At the outset of the CIA-leak investigation, President Bush sternly warned that if any person in his administration “has violated the law, the person will be taken care of.” The person was taken care of, all right, just not the way we were led to believe.
Late Monday afternoon, the White House announced that Bush had commuted the pending prison sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the influential vice-presidential chief of staff found guilty of four felony counts of lying to the FBI and a grand jury about the outing of a CIA agent’s identity.
That followed the court’s rejection of his plea to remain free pending appeal, meaning Libby was weeks away from prison. Libby had been sentenced to 30 months, fined $250,000 and given two years’ probation. The fine and the probation remain.
Bush, showing a newfound judicial expertise, said he found the sentence “excessive,” a judgment vehemently disputed by the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, who said it was “consistent with the applicable laws.”
So, the compassionate conservative showed compassion to fellow conservative Libby, although he has shown little toward anyone else. In 6-1/2 years as president, Bush has commuted only three other sentences and issued only 113 pardons, the fewest of any president since John Kennedy’s foreshortened term.
The commutation was unique in another way. They are typically granted only after a review and recommendation by the Justice Department. Bush did this on his own. And department policy is not to recommend a commutation without the petitioner serving some of the sentence. The department’s former top pardon lawyer said, “I can’t think of a recent commutation that was granted before at least some prison time was served.”
The Democrats predictably denounced the commutation as typical of the Bush White House’s hypocrisy, lack of accountability and holding itself above the law. However, some of Libby’s stronger partisans were irate that the president didn’t issue a full pardon, which would have erased his conviction and restored his rights and ability to practice law.
But, between the short time left in his presidency and his abysmal standing in the polls, Bush surely thought he had little to lose. And Bush may well pardon Libby before leaving the White House. He has two Christmases to go, and his father, in his last Christmas in the White House, pardoned six Reagan-Bush officials convicted in the Iran-Contra affair.
Despite the shabby brand of politics that brought Libby to this pass, it would be overly vengeful to begrudge this disgraced official his avoidance of prison. One does wonder about all those other white-collar criminals without Libby’s connections who are serving time for nonviolent offenses like perjury and obstruction.