Transcript

Bush Commutes Libby's Jail Sentence

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Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Reporter
Tuesday, July 3, 2007; 10:00 AM

Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein was online Tuesday, July 3 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss President Bush's commutation of the 30-month prison sentence given former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Bush Commutes Libby's Prison Sentence | A Decision Made Largely Alone (Post, July 3)

The transcript follows.

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Amy Goldstein: Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me to talk about President Bush and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. We already have lots of questions, so let's get going.

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Oxford, Miss.: I'm not asking you to speculate, just to clarify: There's still nothing preventing Bush from pardoning Libby on, say, his last day of office, right?

Amy Goldstein: Thanks for this question, which really gets to the heart of what President Bush did and did not do last evening. He has commuted the 30-month year prison term to which Libby was sentenced by a U.S. District Judge last month. On the other hand, the president did not pardon Libby. That means that the conviction on four felonies still stands. It means that Libby still faces a $250,000 fine and two years' probation that were part of his sentence. It also means that Bush could, if he chose, pardon him in the future, although that does not seem terribly likely at the moment.

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Westwood, Mass.: With Bush saying the prison term was "excessive" could he have partially commuted Libby's prison term (say from 30 months to 12)? Someone should ask Bush or Snow whether Bush thought any jail time was excessive.

Amy Goldstein: The president's argument that Libby's 30-month prison term was excessive is an interesting part of his reasoning. Defense lawyers had argued in court that their client deserved probation, in light of his long public service and his previously clean criminal record. Prosecutors argued he should be sentenced to between 30 months and 37 months in prison. Meanwhile, the federal probation office recommended a prison term of 15 months to 21 months.

So, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, after extensive arguments from the two sets of lawyers, went with the low end of the prosecution recommendation. Now, the intriguing question is this: If the judge had given Libby a sentence closer to the probation office's view, would that have removed the president's ability to argue that the sentence was excessive and, therefore, should be commuted? We'll never know.

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Coventry, Conn.: Good morning. How is this likely to affect the President's political standing. Specifically, what will the effect be on the president's GOP political base?

Amy Goldstein: Interesting question. President Bush's standing with the public is at historic lows. That means, in essence, that he already had lost the support of most Democrats and Independents long before Libby's conviction this spring. Now, it is impossible entirely to get into a president's mind, particularly regarding a decision on which he seems to have consulted relatively few people. But perhaps the president calculated that he had nothing more to lose, in terms of his standing with much of the public, so he might as well try to satisfy his conservative base. Judging by the immediate reaction last night, he seems to have done so only partially. Many conservatives, including former senator and undeclared presidential candidate Fred Thompson, were lobbying hard for a pardon and said they were disappointed that Bush did not grant one. Still, Thompson and other allies of Libby are sounding quite happy that he will be spared time in prison.

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Minneapolis: President Bush has now declared that his previous reason for not commenting on the case -- the desire not to intervene in an ongoing legal proceeding -- is no longer operative. There is simply no excuse for him or Vice President Cheney to refuse to answer the substantial and troubling questions about their own roles in the case. The trial made crystal-clear that Cheney directed Libby to leak classified information to Judy Miller on July 8, 2003, and that that information almost certainly included Valerie Plame's CIA identity. Cheney should be asked about that. And both he and Bush should be asked about whether they discussed Wilson's wife at the crucial meeting the two of them had in advance of the "secret mission" (as the defense called it) Cheney sent Libby on to leak to Miller. Libby said Cheney went to Bush to get authorization to leak the October 2002 NIE, but that story doesn't hold up, raising the question of whether Bush effectively authorized Cheney and/or Libby to disclose Plame's identity to Miller.

Amy Goldstein: It will be interesting to see whether the strategy of Democrats, who reacted with swift outrage to the commutation, now will include trying to pressure the president and vice president to disclose more about their role in the CIA leak. You probably remember that Libby was the only person charged as a result of the three-year federal investigation into whether anyone in the administration acted illegally in disclosing to journalists the identity of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA officer at the time.

As part of that investigation, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald privately interviewed Bush and Cheney. We do not know what they said during those interviews. From testimony and evidence at Libby's trial, however, it became clear that Cheney was involved directly during the spring and early summer of 2003 in encouraging other administration officials to tarnish the reputation of Plame's husband. Her husband is a former ambassador named Joseph C. Wilson IV, who publicly criticized some of the intelligence the Bush administration was using to justify the then-new war in Iraq. Cheney, witnesses testified at Libby's trial, even dictated talking points for aides to use in speaking to reporters about Wilson.

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Washington: Thanks for doing this chat! Why is anyone surprised that Bush pardoned Libby and why is The Post reporting that Bush made this decision completely on his own? What are the chances that Cheney "worked" on Bush over a period of time?

Amy Goldstein: One of the mysteries lingering at the end of a long, productive night of reporting by my colleague Michael Abramowitz -- who covers the White House -- is exactly what role, if any, Cheney played in the president's decision to commute the prison sentence. The president and Cheney have had a long, close relationship, and other recent reporting in a terrific series than ran in The Washington Post last week (go back and read it if you haven't already) made clear that the vice president has not been shy through the years about influencing a variety of administration decisions. That said, Cheney's spokeswoman would say little Monday evening apart from that he supported the president's decision.

As for how much this decision was Bush's alone, it does seem that the president did not consult some of the people and places one might expect, such as lawyers at the Justice Department.

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Philadelphia: Before the Clinton-haters try to equate Libby with Marc Rich I would like to point out two facts: Rich didn't have anything on Clinton or Gore that might lead them to be implicated in a crime, and Marc Rich's attorney at the time of his pardon was ... Scooter Libby.

Amy Goldstein: I would be surprised if, in coming days, we didn't hear a lot of partisan debate comparing the use of the presidential power of clemency by President Bush and President Bill Clinton. Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich on his last day in office surely will figure in that debate.

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Washington: Could you please tell if there have been historical precedents in which the president commuted the sentence of a close aide?

Also, the Special prosecutor came out with a strong statement disagreeing with the rationale behind the president's decision without, of course, disagreeing with the decision itself. I am wondering if prosecutors typically come out with such strong statements against pardon/commutation decisions.

Amy Goldstein: Taking the second part of your question, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald was careful not to dispute the president's authority to commute a sentence. Fitzgerald, as you say, did dispute with the president's characterization of the sentence as excessive. The prosecutor did so in a way that was consistent with his arguments at the sentencing hearing early last month. So, the statement didn't strike me as that strong.

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Redmond, Wash.: How does the Republican Party feel this will affect their electoral fortunes come 2008? Do they believe that the electorate will forget this? Do they believe that it is of no consequence to begin with? Are they relieved that this has happened because it may mean that no more information about this case and its implications will come forward?

Amy Goldstein: Your question of what President Bush's decision implies for his political party is really interesting. The president of course is insulated from the ripple effects because he cannot run for re-election. How other Republicans will view his actions will become clearer in the coming days. In the immediate aftermath of the commutation, I was struck that a large number of congressional Democrats and Democratic presidential candidates spoke out, all denouncing the president. The only congressional Republican I noticed who put out a statement -- and perhaps I missed some -- was House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who was solidly supportive of the president.

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Prescott, Ariz.: So the claim the President made in his statement was that the sentence was excessive, so he got rid of it. I thought I heard the sentencing was pretty much middle-of-the-road as far as the guidelines go, so who's right? Bonus question: I heard Tucker Carlson ranting about how the judge and Patrick Fitzgerald were really vindictive and over-the-top chasing Libby; his dad runs Libby's defense fund, do you suppose it would be ethical for him as a journalist to disclose such a relationship if he is going to opine on the topic?

Amy Goldstein: See my answer above about the recommendations of the prosecution, defense and probation office to get a sense of the sentencing guidelines. They have a lot of latitude.

As for your bonus question, the fact that President Bush is keeping Mr. Libby out of prison almost certainly will not end the ideological tug-of-war regarding whether the CIA leak investigation was justified in the first place, as Tucker Carlson's remarks reflect. As for journalists and conflicts of interest, it's always better not to have them.

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Amy Goldstein: Back to part one of this earlier question: "Could you please tell if there have been historical precedents in which the president commuted the sentence of a close aide?"

My colleague Rachel Dry, who spent Monday evening searching the recent history of presidential pardons and commutations, helpfully provides this answer, which shows that President Bush is not alone in stepping in to help a friend in legal trouble: The President George H.W. Bush in 1992 pardoned Caspar Weinberger, who got caught up in the Iran-Contra affair. Further back in time, President Harry Truman pardoned Matthew J. Connelly, his personal appointment secretary, who had been indicted for tax evasion and conspiracy to defraud the government. And as recently as 2001, at the very end of his presidency Bill Clinton pardoned his CIA director, John Deutch.

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Amy Goldstein: I'm afraid we're out of time. Thanks for sending so many terrific questions and sorry to have to leave so many of them unanswered.

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