March 7, 2007

How Damaging Is The Libby Conviction?

Analysts and Democrats waited only moments after the conviction of Scooter Libby before tying the case around the neck of Vice President Dick Cheney. Following Patrick Fitzgerald's comment in his summation that a "cloud" hovers over the Vice President, many claim that Libby's conviction means the end of Cheney's influence in American policy, and perhaps the start of a process that would end in his removal from office:

With Tuesday’s verdict on Mr. Libby — guilty on four of five counts, including perjury and obstruction of justice — Mr. Cheney’s critics, and even some of his supporters, said the vice president had been diminished.

“The trial has been death by 1,000 cuts for Cheney,” said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist. “It’s hurt him inside the administration. It’s hurt him with the Congress, and it’s hurt his stature around the world because it has shown a lot of the inner workings of the White House. It peeled the bark right off the way they operate.” ...

The political question was whether Mr. Libby, the vice president’s former chief of staff, was “the fall guy” for his boss, in the words of Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. Though the defense introduced a note from Mr. Cheney worrying that Mr. Libby was being sacrificed to protect other White House officials, some say the vice president bears responsibility for the fate of his former aide, known as Scooter.

“It was clear that what Scooter was doing in the Wilson case was at Dick’s behest,” said Kenneth L. Adelman, a former Reagan administration official who has been close with both men but has broken with Mr. Cheney over the Iraq war. “That was clear. It was clear from Dick’s notes on the Op-Ed piece that he wanted to go get Wilson. And Scooter’s not that type. He’s not a vindictive person.”

One can argue that the case has no real bearing on Cheney or his influence. After all, the leaks regarding Plame came from an entirely different area of the administration (State), and through someone who would rather see Cheney in flames than give him covert political assistance (Richard Armitage, to two different reporters). Patrick Fitzgerald will not pursue any more indictments in the case, and the only person who Cheney has to please is George Bush.

However, that's not political reality, for either Bush or Cheney. Had Libby been acquitted, both would haved used the occasion for vindication. Now that he has been convicted, the reality is that a senior man in the administration got caught lying to investigators, regardless of whether one believes the investigation to be valid or not. People will want to know why, and the first place they will look for answers is the Vice President's office.

Does that mean Cheney has to resign? Of course not. The Clinton administration had a number of its staff indicted and convicted for various peccadilloes, including Webster Hubbell, the MacDougals, and so on. If Cheney did nothing wrong himself, then he has no need to resign, nor should he.

However, Cheney and his office will have to answer a lot of questions over the next few weeks, and perhaps some of those may be in Congress. The Libby conviction will present a major distraction for at least a while, and the Republicans will have to answer for it in the next election. That's not a demand by me, but just a cold, hard, political reality. Libby lied to investigators who were probing the administration, and he was not some junior flunky at a folding table. Libby was an inner-circle man, and this will hurt. A lot.

So, the question will be whether Cheney should step aside for the good of the team. In my opinion, absolutely not. First, it won't resolve any of the underlying political problems for the Bush administration caused by the Libby conviction; the damage there is already done. Second, and more importantly, it's inappropriate for a sitting Vice President to resign his office if he has committed no crime -- and according to Fitzgerald, Libby's perjury and obstruction are the only crimes committed. (He's not charging anyone else, including Armitage, who leaked the information.)

The Vice President gets elected to his office, and is not a political appointment. Only two VPs have resigned: Spiro Agnew for a bribery scandal in Maryland from an earlier office, and Aaron Burr for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel [incorrect -- see update below]. Political appointments can be expected and encouraged to resign when they become a net political negative, but even if Cheney qualifies as such, the voters elected him to that office. One does not overturn elections lightly and for middling reasons such as popularity polls.

Addendum: I want to re-emphasize a key point. I agree that the Fitzgerald investigation was an out-of-control mess whose conclusion shows how bankrupt it had been all along. That did not give Libby carte blanche to commit perjury and obstruction of justice. If he did that -- and a jury determined that he did -- then he should have been tried and convicted for it. I'd say the circumstances of the prosecution argue towards strong mitigation of his sentencing, and perhaps a presidential pardon at the end of Bush's term, but the conviction under those circumstances is entirely appropriate.

Just as when Bill Clinton committed the same crime.

UPDATE: Michael Barone and several other CQ readers wrote today to correct me on my Vice-Presidential history. Aaron Burr served out his term after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, although Michael suggested that he didn't get too many invitations to the White House for dinner afterwards. John C. Calhoun, the famous/notorious advocate for the continuation of slavery, resigned as VP in order to assume his Senate seat. Many thanks to all who pointed this out, and I apologize that I could not immediately post the correction.


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