Please Don’t Let Him Do What He Wants

The Article: For President, Libby Case Was a Test of Will by Sheryl Stolberg in today’s New York Times.

The Text: President Bush’s decision to commute the sentence of I. Lewis Libby Jr. was the act of a liberated man — a leader who knows that, with 18 months left in the Oval Office and only a dwindling band of conservatives still behind him, he might as well do what he wants.

The decision is a sharp departure for Mr. Bush. In determining whether to invoke his powers of clemency, the president typically relies on formal advice from lawyers at the Justice Department.

But the Libby case, featuring a loyal aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who was the architect and chief defender of the administration’s most controversial foreign policy decision, the war in Iraq, was not just any clemency case. It came to symbolize an unpopular war and the administration’s penchant for secrecy.

Even as he publicly declined to comment on the case, Mr. Bush had privately told his aides that he believed Mr. Libby’s sentence, to 30 months in prison, was too harsh.

“I think he sincerely believed that Scooter was not shown proper justice,” said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist close to the administration. “We can get into the whole definition of justice versus mercy, but the point is the president didn’t say justice wasn’t done, he just didn’t think the sentence was fair and therefore he showed mercy.”

Mr. Bush is not a man to dole out pardons lightly, and in offering a commutation — which left Mr. Libby’s $250,000 fine intact — rather than a pardon, he chose not to use his Constitutional powers of clemency to offer Mr. Libby official forgiveness.

The decision was closely held; only a few aides knew. The commutation seemed to catch Justice Department officials, and even some of Mr. Bush’s closest aides, off guard. At the Justice Department, several senior officials were on their way out of the building shortly before 6 p.m. when news flashed on their Blackberries. They were floored.

At the White House, Tony Snow, the press secretary, said he did not know who was consulted, or how the decision reached. Asked if Fred F. Fielding, the White House counsel, had been advising Mr. Bush on the matter, Mr. Snow said, “My guess is Fred did, but I’m guessing with you right now.”

Mr. Libby had close allies in the White House. The president’s new counselor, Ed Gillespie, who started at the White House just four days ago, played a role in Mr. Libby’s legal defense fund. Asked if he had spoken to Mr. Bush personally about Mr. Libby, he said, “I’m not going to go into any internal discussions.”

One big question is what role, if any, Mr. Cheney played. Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney are extremely close — they often rode to work together before Mr. Libby’s indictment forced him to resign as Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff in October 2005 — and aides said the vice president viewed Mr. Libby’s conviction as a tragedy.

Mr. Bush comes at the decision a weakened leader, with his public approval ratings at historic lows for any president, his domestic agenda faltering on Capitol Hill and his aides facing subpoenas from the Democrats who control Congress. Those circumstances offer him a certain amount of freedom; as Mr. Black said, “He knows he’s going to get hammered no matter what he does.”

Indeed, to administration critics, the commutation was a subversion of justice, an act of hypocrisy by a president who once vowed that anyone in his administration who broke the law would “be taken care of.”

Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Party, called it a “get- out-of-jail-free card.” Representative Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, called it “a betrayal of trust of the American people.”

But to the conservative believers who make up Mr. Bush’s political base, the Libby case was a test of the president’s political will. In the end, although he did not go so far as to pardon Mr. Libby, Mr. Bush apparently decided that it was a test he did not want to fail.

“It became an issue of character and courage, really,” said William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, who had argued in his magazine that if Mr. Bush was not going to pardon Mr. Libby, at least he should commute his sentence. “I certainly think Bush did the right thing and I think he did something important for his presidency. I think conservatives would have lost respect for Bush if he had not commuted Libby’s sentence.”

Even as Mr. Libby’s defenders lobbied the White House intensely for a pardon, the deliberations were closely held. In fact, Mr. Bush only reached the decision on Monday, hours after a federal court ruled that Mr. Libby could not remain free while his case was on appeal.

The decision was announced by the White House in a formal statement, just after Mr. Bush had returned to Washington from Kennebunkport, where he spent the weekend meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. In it, Mr. Bush said he had carefully weighed the arguments of Mr. Libby’s critics and defenders.

“I respect the jury’s verdict,” he said. “But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive.”

From the outset, Mr. Bush tried to keep his distance from the Libby case, which grew out of the investigation into who leaked the name of an undercover C.I.A. officer, Valerie Wilson. He declined to talk about it, and until Monday had insisted that he would let the legal process run its course before considering a pardon.

But aides said the judge in the case, Reggie B. Walton of the Federal District Court, pushed Mr. Bush into a decision when he ordered Mr. Libby to begin serving his time — a decision upheld Monday by a three-judge panel. So, unlike predecessors, including his father, who used their powers of clemency as they were leaving office, Mr. Bush was forced to act now. He has 18 months left to absorb the political risks, and benefits, of his decision.

The Analysis: I’ve known lepers with more friends then George Bush.


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