Comey disagreed. "I had witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man," he testifies.
Later that night, Card refused to let Olson into his White House office when he and Comey discussed the program again. The next day, March 11, the program was "reauthorized without certification by the Department of Justice," Comey said, and "I prepared a letter intending to resign." It was the morning of the Madrid train bombing; but still, "I couldn't stay if the White House was engaging in conduct that had no legal basis."
Comey testifies that there was something of a line to resign that day: Mueller; then Comey's chief of staff; and then Ashcroft's chief of staff—who asked only that Comey wait until "Ashcroft was well enough to resign with me."
Next day, crisis averted. Comey and Mueller each met one-on-one with the president and persuaded him to "do the right thing, and put the program on a footing that we could certify its legality," Comey says. We don't learn exactly how long the program went on operating illegally while the Justice Department made its fixes, but it was around three weeks. We really know only that the president was quite willing to forge ahead with an illegal program.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is so aggrieved by Comey's revelations that he looks like he might cry. He frets that Schumer took too much time questioning the witness and then grouses that his Republican colleagues haven't shown up, leaving him alone (and "lonely") with seven (grinning) Democrats.
Specter does get Comey to admit that the president ultimately did the right thing by modifying the program. Also that nobody overtly threatened Comey. Or maimed him. But Comey gets one more chance to launch his main zinger: "They went ahead and reauthorized the program without my signature." And that's about all he needs to say. The White House went ahead and reauthorized a controversial, presidential-power-grabbing program deemed illegal by the Justice Department, after trying to extract permission from a critically sick John Ashcroft who didn't quite know what day it was.
Today's revelations shouldn't be much of a surprise. Gonzales had nothing but contempt for the Justice Department back when he worked for the president, and he has nothing but contempt for the Justice Department now that he, well, still works for the president. Nevertheless, if this whole sordid U.S. attorney scandal wanted for a metaphor, it need search no longer. Here's the Rule of Law lying in critical condition in its hospital bed, while the man now charged with its stewardship runs roughshod over it, all in the name of expanding presidential power.