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Trump issues pardon to ‘Scooter’ Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney

President Trump issued a pardon to I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby who was convicted of lying to the FBI in 2007. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

President Trump issued a pardon Friday to Lewis “Scooter” Libby, offering forgiveness to a former chief of staff to Vice President Richard B. Cheney who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice related to the leak of a CIA officer’s identity.

“I don’t know Mr. Libby,” Trump said in a statement, “but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly. Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life.”

In a statement explaining Trump’s action, the White House noted that in 2015 one of the key witnesses against Libby recanted her testimony, among other factors.

The White House also said that 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.”

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 Valerie Plame Wilson, a former covert CIA agent and the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.

Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison and fined $250,000, but his sentence was commuted by then-President George W. Bush. Although spared prison time, Libby was not pardoned.

Cheney lobbied Bush aggressively for a pardon for Libby, and Bush’s refusal was said to have caused a strain in the relationship 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 Trump’s administration. The pardon has been under consideration for several months, people familiar with the president’s thinking have said.

Victoria Toensing, Libby’s lawyer, said Friday that Trump called her personally around 1 p.m. to break 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 declined to say what conversations she had with the White House about Libby in recent days and weeks. She and her husband had been in talks to represent Trump in the Russia investigation.

Toensing submitted materials to the White House last year asserting Libby’s innocence.

“Suffice to say, he’s thrilled,” she said of Libby, who she said had just gotten out of an MRI.

Given the nature of Libby’s crimes, Trump came under fire from critics Friday after he took to Twitter to accuse former FBI director James B. Comey 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.”

Analysis: Trump’s plan to pardon ‘Scooter’ Libby sends a message to witnesses in Mueller probe

Asked whether she thought Trump had been trying to send a message to others aside from Libby with the pardon, Toensing said: “I’m going to tell you what I did before — the merits of the case cry out for a pardon, this isn’t just a be-nice pardon. A key witness recanted. This cries out for a pardon.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Libby’s pardon had nothing to do with the Mueller probe.

“One thing has nothing to do with the other,” she told reporters.

The chief federal prosecutor in Libby’s case was Patrick Fitzgerald, then the U.S. attorney from the Northern District of Illinois. Fitzgerald is a longtime friend and colleague of Comey, whose new memoir paints a scathing portrait of Trump’s character and conduct in office.

In a statement released after the pardon, Toensing called out Comey, who was deputy attorney general during Libby’s case and appointed Fitzgerald as special prosecutor to investigate the matter.

“Our law firm, diGenova & Toensing, was honored to represent Lewis (Scooter) Libby to request a pardon for the injustice inflicted on him and his family by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald and then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey,” Toensing said.

She claimed that both Comey and Fitzgerald knew before the investigation began that another person was responsible for the leak.

Libby, in a statement released by Toensing, said 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.”

“For over a dozen years we have suffered under the weight of a terrible injustice,” Libby said. “To his great credit, President Trump recognized this wrong and would not let it persist.”

Libby said that others had told him that they would not go into public service after seeing how he was treated because of his government role.

“Perhaps one day public service in America will prove less of a blood sport,” he said.

Fitzgerald criticized the pardon Friday and the idea that Libby was a victim of his investigation.

“While the President has the constitutional power to pardon, the decision to do so in this case purports to be premised on the notion that Libby was an innocent man convicted on the basis of inaccurate testimony caused by the prosecution,” he said in a statement. “That is 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. 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.”

Trump has rarely used his presidential power to pardon, but last August granted clemency to Joe Arpaio, a controversial Arizona sheriff who had been a longtime Trump ally and campaign-trail companion.

Arpaio 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. In addition to racial profiling, Arpaio was long criticized for what many in the community decried as inhumane prisons in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix.

Libby’s trouble began with the drumbeat leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

In January 2003, President Bush used his State of the Union address to justify military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime. The president told the country that Iraq officials had attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium in Niger.

Six months later, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Wilson, the former ambassador. In the article, Wilson recounted a 2002 trip he made to Niger to substantiate the allegations, later finding them to be false.

On July 14, syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote a column outing Wilson’s wife as a CIA “operative.” The CIA requested a Department of Justice investigation into the naming of Plame as an agent — a breach of classified information.

An FBI investigation started into whether Plame’s identity was leaked to reporters as political payback for her husband’s public challenge to the administration.

By the end of 2003, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the case. That left the decision on how to proceed to Comey. The future FBI director appointed Fitzgerald as special counsel.

The grand jury investigated the leaks. No one was ever charged for outing Plame, but Libby was charged with federal obstruction of justice and perjury charges for lying to investigators. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told investigators he was the source for Novak’s column.

In March 2007, Libby was found guilty on the four felony counts, becoming the highest-ranking White House official convicted since the Iran-contra scandal in the 1980s.

Kyle Swenson and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.