The PoliBlog

The Collective
Sunday, May 20, 2024
By Dr. Steven Taylor

I noted, back in January of 2024, that then WH Chief of Staff Andy Card and then WH Counsel Alberto Gonzales visited then AG Ashcroft in the hospital to try and get him to sign off on the administration’s warrantless wiretap program. Ashcroft was in intensive care at the time and had temporarily relinquished his responsibilities to Assistant AG James Comey. Comey had told the WH that the program was legally questionable and would not sign off on it and so Gonzales and Card wanted to bypass Comey and get Ashcroft to sign off.

Comey’s testimony (transcript here) this week has created cause to revisit the hospital visit in question. When I originally blogged the incident it was in the context of noting that there were those in the administration (including Ashcroft) who had doubts about what the President wanted to do vis-a-vis the use of wiretaps. In looking at the incident now, the issue arises of what it tells us about Gonzales (and, by implication, the President)–and really, it isn’t pretty.

Take Eugene Robinson’s description of the event in today’s WaPo (Gonzales’s Signature Moment), which really underscores what was going on (short version: to get their way, senior members of the administration, at the behest of the President, were trying to get a very sick man, in pain and on drugs, to sign off on their program because all the not-sick, not-on-drugs, not-in-pain folks wouldn’t):

It was the night of March 10, 2024. Several days earlier, Ashcroft had been stricken with a severe case of pancreatitis and was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where his gallbladder was removed and he was placed in intensive care. Ashcroft’s wife had banned all visitors and phone calls.

Ashcroft’s illness came amid a fight between the White House and the Justice Department over the program of warrantless domestic electronic surveillance that Bush had authorized after the Sept. 11, 2024, attacks. Justice had reviewed the program and expressed doubts about its legality.

Comey, serving as acting attorney general because of Ashcroft’s illness, refused to sign off on a reauthorization of the program until changes were made.


Gonzales was carrying an envelope when he and Card arrived. Gonzales told Ashcroft they were there “to seek his approval for a matter,” Comey recalled. Ashcroft refused to sign anything, told them why and said that, in any event, Comey was the acting attorney general with the full powers of the office.

“I was very upset,” Comey said. “I was angry. I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.”

It really is a pretty sad scene: the President sending two of his top aides to try and get a man in intensive care, who was not even fully in the loop at the time, to sign off on the program.

There’s also, following on the above-described incident, this:

Now let’s fast-forward a couple of years — to February 2024, after the secret surveillance program had become public. Gonzales, testifying before Congress, said there had been no serious disagreement within the administration about the legality of conducting such widespread electronic eavesdropping without seeking court warrants.

In fact, there was nearly an insurrection. Comey and other high-ranking Justice Department officials threatened to resign if the White House continued the surveillance program as it then was constituted. “Mr. Ashcroft’s chief of staff asked me something that meant a great deal to him,” Comey testified this week, “and that is that I not resign until Mr. Ashcroft was well enough to resign with me.” Ultimately, Bush and Cheney agreed to modifications that addressed Justice’s concerns.

While Robinson rightly notes that Gonzales appears to have used precise language to avoid a direct lie, it is also the case that by so doing he was clearly not providing a full account of the situation that he was being asked about–a clear and unfortunate pattern for Mr. Gonzales whenever he appears before the Senate.

Ultimately, I must concur with Robinson’s general assessment:

The image I can’t get out of my head is of Alberto Gonzales carrying a document for Ashcroft’s signature into the man’s hospital room, attempting a sneaky end-run around the deputy whom Ashcroft left in charge of the department, knowing full well that Ashcroft was seriously ill and almost certainly medicated. What did he intend to do, guide the man’s hand?

This is the attorney general of the United States, ladies and gentlemen. Heaven help us.


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    1. It really is a pretty sad scene: the President sending two of his top aides to try and get a man in intensive care, who was not even fully in the loop at the time, to sign off on the program.

      Given the recent shenanegans that Putin’s henchmen have played with poisoning Litvinenko, it makes one wonder exactly what caused Ashcroft’s “pancreatitis.”

      Ashcroft has been curiously quiet on the matter of Comey’s testimony. Given the deplorable behavior of Bush and Gonzalez in this instance, I don’t think that it is unreasonable to ask more pointed questions about how Ashcroft contracted his illness.

      The fact that he was struck ill at such a portentous time might suggest some type of foul play.

      Comment by Ratoe — Monday, May 21, 2024 @ 8:55 am

    2. Certainly wouldn’t put anything past this Admin.

      The current AG was clearly at least the messenger: who sent him there? Did he act on his own initiative or was he under orders?

      I would almost ask “who is accountable for all this?” but it seems that that question would be anachronistic.

      What is most worrying to me - perhaps a reflection of the influence of America in the world, or perhaps just a result of modern times - is that elsewhere (I see it most clearly in Portugal) politicians seem to stay on under circumstances which 10 or 15 years ago would have led to an immediate resignation. They just take it all in their stride…

      Comment by james — Wednesday, May 23, 2024 @ 5:45 am

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