WASHINGTON — A story of high drama that unfolded one night during George W. Bush’s administration might prove instructive for President Trump as he considers the investigative forces he unleashed by firing FBI Director James Comey.
Comey, then deputy US attorney general, was driving down Washington’s Constitution Avenue in March 2004, heading home with a security detail at about 8 p.m. His phone rang. Two top White House officials, Comey was told, were on the way to the hospital where Attorney General John Ashcroft was recovering from surgery.
Their mission: persuade the bedridden Ashcroft to reauthorize a secret wiretapping and surveillance program that, in Comey’s view, was illegal.
Comey, who later recounted the scene in cinematic detail during congressional testimony, quickly called an ally, a person who friends say is cut from the same cloth, a man who shares his duty-first sensibilities if not his comfort with publicity. It was Robert Mueller, the FBI director. There was no doubt he had Comey’s back.
“I’ll meet you at the hospital,” Mueller told him.
Mueller instructed FBI agents stationed near Ashcroft to not, under any circumstances, allow the Secret Service to remove Comey from the hospital room as the White House officials pressed their case.
That pair — Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales — arrived shortly after Comey and pushed Ashcroft to sign the paperwork to reauthorize the program. Ashcroft lifted his head off the pillow and in strong terms defended Comey’s position.
“That doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general,” Ashcroft said, motioning to Comey, who held the top Justice Department job in an acting capacity while his boss was sedated.
In the days that followed, Mueller and Comey were prepared to resign in protest if the surveillance program was renewed without being changed. They each met privately with President Bush to explain their objections about the program. Bush made changes to address their concerns.
In the investigation of whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election, Comey and Mueller have been pulled together again.
Comey had been leading the investigation when he was dismissed by the president on May 9. Mueller is now taking over, as a special counsel charged with determining if anything illegal occurred. He may have to assess Comey’s allegations that Trump tried to get him to back off the inquiry — and whether that amounts to obstruction of justice.
The drama will play out not in the dark of a Washington night but under the intense scrutiny of the entire nation.
It’s unclear if the two men will remain allied, with Comey shifting to the role of probable witness and Mueller the lead investigator.
“They’re different — and both people of great capacity,” Ashcroft said in an interview last week. “I’m not a psychologist or anything like that, and I wouldn’t try to interpret how they feel or felt about each other. From my perspective they were both excellent public servants.”
He added: “This is not the first rodeo for either of these folks.”
The two men have had similar careers. Both have been top federal prosecutors. Both have been FBI directors. Several people who know both men say they respect each other.
“Clearly it’s a relationship based on professional colleagues, initially. But I think they would consider themselves friends,” said John Pistole, who worked for Mueller as deputy director of the FBI and also knows Comey. “Mueller is a mentor of sorts to Comey.”
But now they’ll be seeing the world from quite different places.
“Jim has always been a prosecutor and DOJ official,” Pistole said. “Now he’s become a witness. It’s a whole different set of rules.”
Comey’s brush with death
Comey’s personal life has been punctuated by drama and tragedy.
Growing up in New Jersey in an Irish-American family of six, he was working on a short story for his high school literary magazine when he heard footsteps and a door slam.
When he went to look, he saw his younger brother facedown, and a man pointing a gun at him. The Comey brothers were then locked in a room. They escaped through a window, only to run into the gunman on their front lawn. They fled back into the house, locked the door, and called the police, according to a New York magazine account.
Police believe the man was a suspect in other break-ins in the neighborhood and in the rapes of young baby sitters.
“We escaped, he caught us again, we escaped again — so it was a pretty horrific experience,” Comey told “60 Minutes” in 2014.
“At one point, I thought — I knew — that I was going to die that night,” Comey told New York magazine. “It gave me a sense of how precious and short life is. Second, it gave me a keen sense for what victims of crime feel. I know that in some sense, they never get over it. That’s helped me as a prosecutor.”
He went to the College of William and Mary — partly, he later said, because he was rejected by schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Amherst.
He was on a premedical track and walking into a chemistry class during his sophomore year when he passed by a bulletin board advertising a course called Death.
It intrigued him, and he enrolled, according to an interview with his college newspaper, The Flat Hat News.
Religion became a second major. Fascinated with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, he wrote his senior thesis, “The Christian in Politics,” analyzing Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell. (A sleuth at the website Gizmodo has tracked down what appears to be Comey’s Twitter account, in which he calls himself Reinhold Niebuhr.)
Comey played intramural basketball and football — he is 6 feet 8 — and also had a brief journalistic stint writing for the campus newspaper. In his junior year he began writing a column, fashioning himself after Russell Baker of The New York Times.
“I tried to be funny and a social commentator,” he told the college paper in 2014. “At least I thought I was.”
Comey and his wife, Patrice, whom he met in college, had six children, but lost one, Collin, when he was 9 days old. He died in 1995 from a bacterial infection caught when he came through the birth canal.
“Our faith in God will help us to accept what we do not understand and go on,” Patrice Comey wrote a month after the death to encourage women to be screened for Group B Strep. “But our family will never be the same.”
From religion to law
Comey went from studying religion to studying the law, earning a degree from the University of Chicago Law School. And after decades of work in federal law enforcement agencies (and a few private sector gigs), he is now a key figure in an investigation that has already altered the course of the Trump presidency.
It would be the second time his words and actions could affect the highest office; Hillary Clinton — and many of her Democratic allies — blame her election loss at least partly on Comey’s handling of his investigation into her private e-mail server.
Comey gave a partial account of his motivation at a public hearing in March, but it left many aspects of the e-mail investigation unexplained.
There also are unexplained circumstances leading up to his firing by Trump. The White House has offered several explanations, including that he improperly handled the Clinton e-mail investigation.
But Trump also provided different reasons in an interview with NBC News. “He’s a showboat, he’s grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil,” Trump said to NBC’s Lester Holt.
In the same interview, the president implied that he was uncomfortable with Comey’s investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
“And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,’ ” Trump said.
Questions remain about Trump’s actions. But also about Comey’s.
Why did the man who requested a witness go with him into the Bush White House for a meeting — and who wouldn’t play basketball with President Obama because of the inference of impartiality — have dinner with Trump, whose campaign he was investigating?
Mueller, the man who is taking up the investigation where Comey left off, is the kind of person that Trump likes to associate with: He’s got the Ivy League credentials and is a decorated soldier. But he also is known for a strong devotion to the rule of law, and as special counsel, he has a mandate to independently pursue the facts wherever they lead.
While at St. Paul’s, the prep school in New Hampshire, he was captain of the varsity hockey team — a squad that also included former secretary of state John Kerry. He went on to Princeton University and then joined the Marines, where he was awarded a Bronze Star for his leadership during a gun battle in Vietnam.
Became federal attorney
After earning a law degree from the University of Virginia, he worked in the private sector and then was hired in 1976 to be a federal prosecutor in San Francisco, where he stayed for six years.
From there he went to the US attorney’s office in Boston and then landed in private practice with a $400,000-a-year salary, according to a 2008 profile in Washingtonian magazine.
But Mueller wanted to be back in the Justice Department. He phoned Eric Holder, at the time the US attorney in Washington, and made a surprising request for an entry-level job as a homicide prosecutor, chasing murder convictions in the District of Columbia, according to the Washingtonian. He’d answer the phone saying, “Mueller. Homicide.”
He later returned to San Francisco as US attorney. George W. Bush nominated him to head the FBI in 2001.
“I’ve often said that Mueller’s DNA was simply spelled J-U-S-T-I-C-E,” Ashcroft told the Globe. “He just seems most comfortable in that setting.”
Suspicious of press
Throughout his career, he developed the classic homicide detective’s suspicion of the press — it’s a key area where he and Comey would diverge.
“Bob Mueller would avoid the press if possible and just let the bureau’s actions and his actions speak for themselves,” said Pistole, Mueller’s former deputy at the FBI.
“Jim Comey is very familiar with the press and he saw that the FBI director’s position was really a bully pulpit for him and the bureau to further the bureau’s interest,” Pistole said.
“Bob Mueller is a much more private person than Jim,” he added.
By the early 2000s, Mueller and Comey were both rising in law enforcement circles.
Comey became the US attorney for the Southern District of New York in July 2002, a lofty perch in the Justice Department that sometimes is referred to as the “sovereign district of New York.”
“They see themselves as the cat’s pajamas,” Ashcroft told the Globe. “They do major work.”
Comey and Mueller were in close contact during this period, according to colleagues of both men from the time — the FBI at that point was clearly focusing on terrorism and so were the New York prosecutors in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Comey led the New York office for two years and then was promoted to the No. 2 position at Justice, deputy attorney general. He moved to Washington and became Mueller’s boss.
Just a few months into his new job in Washington, Comey found himself speeding to the hospital to stop a top secret program from being reauthorized and looking to Mueller for support.
The incident was “transformative or a bonding experience or whatever you want to call it,” said Pistole.
“They were part of a very small group of people who knew what was going on and were willing to resign over what they believed,’’ Pistole said. “They are both very principled in their views of things.”
Bush administration officials knew Comey had been the catalyst for the 2004 episode, but the one they worried about resigning more was Mueller, recalled former White House official Gonzales in an interview with the Globe.
“Both men were viewed differently within the White House,” said Gonzales, who went on to serve as a US attorney general.
“Mueller was much more respected,’’ he said. “He has better judgment. He’s much more mature.”
Comey left the Justice Department the following year, in 2005, bound for a stint in the private sector.
Mueller stayed. And in 2006 found himself in the midst of more high-stakes moments for his career.
This time instead of going against Gonzales, as he did the night at the hospital, Mueller threatened to resign to back up one of Gonzales’s positions.
Gonzales, who was the attorney general by then, had ordered a raid on the Capitol Hill offices of William Jefferson, a Democratic representative from Louisiana.
Separation of powers
When Mueller’s FBI agents seized papers from Jefferson’s suite in the Rayburn House Office Building, it touched off bipartisan outrage from congressional leaders who said the federal agents had run afoul of a two-century precedent of separation of powers.
“Mueller said if he was directed to return the documents, he wouldn’t do it. He would resign first,” Gonzales recalled.
Within a few months, a federal judge settled the matter, ruling that the search was not proper.
“Mueller was willing to resign over the documents, even though we weren’t entitled to them. The law can be difficult,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales, whose criticisms of Comey were cited in the three-page memo that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote to justify Comey’s firing, said he still believes Comey, too, has made errors.
“Sometimes even the best people make mistakes,” Gonzales said.
Neither man is perfect, he said. But he’s optimistic about Mueller’s role as special counsel.
“There are very few people I respect more than Bob Mueller,” Gonzales said. “I think he’s the right person for this assignment.”