Judge Reggie Walton set the pardon alarm clock today. Scooter Libby will go to prison six to eight weeks from now, unless President Bush intervenes. Walton denied Libby’s request that he remain free pending his appeal of his two-and-a-half-year sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice. The vice president’s former chief of staff will appeal the sentencing, but if he loses, the pressure will be on the president.
It has always been the view among Cheney loyalists and former Bush administration officials who have followed the case closely that the president would never allow Libby to spend a single day in an orange jumpsuit. The few people who may have held serious conversations with the president about a pardon are staying mum (this is the Bush administration, after all). But those I’ve talked to who know the president well and have worked for him predict a pardon for two reasons.
First: Dick Cheney. The vice president may not be winning as many foreign-policy battles as he used to, but Libby’s fate is a highly personal matter for Cheney. He will ask Bush for a pardon, and he is unlikely to back down. If Bush resists, Cheney could argue that his close aide Libby should not go to jail while Karl Rove, another key figure in the scandal, has been protected by Bush and the administration.
The second reason Libby will walk is President Bush’s dismal approval rating. The number of people who would be angered by a pardon who haven’t already abandoned the president could fit in an airport shuttle bus. Given the conservative defections from Bush over his support of immigration reform, a pardon of Libby—which would be popular with conservatives—might actually improve his approval ratings. Libby’s conviction is seen as such an outrage among conservatives that one former Bush aide suggested “the consequences of not pardoning, if Scooter is led away in shackles, will be uglier than pardoning.”
The issue of Libby’s pardon raises thorny questions for the Republican presidential candidates. In the debate last week, all 10 GOP candidates were asked if President Bush should pardon Libby. Rep. Ron Paul and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gillmore said they would not, but several others said or intimated that he should. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani offered the prevailing Republican critique: A runaway prosecutor convicted Libby, even though he did not commit the underlying crime of leaking the name of the undercover CIA agent.
Rudy Giuliani was particularly adamant that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald overreached. It seems inconsistent that a law-and-order candidate would appear to countenance lying to a grand jury and FBI agents, particularly as he campaigned to head a party that has always championed the rule of law.
All-but-announced candidate Fred Thompson has been a consistent vocal critic of the Libby prosecution, but for him that is an intellectually consistent position: He voted against Clinton’s perjury charge when he was in the Senate and worked in the Senate to kill the independent counsel law. As Libby’s strongest defender among the crop of candidates, would Thompson consider bringing Libby into a Thompson administration? Thompson’s spokesperson didn’t respond to this question by press time, but it would seem that the only logical answer for Thompson or any other GOP candidate would be to welcome Libby, if not actively court him. They say they believe Libby has been wrongly convicted, which means they should have no legal objection. Based on Libby’s résumé, they shouldn’t have any substantive problems, either. The GOP foreign-policy and legal establishment testified effusively about Libby’s qualifications in letters asking Judge Walton for a lenient sentence.
It would be a bold and principled stance for a GOP candidate to say he’d welcome Libby into his administration and probably as unlikely to happen as a pardon is certain. It would curry favor with conservatives but risk brutal political problems in the general election. However, it would be the human thing to do if they really are convinced Libby has been wronged. In 1987, Reagan’s Labor Secretary Ray Donovan famously asked after his acquittal on larceny and fraud charges: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” He worried that the sensational coverage of his indictment * would always overpower the smaller news coverage of his exoneration. One way for Libby’s supporters running for president to restore his good name would be to send him a job application now.
Correction, June 18, 2007: The article originally and incorrectly said that Ray Donovan was convicted on larceny and fraud charges. He was only indicted.