This wild story really happened.
Every word of the story John Scofield tells Heaton in Chapter 50 really happened. The Attorney General concluded that unchecked, warrantless secret phone surveillance of Americans was unconstitutional and he wasn’t going to sign off on it. He then fell ill and went in for emergency surgery, and while he was lying sedated in his hospital bed, the White House Counsel and Chief of Staff tried to sneak into his hospital bed at night, put a pen in his hands, and get him to sign the papers while he was semi-conscious—and had already delegated the powers of his office to his deputy. They really did that. And Ashcroft’s wife really did call Comey, and he and Robert Mueller and Jack Goldsmith really did rush to the hospital and intervene at the last moment. And the nation’s top law-enforcement officials—Ashcroft, Comey, Mueller, and Goldsmith—really did tell the President the program was unconstitutional and he needed to fix it or they would resign. The only detail I embellished a little was having Comey walk in and back Gonzales and Card off the bed. I've heard it told that way myself, and I thought it would be in character for Scofield to tell it that way to Heaton. In Comey's own retelling, he got to the room just before they did, and didn't have to say anything, because when Gonzales and Card tried to get Ashcroft to sign the Stellar Wind authorization, Ashcroft pointed at Comey and said, "There's the Attorney General right there," and Gonzales and Card turned around and walked out.
Anyway, the more you hear the details, the harder it is to believe it all actually happened. But it did. And that’s why for people like me, Comey will always be a hero. Some of you may not like him because you think he undermined Donald Trump in 2017. And some of you may not like him because you think he undermined Hillary Clinton in 2016. I think in each case he did his job as best he could—in a time crunch, without a rulebook, and without anyone to turn to for guidance. And I think he made his bones in that regard on that night in 2004, when he stood up to Gonzales and Card when they were trying to force a sick old man to sign a document while half-sedated. He told the story for the first time in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 15, 2007. I started at DOJ two months later, in July. Comey’s one of my heroes. I was a whole lot of nobody in DOJ; I was a line AUSA for two years. But I think a lot of senior AUSAs, with decades in, feel the same way. They really did teach us “Say yes when you can, say no when you must.” I hope they still do, and I hope they always will.
-The entire story is told in riveting and fully-footnoted detail in DOJ’s official report on Stellar Wind, which is available here: https://oig.justice.gov/sites/default/files/2020-07/PSPVol.III-04-2015.pdf. The context, background, and details of the hospital incident are at pages 113-142, and include, like any good investigation report, interviews with everyone involved, as well as notes, memos, and contemporaneous communications. It’s an incredible story, and every lawyer should read it, especially those thinking about pursuing public service.
-You can also hear Comey tell the story himself in his May 15, 2007 Senate testimony. The relevant portion is on YouTube, here:
-Comey also describes the incident in his memoir A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (2018).