Why was Al Gonzales in John Ashcroft’s hospital room?

That’s what Senators want to know. Gonzales is testifying right now before the Judiciary Committee–not exactly his favorite audience–about a host of issues. But earlier, Senators grilled him over the famous nighttime visit Gonzales and then White House Chief of Staff Andy Card paid to John Ashcroft, back in March 2004, when the attorney general was gravely ill and sedated at George Washington University Hospital.

Ashcroft’s attorney general designate, Jim Comey, provided riveting blow-by-blow details of the event during his own testimony a few months ago, and told senators that he thought Gonzales and Card were trying to take advantage of Ashcroft’s weakened state in order to get him to sign-off on a reauthorization of the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program.

No, no, no…big misunderstanding, Gonzales said this morning. “We went there because we thought it was important for [Ashcroft] to know where the congressional leadership was on this,” Gonzales told Senators. He said that lawmakers from both parties had urged him and Card to ensure that the NSA program–which Gonzales didn’t actually identify in his testimony–was re-approved before a pending expiration deadline. (As an aside, you could count on two hands the number of lawmakers who actually knew the program existed.) The way Gonzales tells it, he and Card were just there to bring Ashcroft up to speed on Congress’ thinking.

The senators are finding this hard to believe, given Comey’s account. He said that not only did the White House call over to Aschroft’s hospital room and inform his wife that Card and Gonzales were on the way–and Comey seems to recall that that call may have come from President Bush himself–but that when the two men showed up, they were carrying an envelope, in which we are to presume was a document requiring Ashcroft’s signature.

What’s more, Comey testified that Ashcroft raised himself up from his hospital bed and read Gonzales and Card the riot act, ticking off all the reasons why he wasn’t willing to reauthorize the warrantless surveillance. This was no friendly exchange. Comey said, “[Ashcroft] lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which stunned me…”And then, in a line that would make a Hollywood action writer blush, Ashcroft declared, “But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general. There is the attorney general.” He pointed to Comey. This is edge-of-your seat material.

What happened next? Comey said, “The two men [Gonzales and Card] did not acknowledge me. They turned and walked from the room.”

Now, today, Gonzales insisted that he and Card hadn’t come to pressure Ashcroft into signing anything. “Clearly if he had been competent and understood the facts and had been inclined to do so, yes we would have asked him,” Gonzales added. “Andy Card and I didn’t press him. We said ‘Thank you’ and we left.”

Gonzales clarified this way: “We would not have sought nor did we intend to seek to get any approval from General Ashcroft if in fact he was not fully competent to make that decision.” Key phrase: “if in fact he was not fully competent.” Gonzales isn’t denying that he and Card went to the hospital to get Ashcroft’s approval. He’s just saying that they didn’t intend to seek it if he was not fully competent. At the very least, it seems that Gonzales and Card went to Ashcroft’s bed side to see how sick he really was. There’s no doubt about what they wanted, and according to Comey, they got it–the White House later reauthorized the program without the attorney general’s signature. It took the threat of resignation–by Comey, Ashcroft, and FBI Director Robert Mueller–to compel President Bush to order his staff to bring the NSA program in line with Comey’s and Ashcroft’s concerns.