Updated on August 2 at 2:35 p.m.
In March 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft entered George Washington University Hospital with severe pancreatitis. Ashcroft had designated Deputy Attorney General James Comey as the acting attorney general while he was incapacitated.
Meanwhile, at the White House, top officials in George W. Bush’s administration were hoping to approve a terror-related surveillance program as part of the War on Terror. But Comey and Jack Goldsmith, the director of the Office of Legal Counsel—which advises the president on what he can legally do—were both resisting, viewing the program as illegal. Seeking to bypass them, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales went to Ashcroft’s hospital room, hoping he would overrule the decision. Comey and Goldsmith, getting wind of the plan, rushed to intercept them.
The officials found themselves in a standoff in the hospital room. Goldsmith recounted what happened to my colleague Jeffrey Rosen in 2007:
Ashcroft, who looked like he was near death, sort of puffed up his chest. All of a sudden, energy and color came into his face, and he said that he didn’t appreciate them coming to visit him under those circumstances, that he had concerns about the matter they were asking about and that, in any event, he wasn’t the attorney general at the moment; Jim Comey was. He actually gave a two-minute speech, and I was sure at the end of it he was going to die. It was the most amazing scene I’ve ever witnessed.
The harrowing tale illustrates the central tension for political appointees in the federal government. On the one hand, they are just that: political appointees, people chosen by the president to serve, presumably because they have some sense of affinity, politically and ideologically, with him and loyalty to him. On the other hand, they are expected to serve the people of the United States, defending and upholding the Constitution, and many of them are subject to Senate confirmation.