A Decision Made Largely Alone
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
President Bush limited his deliberations over commuting the prison term of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to a few close aides, opting not to consult with the Justice Department and rebuffing efforts by friends to lobby on Libby's behalf, administration officials and people close to Bush said yesterday.
"We were all told to stay away from it," said an old Bush friend from Texas who is close to Libby and would not speak for attribution. "When we called over there, they said the president is well aware of the situation, so don't raise it. None of us lobbied him because they told us not to."
For the first time in his presidency, Bush commuted a sentence without running requests through lawyers at the Justice Department, White House officials said. He also did not ask the chief prosecutor in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, for his input, as routinely happens in cases routed through the Justice Department's pardon attorney.
"Executive clemency is the president's exclusive power under the Constitution, and there are precedents for exercising that power without going through the pardon attorney process," said Bush spokesman Tony Fratto.
One senior administration official said Bush quickly made his decision yesterday after hearing that the U.S. Court of Appeals had refused to keep Libby out of prison while his appeal ran its course. This source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about the president's thinking, said there is "comfort" at the White House that the decision will not hurt him politically despite the Democratic outcry.
An unanswered question last night was Vice President Cheney's role in advocating leniency for his former chief of staff and alter ego. The vice president has been outspoken in his admiration for Libby, even in the face of the jury's verdict that his former aide perjured himself. "He's one of the most dedicated public servants I've ever worked with, and I think this is a great tragedy," Cheney said after Libby's conviction in March.
One senior White House official said Bush consulted with counsel Fred F. Fielding, Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and his outgoing counselor, Dan Bartlett, but did not mention Cheney.
A spokeswoman for the vice president said she did not know what he advised.
The White House's handling of the Libby case appears to have been designed to make it possible for Bush to say he was not the subject of undue political pressure in the same manner that President Bill Clinton was lobbied to make controversial pardons in the final days of his administration.
But that did not exempt Bush from an avalanche of criticism yesterday. Democrats portrayed the decision as an example of Bush acting above the law and not holding members of his administration accountable for misdeeds. Congressional Republicans seemed muted in their defense of the president.
The White House appeared to be calculating that no matter what he did to keep Libby out of prison, Bush would not make Democrats happy, and if he did nothing, he would infuriate his strongest conservative supporters. As it was, some conservatives thought that Bush should have pardoned Libby and ended his legal battles.
Former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) said that Libby's 30-month sentence was "wretched excess" and that Bush did the right thing, no matter what the political consequences are. "Why should anyone worry about that?" Simpson asked. "He gets hammered every day. They don't think George is doing anything right, so what do you lose?"
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a leading advocate of pardoning Libby, described yesterday as "a very good moment" for the president. "By acting here, he is showing to conservatives the kind of leadership that made conservatives loyal to Bush once and could make them loyal once more," Kristol said.
But other conservatives who wanted Libby to be pardoned reacted angrily, saying that Bush did not go far enough. Libby still faces a $250,000 fine and will not be permitted to practice law if his conviction is not overturned on appeal.
Vin Weber, a conservative lobbyist and adviser to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said he was puzzled by Bush's deferring a decision on a pardon, given what Weber described as the overwhelming consensus in Republican political circles that Libby should be pardoned.
"We seem to have decided that we are going to prolong this thing as long as we can, which is drag this into the presidential election," he said. "I don't understand why. I don't know what their thinking is. . . . No Republican wants this issue to be alive in the next election."
"A lot of people are going to be bitter about this," said a Washington conservative who is close to Libby and asked not to be identified as criticizing Bush. "The president praises Fitzgerald and basically accuses Scooter of lying. He's parsing this down the middle, which is not the way Scooter's friends see it. People are happy that he's not going to jail, but this is not what people were hoping for."
In many respects, Bush's statement explaining his decision suggests a classic political compromise.
Despite the anger GOP partisans felt toward the special prosecutor, Bush was careful to be respectful of Fitzgerald, describing him as "a highly qualified, professional prosecutor who carried out his responsibilities as charged."
The president also soberly sorted through the diverse points raised during the debate over the Libby case, citing the view of critics that a special prosecutor should never have been named and that no one was charged with leaking the name of a covert CIA officer -- the allegation that started the investigation.
On the other hand, he noted, others argued "correctly that our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth. . . . They say that had Mr. Libby only told the truth, he would have never been indicted in the first place."
"Both critics and defenders of this investigation have made important points," Bush wrote. "I have made my own evaluation. In preparing for the decision I am announcing today, I have carefully weighed these arguments and the circumstances surrounding this case."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.