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What Was Bush Thinking?

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, July 5, 2007; 12:58 PM

President Bush apparently doesn't feel that the American public deserves a detailed explanation of why he chose to commute former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence.

He issued a short written statement on Monday and spoke briefly about the matter on Tuesday, insisting that he felt Libby's sentence was "excessive." White House Press Secretary Tony Snow's press briefing on Tuesday was a farce. (See below.)

But Bush and his aides have nevertheless said enough to generate a few broad hypotheses about what Bush was thinking -- all of which raise more questions than answers.

If you take the White House's position at face value, then Bush felt that the sentence -- which followed federal sentencing guidelines for perjury and obstruction of justice -- was unjust. In that case, why isn't he doing anything about those guidelines?

Another possibility is that Bush felt there were circumstances the judge did not take into consideration. What could those circumstances be? Is Bush saying that, yes, Libby lied, but he should be cut some slack because he did so for noble reasons? If so, what might those reasons be?

There is, of course, a third possibility: That the commutation and all the expressions of concern are just a delaying tactic, and that Bush intends to pardon Libby at the end of his term if Libby's appeal fails. That theory was bolstered by Bush's assertion on Tuesday that he wouldn't rule out a pardon in the long run. If Bush "respects" the jury verdict today, why raise the possibility that he won't 18 months from now?

The Coverage

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "Before commuting the prison sentence of I. Lewis Libby Jr., President Bush and a small circle of advisers delved deeply into the evidence in the case, debating Mr. Libby's guilt or innocence and whether he had in fact lied to investigators, people familiar with the deliberations said. . . .

"Because the deliberations were so closely held, those who spoke about them agreed to do so only anonymously. But by several different accounts, Mr. Bush spent weeks thinking about the case against Mr. Libby and consulting closely with senior officials, including Joshua B. Bolten, the White House chief of staff; Fred F. Fielding, the White House counsel; and Dan Bartlett, Mr. Bush's departing counselor.

"'They were digging deeply into the substance of the charges against him, and the defense for him,' one of the Republicans close to the White House said.

"The second Republican said the overarching question was 'did he lie?'"

Stolberg and Rutenberg's story doesn't say. But they point out: "Both critics of the administration and supporters of Mr. Libby viewed him as a fall guy in the case."

In other words, Bush thinks Libby got a raw deal, because he was just doing his job.


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