The Clinton-Did-It Flimflam

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 6, 2007 12:32 PM

The White House, which has been so adept at distracting the media from critical issues -- "Oh, look! A shiny penny!" as one of my readers puts it -- tossed out the shiniest penny of all yesterday.

Rather than address the most weighty criticism of President Bush's decision to commute former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby's prison sentence -- that it was part and parcel of a longtime cover-up of White House misdeeds -- press secretary Tony Snow lashed out at former President Bill Clinton and his would-be president wife for actions that date back more than six years.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has been among the foremost critics accusing Bush of commuting Libby's sentence in order to avoid further inquiry into his own behavior. The commutation "was clearly an effort to protect the White House," she told the Associated Press earlier this week. "There isn't any doubt now, what we know is that Libby was carrying out the implicit or explicit wishes of the vice president, or maybe the president as well, in the further effort to stifle dissent."

Snow let loose in yesterday morning's gaggle, calling attention to numerous controversial grants of clemency that Bill Clinton issued in the closing hours of his presidency in 2001. "I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it," Snow said. Snow's deputy, Scott Stanzel, took up the cudgel at the televised mid-day briefing: "The hypocrisy demonstrated by Democratic leaders on this issue is rather startling," he said.

It's certainly hard to argue that President Clinton didn't abuse the pardon process. But Bush's pledge back in 2000 was to restore ethics to the White House -- not engage in he-did-it-too defense of his own misconduct.

And furthermore, there is an ethical chasm between Clinton's pardons -- unseemly as they were -- and Bush's decision to grant clemency to someone involved in an investigation of his own White House. (See my Tuesday column, Obstruction of Justice, Continued.)

As it happens, the previous granting of clemency that is most analogous to what Bush did dates back neither to the Clinton or even the Nixon era, but to Bush's father's presidency.

In 1992, on the eve of his last Christmas in the White House, George H.W. Bush pardoned former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and five others for their conduct related to the Iran-Contra affair, in which he himself was also loosely implicated.

As David Johnston reported in the New York Times at the time, independent prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh was livid. "Mr. Walsh bitterly condemned the President's action, charging that 'the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.'"

Added Walsh: "In light of President Bush's own misconduct, we are gravely concerned about his decision to pardon others who lied to Congress and obstructed official investigations."

Opinion Watch

Josh Marshall writes on his Talking Points Memo blog: "Snow is out there saying that President Clinton has chutzpah for criticizing President Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby.

"But this really isn't that complicated.

"Setting aside whether Scooter Libby should spend 0 days in jail for what most people spend from 1 to 3 years in jail, the key here is that it's inappropriate for the president to pardon or commute a sentence in a case in which he (i.e., the president) is a party to the same underlying crime. Because it amounts to obstruction of justice."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column about Bush's motivation, and wonders if he feels "responsible for Libby's plight. Libby's criminal lies were about his part in discrediting claims that the administration's rationale for invading Iraq was bogus. Bush might have decided that since this is his war, he, not Libby, should be the one held to account.

"Then again, Bush might have worried that sitting in prison, with time on his hands, novelist Libby might turn his pen to a nonfiction memoir of his White House years. 'High Crimes and Misdemeanors' would have been a good working title."

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Notice the pattern: When the heat was on in the CIA leak case, Bush issued a strong pledge to fire anybody involved in leaking. He didn't. When Libby was indicted, Bush ducked comment until Libby was at prison's door. Now, by keeping Libby free, Bush can conveniently postpone a full pardon until after the 2008 election. In the meantime, Libby has no incentive to tell prosecutors anything new about what happened in this case. As liberal blogs have noted, since he was not pardoned outright, he can use the pending appeal of his conviction to avoid testifying before Congress.

"It's an airtight coverup made possible by the administration's willingness to bend the law. We spent months talking about Clinton's pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich. This commutation is an even greater outrage because it involves the administration taking steps to slip accountability for its own actions. Are we just going to let this one go by?"

Matthew Yglesias blogs for the Atlantic: "Most of Libby's defenders -- George W. Bush, David Brooks, etc. -- don't seem to be denying that Libby committed a crime by lying under oath to investigators. They want us to say that, rather, he deserves to be treated very leniently because there was no big deal here. The alleged absence of an underlying crime is key to that theory. The converse theory is that there was an underlying crime and the crime can't be proven because Libby lied to investigators.

"If that theory is wrong -- if there really was no crime -- then it seems we ought to get some kind of explanation from Libby as to why he lied. People sometimes do have reasons to lie to investigators other than a desire to cover up criminal activity (hiding non-criminal activity that's embarrassing is the obvious one) but if Libby wants mercy he should offer up a plausible score on this account. But Libby hasn't offered any such story. Instead, he's offered a wildly implausible story -- that he's innocent. Under those circumstances, it's very odd to offer clemency. He's shown no remorse and appears to be continually engaged in a conspiracy to obstruct justice. Maybe there was no crime here; but if there wasn't, then what was Libby doing? He's not even trying to convince us that he had some other reason to lie."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "The Bushies, it seems, like starting fights, but they don't believe in paying any of the cost of those fights or bearing any of the risks. Above all, they don't believe that they or their friends should face any personal or professional penalties for trivial sins like distorting intelligence to get America into an unnecessary war, or totally botching that war's execution. . . .

"Mr. Bush says that Mr. Libby's punishment remains 'harsh' because his reputation is 'forever damaged.' Meanwhile, Mr. Bush employs, as a deputy national security adviser, none other than Elliott Abrams, who pleaded guilty to unlawfully withholding information from Congress in the Iran-contra affair. Mr. Abrams was one of six Iran-contra defendants pardoned by Mr. Bush's father, who was himself a subject of the special prosecutor's investigation of the scandal.

"In other words, obstruction of justice when it gets too close to home is a family tradition. And being a loyal Bushie means never having to say you're sorry."

Joseph L. Galloway writes in his opinion column for McClatchy Newspapers: "Why is it that the Bush administration, in its dying throes, looks remarkably more like an organized crime ring than one of the arms of the American government? A poorly organized and run crime ring, truly, but a crime ring nonetheless.

"Why do I keep remembering the George Bush that I actually once voted for when he first ran for president -- the one who talked of bringing in an administration that would look more like the face of America and of giving us a government whose appointees would be honest, upright, fair and moral.

"Yes, that's the one. What happened to him? Where did that George Bush go? When did he go over to The Dark Side? What enticements did Vice President Darth Cheney offer him? Was it the vision of unlimited, unchecked power over the world?

"How can it be that this man from Texas presides over a White House that shelters and provides cover for men like Karl Rove and I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, who clearly believe that the laws of our country are only meant to be imposed on lesser beings, the man in the street?"

Two Wrongs Make a Right?

Michael A. Fletcher and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "The White House responded angrily yesterday to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's statement that President Bush was acting 'above the law' in commuting the prison sentence of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, accusing her of hypocrisy because of the pardons issued by her husband on the last day of his presidency.

"Yesterday's tough exchange unfolded after Sen. Clinton called in to a morning radio talk show in Iowa to say again that Bush's decision on Monday to wipe away the 30-month prison sentence leveled against the former aide to Vice President Cheney was 'clearly an effort to protect the White House' by a White House that holds itself 'above the law.' . . .

"Bush's action has been roundly criticized by Democrats and has prompted House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to announce hearings into the matter. 'Well, fine, knock himself out,' Snow said of Conyers. 'I mean, perfectly happy. And while he's at it, why doesn't he look at January 20th, 2001?'"

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "The White House on Thursday made fun of former President Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for criticizing President Bush's decision to erase the prison sentence of former aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby."

Richard B. Schmitt and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times: "Sen. Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said the pardons granted by her husband were routine.

"The Libby commutation, she said, 'was clearly an effort to protect the White House.' . . .

"President Clinton's most notorious pardon was of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife, Denise, was a Democratic Party fundraiser and patron of the Clinton presidential library. . . .

"Some legal experts said the [Rich and Libby] cases were hard to compare but neither act of clemency seemed very defensible.

"'It is like the pot and the kettle calling each other names,' said former Assistant U.S. Atty. Martin J. Auerbach, who once oversaw the Rich case. 'I think they were both wrong, for different reasons. They are both indefensible.'"

Paul Kiel from TPM Muckraker Web-published the transcript of Snow's morning gaggle:

"REPORTER: Tony, why do you . . . in your op-ed today you brought up the Clinton pardons, as well. Do two wrongs make a right? Is that the idea, like if Clinton did wrong . . . .

"SNOW: Well, this is . . . no, this is not a wrong, but I think what is interesting is perhaps it was just because he was on his way out, but while there was a small flurry, there was not much investigation of it."

There was in fact quite a bit of investigating into Clinton's pardons. TalkLeft blogger Jeralyn Merrit tracks down the transcript of the second congressional hearing into the Rich pardon (right here on washingtonpost.com) and writes: "I think it's significant that President Clinton waived executive privilege for the hearing and allowed his aides who participated in the Rich pardon discussion to testify, no holds barred.

"Will Bush do the same next week?"

Stanzel's Other Attack

At yesterday's briefing, Stanzel also lashed out at congressional Democrats.

"I would note that we do get a lot of inquiries from the Hill. They've launched over 300 investigations, had over 350 requests for documents and interviews ... And they have had over 600 oversight hearings in just about 100 days -- so that's about six oversight hearings a day. And we've turned over 200,000 pages of documents as an administration. And in that time, what they have to show for it, if you're taking a generous look at it, is six bills -- six major bills passed.

"We'll always respond appropriately, and look forward to reviewing that letter, but I guess I would raise those issues because it raises the question, what does Congress want to do -- do they want to pass legislation for the American people or would they rather investigate and have politics be the course of the day?"

Several bloggers called attention to this exchange:

"Q Scott, is Scooter Libby getting more than equal justice under the law? Is he getting special treatment?

"MR. STANZEL: Well, I guess I don't know what you mean by 'equal justice under the law.' . . . "

As Steve Benen blogged: "It wasn't a trick question."

Censure Watch

Impeachment still appears to be off the table for congressional Democrats. But what about censure?

Larry Lipman writes in the Palm Beach Post: "Rep. Robert Wexler says President Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's prison sentence 'is nothing short of (a) political quid pro quo, and Congress must go on record in strong opposition.'

"Wexler has drafted a resolution to censure Bush and plans to introduce it when Congress returns next Tuesday. A censure is a rare public reprimand but does not carry any other penalty. . . .

"Wexler said Bush's 'intervention is an unconscionable abuse of authority by George W. Bush, and Congress must step forward and express the disgust that Americans rightfully feel toward this contemptible decision.'"

Libby Pays Up

Jim Rutenberg and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "I. Lewis Libby Jr. has paid the $250,000 fine for his conviction on perjury and obstruction of justice charges in the Central Intelligence Agency leak case, according to court papers made public Thursday. . . .

"A spokeswoman for Mr. Libby, Barbara Comstock, said he paid the fine out of his own pocket."

Rutenberg and Shane also write that the White House "seemed caught off guard by comments from the judge in the case, Reggie B. Walton of Federal District Court. Judge Walton questioned whether it is legally possible to execute Mr. Bush's call for a commutation of the sentence but continue the two-year probation that was to follow. . . .

"If Judge Walton does not impose any supervised release, it could undercut the argument that Mr. Libby still faced stiff justice."

Arianna Huffington blogs: "Well, that was easy. Less than 72 hours after President Bush commuted Scooter Libby's jail sentence (and that includes a national holiday), erstwhile Prisoner 28301-016 paid his financial debt to society. Cheney's Cheney's $250,400 check -- 250 grand, plus a $400 'special assessment' -- was posted on the U.S. District Court's docket this afternoon. So much for the financial hardship his supporters had touted in defending Bush's actions."

Iraq Watch

Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "White House efforts to keep congressional Republicans united over the Iraq war suffered another major defection yesterday as Sen. Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) broke with President Bush and called for an immediate change in U.S. strategy that could end combat operations by spring.

"The six-term lawmaker, party loyalist and former staunch war supporter represents one of the most significant GOP losses to date. Speaking to reporters at a news conference in Albuquerque, Domenici said he began to question his stance on Iraq late last month, after several conversations with the family members of dead soldiers from his home state, and as it became clear that Iraqi leaders are making little progress toward national reconciliation. . . .

"Domenici said the signal to Bush should be clear: GOP patience is running out much more quickly. . . .

"Domenici described to reporters the pleading tone he hears in phone calls with grieving families. He told of an exchange with one father, whom he quoted as saying: 'I'm asking you if you couldn't do a little extra, a little more, to see if you can't get the troops back. Mine is dead, but I would surely hope that you would listen to me and try to get the rest of them back sooner.'"

Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The administration had hoped to stave off renewed congressional calls for a drawdown until at least September, but the number of lawmakers recommending an immediate change of course is growing, which suggests that this month could be a turning point. . . .

"The intensifying fight between Congress and the White House is expected to come to a head this month as Congress debates an array of legislation designed to force the administration to start drawing down troops."

Book Watch

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani reviews "Unchecked and Unbalanced": "In their chilling and timely book Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr., senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, and Aziz Z. Huq, who directs the Liberty and National Security Project at the Brennan Center, argue that the Bush administration's 'monarchist claims of executive power' are 'unprecedented on this side of the North Atlantic,' and that its 'executive unilateralism not only undermines the delicate balance of our Constitution, but also lessens our human liberties and hurts vital counterterrorism campaigns' by undermining America's moral authority and standing in the world."

Bush in Stealth Nats Visit

Christine Simmons writes for the Associated Press: "First fan George W. Bush turned out Thursday night to catch the last-place Washington Nationals play the Chicago Cubs.

"It was an early birthday outing for Bush, who turns 61 on Friday. He arrived at RFK Stadium in the bottom of the first inning and left after the seventh-inning stretch with the Cubs leading 4-2. As it happened, that was the final score.

"Most fans probably did not know Bush was present. There was no advance word of his visit and no announcement over the stadium's public-address system."

Camp David Watch

David Nitkin writes in the Baltimore Sun that the weekend getaway to Camp David has become "a notable feature" of the Bush presidency.

"Today, Bush is departing for his 124th visit as president to the secluded compound in the Catoctin Mountains. Since his inauguration, he has spent all or part of 386 days at Camp David, according to records kept by Mark Knoller of CBS News in Washington, considered an authoritative source on such statistics. Only President Ronald Reagan spent more days there. . . .

"But Camp David is not quite the top getaway destination for Bush. That would be his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he has spent all or part of 416 days since the start of his presidency, according to the White House -- roughly a month more than at Camp David."

Let's see, that's 802 days in one place or the other over the course of 2359 days of the Bush presidency -- or one out of three.

Al Kamen's Solomon-Like Decision

Washington Post "In the Loop" columnist Al Kamen writes: "President Bush's decision to commute the two-year prison sentence of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, the former aide to Vice President Cheney-- and almost surely pardon him later -- means that we will have not one but two sets of winners in the Loop's Pardon Scooter Contest.

"First, we'll select the 10 Loop Fans who came closest to guessing that the pardon would be July 2, 2007. (They will be announced shortly.) Then we'll hold the remaining entries to select 10 more winners of those In the Loop T-shirts when Bush actually pardons Libby, which sounds like it will be toward the end of his presidency."

The End of Stockholm Syndrome?

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column: "Like freed hostages who gradually cease to identify with their captors, mainstream media outlets seem to have been seized by a new spirit of liberation in their coverage of the Bush administration. Lately, we've seen a rash of astonished, outraged stories and editorials relating to the administration's recently discovered malfeasance. . . .

"[I]f the media have finally noticed that the emperor has no clothes, it's all to the good. Still, I'm troubled by the suggestion that all of us were somehow 'tricked' by administration subterfuge into accepting its nefarious policies. . . .

"Someday, historians will ponder our strange collective passivity in the face of Bush-Cheney madness. Why did the editorial boards of our major newspapers either parrot the administration line or raise only muted criticism on so many issues, and for so long? Where were the tough journalistic questions? Why didn't more members of Congress protest the administration's blatantly unjustified policies and transparent constitutional outrages? . . .

"It's hard not to conclude that collectively, we were all too cowardly, slothful or puffed up with our own self-importance to ask the right questions and stand up for principle. The administration didn't trick us; we tricked ourselves."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich, Paul Conrad, and Pat Oliphant on the Libby commutation; Tom Toles on the GOP's big problem.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive