The two men who could bring down the president have been preparing their entire lives for this moment.
When Jim Comey first learned that Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales were on their way to the George Washington Hospital room of John Ashcroft, his first call for help was to Bob Mueller. Comey knew that the White House chief of staff and the White House counsel would try to push the attorney general to renew the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program, code-named STELLAR WIND. Comey, who was then Ashcroft’s deputy, had spent the preceding weeks leading the charge against the White House and especially Vice President Dick Cheney against the program, which the Justice Department’s lawyers had determined was illegal. For days, Comey had weathered intense pressure to reauthorize STELLAR WIND, the debate escalating as the program’s expiration date neared. Cheney’s office had told Comey in no uncertain terms that if the program wasn’t OK’d, Americans would die—and their blood would be on Comey’s hands.
That night, though, Comey knew he had an ally to call. He asked Mueller, the ramrod-straight FBI director, to meet him at the hospital, but as his own car raced toward the hospital—its grill lights flashing and siren wailing—Comey realized that Mueller wouldn’t make it before the White House officials, so he asked for help: Don’t let them remove me, he asked Mueller.
Story Continued Below
Comey knew that Card would have Secret Service protection with him, and he was worried about being forcibly ejected by agents from Ashcroft’s hospital room. Ashcroft, weakened from gallbladder problems, was in no condition to sign off on STELLAR WIND—he’d legally turned the reins over to Comey while he was incapacitated—but, Comey feared, if the White House could isolate Ashcroft, who knew what it would do? Comey thought fast: Ashcroft had his own FBI security detail, and so he asked Mueller to call ahead and tell them not to allow the attorney general to be left alone. It was, in an extraordinary showdown between the White House and Justice Department, perhaps the single most extraordinary moment of the tumultuous Bush years: The FBI director ordering his agents to resist the Secret Service if they tried to remove the deputy attorney general from the attorney general’s bedside. As motorcades converged on the hospital from across Washington, everyone involved wondered: Just how far would this situation escalate?
It was all the more remarkable because no one outside of a tiny circle of high-ranking officials had any idea the cinematic showdown was playing out. It would be more than three years before Comey first mentioned that night’s drama, and the full details would trickle out only in the years thereafter.
The story of that March 11, 2004, showdown—how it came to light and what it says about the motivations and the moral compass of the two men now at the heart of a new Washington showdown—should deeply worry the Trump White House.
Donald Trump, as it turns out, has stumbled into taking on two experienced Washington players on their home turf—in skirmishes that will play out in public Capitol Hill hearings with Comey even as Mueller slogs along with what is likely to be a quiet, tenacious and by-the-book investigation into the heart of the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia.
Robert Mueller might just be America’s straightest arrow—a respected, nonpartisan and fiercely apolitical public servant whose only lifetime motivation has been the search for justice. He was the most influential and longest-serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover himself, and someone who has settled since his retirement from government in 2013 into being that rare voice-beyond-reproach that companies and organizations recruit to lead investigations when they need to tell shareholders or the public that they’ve hired the most seasoned and respected person they can find, someone who will pursue a case wherever it leads without fear or favor. He became the first FBI director to serve a complete 10-year term since Hoover, only to then see Barack Obama reappoint him for a special two-year term, a decision that required a special act of Congress and made him the only person to be appointed head of the FBI by two different presidents, of different parties.
“His gift is that he’s decisive without being impulsive,” Comey told me several years back, recalling his years working alongside Mueller. “He’ll sit, listen, ask questions and make a decision. I didn’t realize at the time how rare that is in Washington.”
To understand what they’re now up against, Trump’s embattled White House aides should spend the day reading Mueller’s 2015 report to the NFL, which recruited him to investigate the league’s culpability in Ray Rice’s domestic violence case. Mueller’s subsequent lengthy report oozes thoroughness and the unique gravitas of an experienced prosecutor—his team, some of whom will now be working alongside him in the Russia investigation, devoured millions of documents, text messages and emails; tracked down nearly every person who had been in the building; and called all 938 telephone numbers that called in and out of the league headquarters during the period in question. His rundown of the NFL headquarters’ procedures for receiving mail and packages alone runs to five pages—he almost surely learned things that the NFL’s own mailroom staff didn’t know about who signs for what packages when.
That thoroughness and Mueller’s strong independence should terrify the Trump White House.
President Trump impulsively fired Comey in the hope that it would shut down the Russia investigation; one week later, though, he finds himself facing not just one esteemed former FBI director but two: the first a wronged martyr for the bureau, and the second a legendary investigator without a hint of politics.
What unfolds ahead will be territory all too familiar to both Comey and Mueller—the field of play where they have made their careers and risen to the highest levels of government—yet the way that a Washington scandal takes on a life of its own amid independent investigations and looming prosecutions is deeply unfamiliar to Trump and many associates around him. Few in Washington know this landscape better than Comey, who as deputy attorney general appointed his friend Patrick Fitzgerald as special prosecutor to lead the leak investigation surrounding Valerie Plame, a case that ultimately led to the dethroning of Cheney’s top aide, Scooter Libby.
It is as if, after having an unrelated disagreement over movie trivia in a bar, Trump has challenged Usain Bolt to a 100-yard dash or John Cena to a cage match to the death.
When, nearly a decade ago, I started writing a biography of Mueller, one of the director’s associates suggested that I wouldn’t fully understand that hospital showdown until I could answer why Mueller was present at Ashcroft’s bedside that March night. As this colleague said, “I was never able to figure that out—it wasn’t an FBI program and the FBI had nothing to do with the legal advice, so why was Bob Mueller in the hospital room?”
Comey himself eventually told me the answer, years after he left the Justice Department for the private sector.
Seated in his office in Bethesda, Maryland, at Lockheed Martin, his lanky 6-foot-8-inch frame draped over a chair, Comey told me he’d enlisted Mueller’s help because of his reputation for integrity and also because of the political power and righteousness inherent in the nonpartisan position Mueller held. “I knew that no one cared about losing a deputy attorney general,” he said, “but no president could weather losing an FBI director.”
It’s a phrase, ordinary and self-explanatory at the time, that’s been rattling around in my mind with a renewed urgency over the past week, as Washington has watched the testimony of Sally Yates—the acting attorney general Trump fired on January 30—and now is anticipating what seems to be Comey’s inevitable, and inevitably dramatic, appearance on Capitol Hill himself.
Back then, Comey understood in the heat of the crisis that his office and recommendation alone might not carry the weight he needed with the White House. But no one in government or in either party could question Mueller’s motives, politics or his dedication to the Constitution.
While Mueller technically reported to Comey as deputy attorney general, Comey, two decades his junior, treated Mueller as a close friend and almost mentor. The men had known each other for years as each rose into the small, elite fraternity of prosecutors at the top of the Justice Department. Both men were the crème de la crème of Justice: Mueller helped take on Manuel Noriega and the bombers of Pan Am Flight 103; Comey helped prosecute mafia boss John Gotti and Martha Stewart. In early 2001, when Mueller was deputy attorney general, he directed Saudi Arabia’s Khobar Towers bombing prosecution to Comey, then a prosecutor in Virginia.
They are alike in many ways. Both men possess a deep public service streak; both men had given up lucrative private-sector careers to become prosecutors. Mueller had risen during the 1980s to be the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s criminal division, only, after the George H.W. Bush administration ended, to find himself so unhappy in the private sector that he cajoled his way back into becoming a junior homicide prosecutor in the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office. Comey, for his part, in 1996 gave up being a partner at a top-tier law firm to act as an assistant U.S. attorney in crime-ridden Richmond, Virginia, launching an innovative anti-gun program, Project Exile, that federalized gun crimes and sent felons to federal prison rather than state prisons.
Both men are also smart inside fighters: They document everything, draft memos carefully and enlist allies who matter. Prosecutors are taught early on to write everything down, and the documentation culture is strong within both the FBI and the Justice Department, where words are recorded routinely as future evidence.
But their unique partnership, one of the closest working relationships the top ranks of the Justice Department have ever seen, was truly forged in the crucible of post-9/11 Washington, when threats loomed large and the stress of tracking and preventing unfolding plots dominated the federal government. “The fire hose every morning hit the FBI director, the attorney general and then the president,” Comey recalled to me.
The twice-daily threat briefings, the flood of intelligence reports throughout the rest of the day, the panicked lurches and fruitless counterterror raids, had a profound effect on the principals involved in the years after 9/11. One night, after another day spent running down a possible terrorist weapon of mass destruction, Comey was dropped off by his security detail at his house outside Washington. He recalled to me years later that he’d stopped on the walk, noticing a light still burned inside; upstairs his five kids were already asleep. As he walked up the path to his front door, he paused for a moment and tested the wind’s direction, mentally calculating whether radioactive fallout from Washington would blow toward his family. I wonder whether my kids will be safe until the morning, Comey thought; then he realized just how paranoid he had become. As he recalls, “Your mind comes to be dominated by the horrific consequences of low-probability events.”
Yet even amid the stress of that time, Comey didn’t hesitate to force the issue of STELLAR WIND, standing up to the vice president. During one White House meeting, Comey said he couldn’t find a legal basis for the program.
“Others see it differently,” a scowling Cheney replied.
“The analysis is flawed—in fact, fatally flawed. No lawyer reading that could reasonably rely on it,” Comey said, his hand sweeping across the table dismissively.
Cheney’s counsel, the famously aggressive David Addington, standing in the back of the room, spoke up: “Well, I’m a lawyer,” he snapped, “and I did.”
Comey shot back, “No good lawyer.”
The room went silent.
What concerned Comey and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel was that the NSA program appeared to go far beyond what was allowed for domestic surveillance—and without radical changes, they thought it was both unconstitutional and illegal. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t Comey’s arguments, legal or political, that stopped the Bush White House in its tracks on STELLAR WIND.
It was Bob Mueller.
In the final hours of the hospital showdown, as more than a dozen FBI and Justice Department officials readied letters of resignation—a potential political catastrophe amid that spring’s presidential reelection campaign that would have made the Saturday Night Massacre look like a minor D.C. tremor—Comey met privately with President Bush, in a situation oddly not too different than the one he’d later find himself in with President Trump during discussions about the Michael Flynn investigation.
In Bush’s private dining room, the president was warm and kind, saying that Comey should let him take the burden of the program’s reauthorization. Comey, a religion major at the College of William & Mary, tried to connect with the religious commander in chief, telling him, “As Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’” They spoke at length, before Comey played the trump card, “I think you should know that Director Mueller is going to resign today.”
Bush shifted uncomfortably; his face made clear the shock he felt. No one had told the president that his FBI director was about to walk out. He promptly excused Comey and had the Secret Service summon Mueller; Mueller didn’t budge. The NSA program was illegal; if the administration proceeded, he and the Justice Department leadership would resign. As Mueller said later in a speech, “The rule of law, civil liberties and civil rights—these are not our burdens. They are what makes all of us safer and stronger.” If the president didn’t change course, Mueller had no choice, he said. He hadn’t sworn to serve George W. Bush. He had sworn to protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
President Bush blinked first. He told the FBI director at the end of their discussion, “Tell Jim to do what Justice thinks needs to be done.”
Most tellings of the STELLAR WIND showdown end here, but for Trump, perhaps the most important lessons in the incident lie in how the story unfolded in the years ahead and how they illuminate and underscore the differences between Comey and Mueller—differences on both sides that should worry the president.
Often lost amid the turmoil of recent weeks is the fact that Comey likely would have never been FBI director except for his surprise, Washington-rattling testimony in 2007. Until that moment—
when he told a riveted Capitol Hill audience the story of his hospital intervention—he’d been a highly respected prosecutor and rising star in the Justice Department but was little-known outside such circles.
Indeed, under normal circumstances, the deputy attorney general is one of Washington’s most powerful, anonymous officials—the list of distinguished lawyers who have served in that role since 9/11 wouldn’t even remotely register with most of official Washington: Larry Thompson, Paul McNulty, Mark Filip, David Ogden, James Cole. In fact, before this year only one name had risen above the others: Jim Comey—and his prominence and subsequent career have been driven almost entirely by his dramatic testimony on March 15, 2007.
That hearing, purportedly into the politicization of the Justice Department and the partisan firings of U.S. attorneys by Ashcroft’s successor, Alberto Gonzales, was a carefully orchestrated yet seemingly spontaneous moment. The week before, Comey had carefully walked his former colleague Preet Bharara—then counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer—through the 2004 episode for the first time. “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,” Bharara told the New Yorker years later. The three men—Comey, Schumer and Bharara—kept quiet about the revelations in advance. “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 recalled later. “We needed to preserve the element of surprise.”
Then, in the public hearing, they sprung the trap—with Schumer offering a leading but seemingly innocuous question, the congressional equivalent of Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ famed “One last thing.”
Comey then launched into the story of the 2004 uprising—a moment perhaps unparalleled in modern government history, at least until the slow-motion chase by news helicopters of Comey’s motorcade in Los Angeles last week after his unexpected firing as FBI director.
Comey held the Senate audience in rapt attention as he related the story. Reporter Chris Cillizza later recalled that you could hear a pin drop in the room—and did, when another reporter, stunned at what he was hearing, literally dropped his pen. (Gonzales, already caught up in his own scandals related to the firings of U.S. attorneys and the politicization of the Justice Department, resigned within a month of the STELLAR WIND fiasco coming to light.)
The moment in the congressional klieg lights was trademark Comey.
And the FBI director’s response to Comey’s testimony was also trademark Mueller.
To use the accusation that President Trump has leveled at Comey, Mueller is no “showboat.” In fact, he wouldn’t speak about the incident at all. When pressed by Congress after Comey’s testimony, Mueller admitted only that the visit to the hospital was “out of the ordinary.”
Yet, when Congress asked Mueller for his notes from that night, the FBI director promptly released a detailed but heavily redacted record of some 23 meetings about the subject, notes that included his observation that Ashcroft was “feeble, barely articulate and clearly stressed” during the hospital visit. It’s another example of how deeply ingrained the note-taking culture is inside the FBI and the Justice Department, a fact that is helping to drive Trump’s deepening crisis as it becomes apparent that Comey has detailed accounts of his own meetings and conversations with Trump this year.
When, even years later, I tried to press Mueller on his reaction to the strange and all-but unprecedented sequence of events, he brushed me off, barking, in a way that I eventually got used to, “I’m not going to discuss that with you.”
He did, though, say he found the decisions of that moment easy. He knew what was right and what was wrong. “That’s not difficult,” he told me in 2008. “It’s not that it doesn’t keep you up at night, but once you chart a course, you just do the right thing.”
Those who were close to Mueller at the time said that he was careful to “stay in his lane” as the crisis continued—he is not one who sprawls and grasps for every thread, as is also evident from his NFL investigation, in which he stayed clear of larger questions about the the league’s handling of domestic violence generally. He doesn’t see it as his job to answer policy questions—just to execute the law and the investigation. During one of his rare public appearances as FBI director, he laid out his position on the tyranny of the law: “We live in dangerous times, but we are not the first generation of Americans to face threats to our security,” he explained. “Like those before us, we will be judged by future generations on how we react to this crisis. And by that I mean not just whether we win the war on terrorism, because I believe we will, but also whether, as we fight that war, we safeguard for our citizens the very liberties for which we are fighting.”
Unlike many in Washington, where such sentiments can often sound like platitudes, he really means it. As former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, who has known Mueller for more than 30 years, explained to me, “People are smart not to test him on those issues.” Larry Thompson, who, like Comey, also served as deputy attorney general under Ashcroft, told me, “When he has a point of view, you know it’s held honestly and openly. There’s no subterranean agenda.”
Mueller overall sees little gray in the world; he’s a black-or-white guy, right or wrong. His father, who was captain of a World War II Navy sub chaser, impressed on him early the importance of credibility and integrity. “You did not shade or even consider shading with him,” Mueller recalls, and ever since, matters of honor and principle had been simple. “Occasionally he’ll be a pain in the ass because he’s so strait-laced,” his late college friend and one-time FBI counselor Lee Rawls told me years ago. “There have been a couple of instances I’ve advocated cowardice and flight, and he wouldn’t have it.”
Cowardice and flight is indeed not Mueller’s style. After he and Rawls graduated from Princeton in the 1960s, before Vietnam had become the political and cultural flash point that it did later in the decade, Mueller volunteered to join the Marines and fight—earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with valor for his role in an intense firefight. In Officer Candidate School, his only demerit came in a trait that would be familiar to anyone who later dealt with him as FBI director and one that should, again, worry the Trump White House today: Robert Swan Mueller III received a D in “Delegation.”
Mueller’s longtime friend Tom Wilner explained to me, “Bob’s the best of the old prep school tradition. He stands for service, integrity and has the confidence to never bend. He doesn’t do anything for himself.”
“The things that most of us would struggle with the most come relatively easy to him because his moral compass is so straight,” one aide at the FBI told me, with reflection and envy. “It’s got to be quite comforting in its own way.”
Mueller was at home at the FBI in part because it removed any hint of partisanship. The FBI, Mueller believes, is the government’s honest broker—an agency free of political interference and pressure, priding itself on objectivity and independence. “You’re free to do what you think is right,” he told me. “It’s much easier than if you have to consider the political currents.”
He had a deep appreciation as director for the bureau’s traditions and its esprit de corps. He famously, almost religiously, wore white shirts and dark suits as director—the picture of a stereotypical Hoover-era G-man—and would even gently mock aides and agents who dared to show up in his office wearing, horror of horrors, pink or even blue shirts. I long attributed his habit to his personal style and strait-laced nature, but, after he finished as director, I once asked him: Why the cult of the white shirt? He answered more philosophically than I’d ever seen him speak before—explaining that he knew he was leading the FBI through a period of wrenching change, converting it to a global intelligence agency focused around counterterrorism, and that he felt it important to keep recognizable totems of the past in place—like the tradition of the white shirt—to help agents understand it was still the same FBI they’d signed up to join.
A year after the showdown over STELLAR WIND, Comey journeyed from the Justice Department up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to Fort Meade, Maryland, the headquarters of the NSA. His speech that day was purportedly in recognition of Law Day, but it carried a coded message for those few in the room who knew what had transpired in the showdown of the Terrorist Surveillance Program.
The nation of the United States, Comey explained, was a country of laws, not men. Public officials swore oaths to the Constitution, not to the president. It’s the job of the lawyers, he explained, to remove the looming crisis from a decision and examine how it will look down the road.
He then continued with words that echo more than a decade later and presage the weeks to come on Capitol Hill, where he will once again be in his element. “We know that our actions, and those of the agencies we support, will be held up in a quiet, dignified, well-lit room, where they can be viewed with the perfect, and brutally unfair, vision of hindsight,” he told the gathered NSA crowd. “We know they will be reviewed in hearing rooms or courtrooms where it is impossible to capture even a piece of the urgency and exigency felt during a crisis.”
That perfect hindsight, he argued was why the most important thing in a lawyer’s life was understanding the test of history. As he said, “’No’ must be spoken into a storm of crisis, with loud voices all around.”
Sometime soon, in a quiet, dignified, well-lit room on Capitol Hill, Jim Comey’s going to get another chance to explain why he said no. And while he does, Bob Mueller will be toiling away, reaching deep into the government and the annals of the Trump campaign, to understand exactly what transpired last year and the events that led up to Comey’s firing.
Even at 72, Mueller has plenty of energy left—where his predecessor Louis Freeh had the same chief of staff for nearly his entire tenure, Mueller burned through chiefs of staff almost every year. “He drives at such speed that he can burn up people around him,” Comey told me of Mueller. “Some people burn people up because they’re assholes. Bob burns them up by sheer exertion.”
The night of the STELLAR WIND showdown, Mueller arrived at the hospital moments after the White House aides departed after they were unable to get Comey or Ashcroft to reauthorize the program. Mueller spoke briefly with Comey in the hallway and then entered Ashcroft’s hospital room.
“Bob, I don’t know what’s happening,” the confused attorney general told him.
“There comes a time in every man’s life when he’s tested, and you passed your test tonight,” Mueller replied, comfortingly.
While Comey and Mueller might have both thought that they had aced their biggest challenge in the early 2000s, keeping the nation safe after 9/11, as it turns out, they’re both now embarking on what history will likely remember as their ultimate test.