By PETER BAKER and MAGGIE HABERMAN
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump Friday pardoned I. Lewis Libby Jr., who as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney was convicted of perjury in connection with the leak of a CIA officer’s identity, a person familiar with the decision said Thursday.
"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," the president said in a statement from the White House Press Secretary.
Libby’s case has long been a cause for conservatives who maintained that he was a victim of a special prosecutor run amok, an argument that may have resonated with the president. Trump has repeatedly complained that the special counsel investigation into possible cooperation between his campaign and Russia in 2016 has gone too far and amounts to a “witch hunt.”
Libby, who goes by Scooter, was convicted of four felonies in 2007 for perjury before a grand jury, lying to FBI investigators and obstruction of justice during an investigation into the disclosure of the work of Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA officer. President George W. Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence but refused to grant him a full pardon despite the strenuous requests of Cheney, a decision that soured the relationship between the two men.
A pardon of Libby would paradoxically put Trump in the position of absolving one of the chief architects of the Iraq War, which Trump has denounced as a catastrophic miscalculation. It also would mean he was forgiving a former official who was convicted in a case involving leaks despite Trump’s repeated inveighing against those who disclose information to reporters.
Critics of Trump quickly interpreted the prospective pardon as a signal by the president that he would protect those who refuse to turn on their bosses, as Libby was presumed not to have betrayed Cheney. Trump has not ruled out pardons in the Russia investigation.
Trump had shown no particular interest in Libby’s case before. In 2015, during his campaign for the White House, Trump was asked if he would pardon Libby, and he declined to say, calling it an irrelevant issue. It was unclear when Trump would issue the pardon, which was first reported by ABC News.
Libby was not charged with the leak itself and has long argued that his conviction rested on an innocent difference in memories between him and several witnesses, not an intent to deceive investigators. Although Bush’s clemency order kept him from going to prison, Libby’s conviction nonetheless remained intact and he was disbarred as a lawyer as a result. He was not reinstated to the bar until 2016.
Among the allies from the Bush administration who have argued that he was treated unfairly is John Bolton, a Cheney ally who served as Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and started this week as Trump’s national security adviser. Other allies of Libby’s include Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, a husband-and-wife team of lawyers who recently talked about going to work for Trump before deciding against it because of a client conflict.
A pardon by Trump would amount to official forgiveness, not exoneration. A pardon does not signify innocence but does eliminate many consequences of a conviction, such as any effect on the right to vote, hold elective office or sit on a jury. As a practical matter, those seeking pardons hope it will erase or ease the stigma of a criminal conviction.
Libby’s prosecution became a symbol of the polarizing politics of the Iraq War during the Bush administration. Wilson’s husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, was a former diplomat who wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times in 2003 implying that Cheney ignored evidence that argued against the conclusion that Iraq was actively seeking to build nuclear weapons.
To undercut Joseph Wilson’s criticism, administration officials told reporters that he had been sent on a fact-finding mission to Niger because his wife worked for the CIA, not at the behest of Cheney. But federal law bars the disclosure of the identities of CIA officials in certain circumstances and the leak prompted a special prosecutor investigation.
Charged with lying to investigators about his interactions with journalists, Libby insisted he simply remembered events differently. But his version of events clashed with the testimony of eight other people, including fellow administration officials, and a jury convicted him. Bush decided that the prison sentence was “excessive,” but he said he would not substitute his judgment for that of the jury when it came to the question of Libby’s guilt.
Libby’s advocates argued that Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, went too far because he had already discovered that the first administration official to disclose Valerie Wilson’s identity to a journalist was Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state in Bush’s first term, who was not charged. They also argued that she was not undercover at the time and that her employment was well known. She has denied that she recommended her husband for the mission to Niger and said her career as a CIA official was “over in an instant” once her identity was leaked.
The case tested the limits of journalistic independence. Judith Miller, then a reporter for The Times, went to prison for 85 days rather than disclose that Libby had discussed Valerie Wilson with her. She was freed after Libby released her from any promise of confidentiality.
The issue became a major point of contention between Bush and Cheney in the last days of the administration in late 2008 and early 2009. Cheney repeatedly pressed Bush to go beyond his commutation and issue a full pardon, bringing it up so often that the president grew irritated by the matter.
Bush assigned White House lawyers to examine the case but they advised him the jury had ample reason to convict Libby and the president rebuffed Cheney’s request. Bush told aides that he suspected that Libby had thought he was protecting Cheney, the real target of the investigation.
Cheney snapped at Bush. “You are leaving a good man wounded on the field of battle,” he told him when informed of the decision.
Bush was taken aback. It was probably the harshest thing Cheney ever said to him during their eight years in office together and was meant to attack Bush’s sense of loyalty to his own troops in a time of war.
“The comment stung,” Bush wrote in his memoir. “In eight years, I had never seen Dick like this, or even close to it. I worried that the friendship we had built was about to be severely strained, at best.”
The case has its connections to Trump because Fitzgerald was friends with James Comey, who was then the deputy attorney general who assigned him the investigation after the attorney general recused himself. Cheney long suspected that Comey was taking revenge for a dispute between them over the legality of a surveillance program.
Comey would go on to become the director of the FBI who was fired by Trump last year in the midst of the Russia investigation. His dismissal led the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who was in charge after the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel to take over the inquiry.
Trump has been notably conservative about using his clemency power. He has issued only two pardons and commuted only one sentence in nearly 15 months in office, according to the Justice Department. Most notably he pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff whose crackdown on unauthorized immigrants earned him a criminal contempt conviction.
His record is roughly in keeping with the past three presidents, Barack Obama, Bush and Bill Clinton, all of whom issued no pardons or commutations in their first year and a half in office.