March 8, 2007

No Pardon In The Near Future

President Bush quashed speculation that he would issue an immediate pardon for Scooter Libby after his conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice. He told reporters yesterday that he will wait for Libby's legal options to be exhausted before he looks into a pardon:

President Bush said yesterday that he is "pretty much going to stay out of" the case of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby until the legal process has run its course, deflecting pressure from supporters of the former White House aide to pardon him for perjury and obstruction of justice.

Libby's allies said Bush should not wait for Libby to be sentenced, and should use his executive power to spare Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff the risk of prison time for lying to a grand jury and FBI agents about his role in leaking the name of an undercover CIA officer. But the prospect of a pardon triggered condemnation from Democrats and caution from some Republicans wary of another furor.

Defense lawyers for Libby said they are focused on seeking a new trial and appealing Tuesday's jury verdict, while making clear that they believe the president should step in. "Our number one goal is to see Scooter's conviction wiped out by the courts and see him vindicated," attorney William Jeffress Jr. said in an interview. "Now, I've seen all the calls for a pardon. And I agree with them. To me, he should have been pardoned six months ago or a year ago."

In his first comments on the case since the verdict, Bush told CNN en Español that he has to "respect that conviction" but that he "was sad for a man who had worked in my administration." Bush did not rule out a pardon but implied that it is not imminent. "I'm pretty much going to stay out of it until the course -- the case has finally run its final -- the course it's going to take," he told Univision during an interview before a trip to Latin America that begins today.

Undoubtedly, this will make many Republicans unhappy. Many CQ readers insisted that Bush should act immediately on a pardon, arguing that the prosecution was abusive enough to justify quick action. Some critics noted the Clinton pardon of financier Marc Rich, who never returned to the US to stand trial, as evidence that Bush would be well within precedent to act before the courts finish with their processes. Ironically, Libby represented Rich during the effort to gain a pardon from Bill Clinton. Bush's father didn't wait for Caspar Weinberger to come to trial, either, although that may have had more to do with getting some payback against the special prosecutor who deliberately timed his indictment just prior to the presidential election.

A pardon at this stage would seem like an endorsement of the notion that Libby cannot win an appeal. It plays against Libby in the long run, although I'm certain Libby's team does not agree. If an appellate court reverses Libby's conviction, either by ordering a new trial or by issuing an outright dismissal, he wins in a much more public and substantial manner than a presidential pardon can provide.

Politically, a pardon would create all sorts of problems with Congress, and while that bothers some people, it's simply a political truth. At the moment, Bush is using all of his meager political capital to keep the Iraq War from getting defunded, and at the moment, he's succeeding. If he pardoned Libby at this point, while passions are running hottest about the conviction, he risks splintering his own coalition at a critical time. Libby won't even get sentenced for another three months. and he likely will not go to prison while his appeals are being heard.

Bush is keeping his options open, and it's the smart thing to do, even if it presents more difficulties for Libby in the short term. It's almost certain that if the Libby conviction still stands in late 2008, Bush will probably pardon him. Until that point, Bush is doing the smart thing by allowing the legal system to adjudicate Libby's status.


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