President Donald Trump just pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a former Bush administration official who was convicted in 2007 on felony counts of perjury, lying to the FBI, and obstruction of justice in a special prosecutor investigation into the leak of an undercover CIA operative’s identity.
Scooter Libby was Vice President Dick Cheney’s top national security aide and chief of staff from 2001 to 2005. He was at the center of an explosive scandal surrounding the Bush administration’s flawed justifications for the Iraq War.
President George W. Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence in 2007 just weeks before Libby was due to surrender to prison, but he twice refused to fully pardon him, reportedly infuriating Cheney and straining the relationship between him and the president. Libby didn’t have to serve any time, but the conviction stayed on his record and he still had to serve two years probation and pay a $250,000 fine.
Now, with Trump’s presidential pardon, Libby’s record will show that he’s been pardoned and he won’t be subjected to civil penalties that can come with being a convicted felon, like not being able to serve on a federal jury or (in some cases) vote.
In a White House statement announcing the pardon, Trump said, “I don’t know Mr. Libby, but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly. Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life.”
Trump’s move is mostly symbolic. Libby’s conviction won’t be expunged, and it doesn’t mean that he’s now “innocent” in any conventional sense of the word. It sends a troubling message all the same about Trump’s conception of what passes for right and wrong.
Who is Scooter Libby, and what did he do?
As part of its justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration argued that Saddam Hussein had been trying to buy uranium in Africa to use in nuclear weapons. The problem was that the US ambassador who had been sent to Africa to investigate that claim hadn’t actually found concrete evidence of that.
So when the ambassador, Joe Wilson, started to hear that erroneous claim being used to justify going to war with Saddam, he decided to speak out in an op-ed in the New York Times.
In the op-ed, which was pointedly titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” Wilson wrote, “I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”
Not long after, Wilson’s wife, an undercover CIA operative named Valerie Plame, had her name leaked to the press — completely blowing her cover (and thus basically her entire career) and potentially putting her and her sources in danger. Wilson believed her name was leaked by the Bush administration as part of a smear campaign against him.
The US attorney general at the time appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the whole affair. As CNN reports, Libby was ultimately not accused of revealing Plame’s identity to reporters himself (it was never conclusively proven whether he did or not), but rather of obstructing the leak investigation by lying about his contact with journalists about Plame.
The Comey link
Some conservatives have argued that Libby’s conviction was unjust and that he was merely the victim of an overzealous special prosecutor — an argument that, as the New York Times aptly noted, “may have resonated with the president,” given that he himself is now under the microscope of a special counsel with wide-ranging authority to investigate Trump and his associates.
And then, of course, there’s the Comey link.
The US attorney general who appointed the special prosecutor who nailed Libby was none other than James Comey — the same James Comey whose firing by Trump kicked off special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump and who has since become public enemy No. 1 for the president.
On Friday morning, Trump called Comey “a proven LEAKER & LIAR,” tweeting: “He leaked CLASSIFIED information, for which he should be prosecuted. He lied to Congress under OATH.”
Trump pardoning a man whom Comey helped convict on charges of lying under oath about his involvement in leaking classified information just a few hours later is certainly an interesting way to demonstrate the president’s commitment to holding leakers and liars accountable.