Comey, Mueller and the showdown at John Ashcroft's hospital bed

It's not the first time James B. Comey and Robert S. Mueller III find themselves together at the center of an unfolding Washington drama.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller named special prosecutor for Russia investigation »

In March 2004, Comey, then deputy attorney general, was summoned to the hospital bed of his boss, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.

Ashcroft, weak from gallbladder surgery, was under pressure from White House officials Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card to sign papers reauthorizing the domestic surveillance program secretly launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Ashcroft's wife was distraught about the visit from the White House counsel and chief of staff, according to testimony Comey later gave to a Senate committee.

She called Comey to stop the uninvited visitors. Just the previous week, her husband had agreed not to reinstate the program.

Comey called in help, asking Mueller, then the FBI director, and several top aides to meet him at the hospital.

It was the start of a battle between the Justice Department and the White House. According to Comey, the White House renewed the program the next day without his approval.

Since the White House had ignored the department’s legal advice, Comey, Mueller and several other officials made plans to resign. It was only when President George W. Bush agreed to listen to Comey and Mueller and restructure the program did resignation plans go away.

It was almost exactly 10 years ago, May 16, 2007, that Comey recounted the sequence of events before a Senate committee. That testimony examined the justification of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys during the previous year, and called into question whether Gonzales, at that point the attorney general, was fit to run the Justice Department.

During the hearing, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, made a reference that will be familiar to anyone following President Trump’s firings of Acting Atty. Gen. Sally Yates and Comey.

“It has some characteristics of the ‘Saturday Night Massacre,’ ” Specter said of Comey's account.

On Wednesday, Mueller was named by Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein to be special counsel to take over the Justice Department’s Russia investigation.

“My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that prosecution is warranted,” Rosenstein said. “I have made no such determination.”

colleen.shalby@latimes.com

Twitter: @cshalby

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