties were not to the officials to whom he reported, but to partisan Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). To fully understand and appreciate Jim Comey’s approach to politics, the writings and testimony of Alberto Gonzales, who served as both White House counsel and attorney general during the events in question and is intimately aware of Comey’s history of political maneuvering, is absolutely essential.
Gonzales’s descriptions of his interactions with Comey, included in his 2016 book “True Faith And Allegiance,” are detailed and extensive. While his tone is measured, the language he uses to describe Comey’s actions in 2004 and 2007 leaves little doubt about the former top Bush official’s views on Comey’s character. Gonzales’s opinion is clearly colored by the fact that Comey cravenly used him to jumpstart his own political career by going public with surprise (and questionable) testimony that Gonzales had attempted to take advantage of a deathly ill man in order to ram through authorization of an illegal surveillance program.
Bush’s Attorney General John Ashcroft had taken ill and was in the hospital at a pivotal time. The legal authorization of a surveillance program meant to find and root out terrorist threats was days from expiring. What happened in Ashcroft’s hospital room in March of 2004 later became political fodder for a hearing in which Senate Democrats used Comey to dredge up the 2004 hospital meeting to tar Gonzales’ credibility and suggest he was unfit to continue serving as attorney general. As the 2004 and 2007 sagas show, Comey is clearly no stranger to using the unarguably legal dismissal of government employees as the backdrop for casting himself as the story’s protaganist standing up to the forces of corruption.
“[I] told my security detail that I needed to get to George Washington Hospital immediately. They turned on the emergency equipment and drove very quickly to the hospital,” Comey testified. “I got out of the car and ran up — literally ran up the stairs with my security detail.”
“I was concerned that, given how ill I knew the attorney general was, that there might be an effort to ask him to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that,” Comey said.
Comey’s use of the phrase “overrule me” is especially noteworthy, given that the authority he referenced belongs not to the deputy attorney general, but to the attorney general himself. However, unbeknownst to anyone at the White House on that day, Comey had assumed for himself the authorities attendant to Ashcroft’s position. Rather than personally informing anyone at the White House, including the president, the vice president, the White House chief of staff, or the White House counsel, the Department of Justice sent a mere fax to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue noting the change in power. For some reason, the newly designated acting attorney general didn’t feel compelled to personally inform any of his superiors that he was now a cabinet official.
It’s at this point in the narrative that Comey’s testimony took a turn for the dramatic:
I sat down in an armchair by the head of the attorney general’s bed. The two other Justice Department people stood behind me. And Mrs. Ashcroft stood by the bed holding her husband’s arm. And we waited.
And it was only a matter of minutes that the door opened and in walked Mr. Gonzales, carrying an envelope, and Mr. Card. They came over and stood by the bed. They greeted the attorney general very briefly. And then Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there — to seek his approval for a matter, and explained what the matter was — which I will not do.
And Attorney General Ashcroft then stunned me. He lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which stunned me — drawn from the hour-long meeting we’d had a week earlier — and in very strong terms expressed himself, and then laid his head back down on the pillow, seemed spent, and said to them, ‘But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general.’
And as he laid back down, he said, ‘But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general. There is the attorney general,’ and he pointed to me, and I was just to his left. The two men did not acknowledge me. They turned and walked from the room. And within just a few moments after that, Director Mueller arrived. I told him quickly what had happened. He had a brief — a memorable brief exchange with the attorney general and then we went outside in the hallway.
Gonzales was taken aback by Comey’s appearance and testimony. It turns out that was by design. Comey kept secret his pre-hearing planning with Schumer and his staff to maximize the fallout of the bomb he planned to drop on Gonzales and the Bush administration. In a significant breach of protocol, Comey also refused to share with the White House or the Department of Justice that he had planned to testify about his work at DOJ, a move which made it impossible for the White House to consider whether it needed to assert executive privilege over portions of Comey’s planned testimony.
As fate would have it, the Schumer staffer who spearheaded the entire spectacle was none other than Preet Bharara, a former employee of Comey’s in the U.S. attorney’s office in New York. Bharara, like Comey, was fired by President Donald Trump earlier this year. And Bharara, like Comey, owes his most recent position of authority in the U.S. government to Schumer and President Barack Obama.
“When I found out from our DOJ legislative liaison that Comey was testifying, I was surprised,” Gonzales wrote after noting that Comey hadn’t worked at DOJ for years when the U.S. attorneys were fired. “It was also odd that we had received no notice at DOJ regarding the appearance of one of the former members of our leadership team at a Senate hearing.”
“I called the White House counsel Fred Fielding, and Fred confirmed that he had no prior notice of Comey’s testimony either,” Gonzales continued. “I was disappointed that the man who had been given so much in his legal career — appointed by President Bush as a U.S. attorney and then as deputy attorney general — did not even notify the White House or me in advance of his testimony.”
“It felt to me that Jim’s loyalty was more to his friend Preet Bharara and to Chuck Schumer,” he wrote.
Gonzales also questioned whether Bharara’s role in ambushing the previous Republican presidential administration was the reason Obama later appointed Bharara to Comey’s old job as U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York.
Comey’s 2007 testimony went off just as he, Bharara, and Schumer planned. It was shocking and dramatic. Comey weaved a tale that involved him being notified at the last possible second that Bush’s chief of staff and counsel planned to ambush Ashcroft in his hospital bed and force him against his will to sign a legal document authorizing an ongoing mass surveillance program that Comey and his deputy, Jack Goldsmith, had very recently decided was illegal despite multiple DOJ and National Security Agency legal opinions to the contrary. According to Gonzales, despite having been on the job for months, Comey and Goldsmith didn’t disclose their concerns to the White House counsel about the legality of the surveillance initiative until March 6, just five days before the program’s authorization expired.
The narrative Comey provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee was riveting. But according to Gonzales, it didn’t actually happen the way it was presented. And the conflicting details between Comey’s and Gonzales’ account, given Comey’s current attempts to use his credibility and recollection of events witnessed only by himself to take down a Republican official, raise significant questions about the trustworthiness of Comey’s current claims.
According to Gonzales, rather than sitting directly next to Ashcroft, Comey and his two deputies, Goldsmith and Pat Philbin, never made their presence known, and neither Gonzales nor Andy Card, Bush’s chief of staff, had any clue they were there during the 10-minute meeting. To the contrary, Gonzales noted in his book that he assumed the small handful of people hiding in the periphery of a darkened room were actually Ashcroft’s security detail doing their best to stay out of the way.
More important, in Gonzales’ telling, Ashcroft never even mentioned Comey, let alone pointed him out to Gonzales as being physically present in the room.
“I was told this morning that I’m no longer attorney general,” Gonzales wrote was Ashcroft’s response to a request to re-authorize the Stellar Wind program, a far cry from the forceful declaration Comey attributed to Ashcroft.
“Certainly, had the vice president, Andy, or I known about the matter, we would have informed the president, and he could have simply summoned the deputy attorney general,” Gonzales wrote. “But none of us knew until John Ashcroft announced the news to us in his hospital room.”
President George W. Bush himself, in his book “Decision Points,” expressed his feeling of shock when he found out that Comey had seized the attorney general’s authority in March of 2004.
“I was stunned,” Bush wrote. “Nobody had told me that Comey, John Ashcroft’s deputy, had taken over Ashcroft’s responsibilities when he went in for surgery. If I had known that, I never would have sent Andy and Al to John’s hospital room.”
To date, it’s unclear why Comey did not feel compelled to inform the president of the United States, his superior, that he had assumed for himself the powers of the office of attorney general. Gonzales minced no words in his characterization of the hero narrative Comey wove before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007.
“The details later presented by Jim Comey, and facilitated by Senator Schumer’s staffer, Preet Bharara, describing flashing lights, sirens, and dashing up the hospital staircases may or may not be technically true, but they certainly do not depict what happened later in that hospital room,” Gonzales wrote. “Contrary to Hollywood-style myth, there simply was no confrontation.”
Gonzales even pointedly questioned the Comey narrative that Ashcroft’s health status had made it impossible for him to continue his duties.
“[Card and I] both agreed that Ashcroft had been competent and understood the intricacies of the disputed surveillance matter. He seemed to have been well briefed by [Comey], Goldsmith, and Philbin,” Gonzales wrote. “In an ironic twist, it is possible some or all of those briefings occurred while the attorney general was hospitalized and in a weakened condition, thus raising the question of whether his subordinates had taken advantage of him.”
This cynicism is not unwarranted, given that according to Comey’s own testimony, Ashcroft allegedly addressed Card and Gonzales in the hospital room with language that was “rich in both substance and fact…drawn from the hour-long meeting we’d had a week earlier.” If Ashcroft had such detailed command of facts he had only briefly discussed the previous week, then what exactly was the rationale for Comey continuing to assert the powers of Ashcroft’s position? Comey’s recollection of that conversation reveals an attempt to have it both ways: there was no choice but to designate Comey as acting attorney given Ashcroft’s medical state, and yet Ashcroft was competent enough to slap down Card and Gonzales in exquisite and detailed fashion. Which was it?
Gonzales’s belief, expressed in the book, that Comey and Bharara colluded in secret with Schumer in an attempt to take down a top Bush administration official is no unsupported conspiracy theory, as Bharara himself confirmed Gonzales’s suspicions about Comey’s scheme in a 2016 interview with The New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin:
As Bharara recalled, ‘Jim told me the whole story on the phone, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck, because I realized what a significant story this was, and I was sworn to secrecy and nobody knew about it. I told Chuck. He was, like, ‘Whoa!’ ” In the days leading up to the hearing, Bharara and Schumer told no one about the revelation that was coming. ‘I was afraid that if the story got out of what Jim was going to say the Bush Administration would figure out a way to prevent him from testifying,’ Bharara said. ‘We needed to preserve the element of surprise.’
That Bharara, a Senate staffer for Schumer, would plot with Comey to oust a top Republican official is no real surprise. After all, Bharara owes his federal prosecutor career to Comey, for whom Bharara worked when Comey was a U.S. attorney, and to Schumer, who recommended to Obama that Bharara be appointed as the top federal prosecutor in New York. Both men owed their fame and near-universal adoration by the Washington-New York media in the late 2000’s to the political theater they orchestrated at Gonzales’s expense.
This brings us back to 2017 and an emerging drama in which Comey and his former employees Bharara and Goldsmith are once again key actors. This clearly isn’t their first rodeo, nor the first time they have worked together to present a public narrative in which Comey plays the role of the last honest man who just wants to figure out if Col. Jessup ordered the Code Red.
Is it possible that everything they and their friends are alleging about Comey and Trump is true? Absolutely. Everything they and their associates are anonymously providing to journalists eager to promote their narrative could be true, especially given Trump’s tendency to rhetorically shoot from the hip.
But given Comey’s history of secretly colluding with Democratic officials to craft a disputed narrative that makes everyone but himself look awful in order to oust a top Republican who didn’t sufficiently kowtow to Comey, there’s little reason to assume events transpired exactly the way Comey and his friends allege, especially given that both Comey and Bharara have rather obvious axes to grind on the matter. After all, Trump is the reason neither of them currently has a job. In light of Comey’s history of twisting private conversations and events, it’s probably a good idea to take anonymous leaks from him and his friends with a grain of salt.
“Over the years, various commentators and politicians have picked up on Comey’s remark to the president [about Bush’s staff knowing about Stellar Wind’s legal problems for weeks] and expanded it to say that President Bush’s staff knew of the specific surveillance problem for months before broaching it with the president,” Gonzales wrote in his book. “That is absolutely false, and the implication that the president was ill served by individuals attempting to keep information from him about a highly sensitive matter is also disingenuous.”
Now, Gonzales has publicly raised questions about the timing and rationale of Trump’s firing of Comey and stated the American people deserve a full account of what happened. And the former attorney general has thus far stayed out of the media fray regarding the latest alleged revelations about Comey and Trump.
So Comey could be telling the truth. Or he could be disingenuously characterizing private conversations with the president to get revenge against a higher-ranking official who got in Jim Comey’s way. It wouldn’t be the first time. Just ask Alberto Gonzales.