In his decision Friday to pardon a former Bush administration official convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, President Trump telegraphed his open hostility to the criminal justice system and his desire to use the power of the presidency as a personal political tool.
As with his controversial pardon last year of a former Arizona county sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who had been held in contempt of court, Trump effectively thumbed his nose at the judiciary by pardoning I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The Justice Department was not involved in either case, officials said.
Trump acknowledged Friday that he has no personal relationship with Libby, but the George W. Bush administration veteran has powerful allies in the conservative movement who lobbied Trump over many months. Trump concluded that Libby had been unfairly convicted in 2007 because of an overzealous prosecutor who investigated the leak of a covert CIA officer’s identity and was deserving of a pardon.
“I don’t know Mr. Libby, but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly,” the president said in a statement. “Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life.”
A number of former Trump aides and associates have pleaded guilty to similar charges, such as lying to FBI investigators, and others are subjects of the wide-ranging Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Trump’s former lawyer, John Dowd, has floated the possibility of pardons for former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in the past, The Washington Post has reported. And Trump has asked questions about the use of pardons, White House aides say.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that the pardon for Libby, who was chief of staff to Richard B. Cheney when he was vice president, had anything to do with the Russia investigation. Still, it sends a message that Trump could be willing to exercise the power of his office to help allies who are witnesses in the Mueller probe.
Libby was convicted of four felonies in 2007 — for perjury before a grand jury, lying to FBI investigators and obstruction of justice during an investigation into the disclosure of the work of former covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson.
Explaining Trump’s action, a White House statement noted that in 2015 one of the key witnesses against Libby, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, recanted her testimony, among other factors. The White House also said Libby’s past government service and his record since his conviction have been “similarly unblemished, and he continues to be held in high regard by his colleagues and peers.”
Still, Trump’s action inspired an outcry from Plame, who argued the president’s rationale was dishonest, and from many Democrats, who called the pardon an abuse of power.
“President Trump’s pardon of Scooter Libby makes clear his contempt for the rule of law,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “This pardon sends a troubling signal to the President’s allies that obstructing justice will be rewarded.”
Trump has rarely used his power to pardon, but last August he granted clemency to Arpaio, a controversial figure who had been a Trump ally and campaign-trail companion. The former Arizona sheriff was found in contempt of court for defying a federal judge’s order to stop detaining people simply because he suspected them of being undocumented immigrants.
Late last year, Trump commuted the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, chief executive of a kosher meatpacking plant in Iowa — a move cheered by Jewish leaders. And Trump this year granted a pardon to Kristian Saucier, a former Navy sailor convicted of unauthorized retention of national defense information. Saucier’s case was taken up by Fox News.
Margaret Love, a former pardon attorney for the U.S. government, said Trump has shown little interest in the ordinary pardon caseload that is prepared at the Justice Department, instead gravitating toward cases of personal political interest.
“All four of these cases are evidently ones he has cared about because of personal knowledge or some recommendation made to him outside the ordinary process,” Love said. She added that there is “no indication that the ordinary pardon caseload has attracted this president’s interest.”
Mark Corallo, a former Bush administration Justice Department official who for a few months last year served as a spokesman for Trump’s legal team on Russia, said, “Maybe this president is willing to break the mold on pardons.”
“If he has proven anything, it is he is not your run-of-the-mill politician, and he certainly is not like any other president,” Corallo said.
The effect of the pardon is almost entirely symbolic. Libby was sentenced in 2007 to 30 months in prison and fined $250,000, but his sentence was commuted by then-President Bush. His voting rights have been restored, and in 2016 he was readmitted to the bar in the District. A pardon does not erase or expunge a conviction, though the Justice Department says it “should lessen to some extent the stigma arising from a conviction.”
Cheney lobbied Bush aggressively to give Libby a pardon, and Bush’s refusal was said to have caused a strain in relations between the two men. To the former vice president and others in his orbit, Libby’s conviction was the product of an overzealous special prosecutor and a liberal Washington jury.
“Scooter Libby is one of the most capable, principled, and honorable men I have ever known,” Cheney said in a statement Friday. “He is innocent, and he and his family have suffered for years because of his wrongful conviction. I am grateful today that President Trump righted this wrong by issuing a full pardon to Scooter, and I am thrilled for Scooter and his family.”
The unfinished business of the Libby conviction has been a longtime rallying point for conservatives, including current members of the Trump administration. Libby’s boosters told Trump that granting a pardon would be celebrated by his political base. Corallo said that he had heard widespread support among conservatives in the legal community.
The pardon has been under consideration for several months, people familiar with the president’s thinking have said. A statement on the pardon was written by August, but Trump never finalized it, an administration official. Senior officials, including White House Counsel Donald McGahn, supported the pardon, the official said, which was “not seen as all that controversial in the White House.”
Victoria Toensing, Libby’s lawyer, said Friday that Trump called her personally around 1 p.m. to convey the news. She said Trump told her Libby was “a wonderful person who got screwed.”
“Justice called out for it, is what the president said to us,” Toensing said. “He was a good guy who got screwed. The facts are compelling.”
Toensing and her husband, Joseph diGenova, were in talks to represent Trump in the Russia investigation. They were announced last month as new additions to what had been a shrinking stable of attorneys, but after meeting with the president, it was announced that Toensing and diGenova would not be joining the team, citing conflicts.
Toensing declined Friday to say what conversations she had with Trump or other White House officials about Libby in recent days and weeks. She had submitted materials to the White House last year asserting Libby’s innocence.
Cheney’s advocacy for Libby was a motivating factor for Trump, who holds Cheney in high regard because the former vice president supported his 2016 candidacy far more enthusiastically than the Bush family, according to someone familiar with Trump’s thinking.
Libby said in a statement that he and his family were “immensely grateful to President Trump for his gracious decision to grant a pardon,” and he criticized what he viewed as “defects” in the justice system that he said were “so evident in the handling not just of my matter.”
Patrick Fitzgerald, who was U.S. attorney from the Northern District of Illinois and the chief federal prosecutor in Libby’s case, criticized the pardon as well as the idea that Libby was a victim of his investigation, calling such a suggestion “false.”
“There was no impropriety in the preparation of any witness, and we did not tell witnesses what to say or withhold any information that should have been disclosed,” Fitzgerald said in a statement Friday. “Mr. Libby’s conviction was based upon the testimony of multiple witnesses, including the grand jury testimony of Mr. Libby himself, as well as numerous documents.”
Given the nature of Libby’s crimes, Trump came under fire from critics Friday for pardoning him mere hours after he took to Twitter to accuse former FBI director James B. Comey — whose new memoir paints a scathing portrait of Trump’s character and conduct in office — of leaking classified information and lying to Congress.
“On the day the President wrongly attacks Comey for being a ‘leaker and liar’ he considers pardoning a convicted leaker and liar, Scooter Libby,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote on Twitter. “This is the President’s way of sending a message to those implicated in the Russia investigation: You have my back and I’ll have yours.”
John Wagner contributed to this report.