Bush Commutes Libby's Prison Sentence
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
President Bush commuted the sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby yesterday, sparing Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff 2 1/2 years in prison after a federal appeals court had refused to let Libby remain free while he appeals his conviction for lying to federal investigators.
Bush, who for months had sidestepped calls from conservatives to come to Libby's aid, broke his silence early yesterday evening, touching off an immediate uproar from Democrats who accused the White House of circumventing the rule of law to protect one of its own.
The president announced his decision in a written statement that laid out the factors he had weighed. Bush said he decided to "respect" the jury's verdict that Libby was guilty of four felonies for lying about his role in the leak of a covert CIA officer's identity. But the president said Libby's "exceptional public service" and prior lack of a criminal record led him to conclude that the 30-month sentence handed down by a judge last month was "excessive."
The president noted that he had promised before not to intervene until Libby had exhausted his appeals. But he stepped in short of that point. "With the denial of bail being upheld and incarceration imminent," Bush said, "I believe it is now important to react to that decision."
Although he eliminated Libby's prison term, Bush did not grant him a full pardon, which was sought by some conservatives and would have erased his conviction. As a consequence, Libby will still have to pay a $250,000 fine and will remain on probation for two years. The president said Libby's punishment remained "harsh," in part because his professional reputation "is forever damaged."
Bush commuted the sentence hours after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected Libby's request to postpone his prison term while he pursued appeals. The panel concluded that his grounds for appeal were unlikely to be strong enough to prevail in higher courts.
The appellate judges' unanimous opinion upheld an identical ruling slightly more than two weeks ago by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, the trial judge in Libby's case. After a month-long trial that forced presidential aides and prominent journalists onto the witness stand, Libby was found guilty of two counts of perjury and one count each of lying to FBI agents and obstructing a federal investigation into whether administration officials illegally disclosed the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Bush has granted far fewer pardons and commutations than any of his predecessors, dating to John F. Kennedy. He commuted three previous prison terms during his 6 1/2 years in office.
At a time when his popularity is as low as any president's in modern history, Bush's action also defied public opinion. Shortly after Libby was convicted in March, three national public opinion polls found that seven in 10 Americans said they would oppose a pardon of Libby.
Still, the president appeared to calculate that he would antagonize his conservative base too severely if he did not provide Libby some form of reprieve, according to people close to the White House.
Lea Anne McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, declined to say whether the vice president had a role in the decision, other than to say that Cheney supports it.
Last night, an array of Democrats, including several presidential candidates, reacted to Bush's move with derision. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), a White House hopeful, said: "Only a president clinically incapable of understanding that mistakes have consequences could take the action he did today."