Bush defends commutation, won’t rule out Libby’s pardon

Associated Press

WASHINGTON &#8212 President Bush on Tuesday refused to rule out an eventual pardon for I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, leaving open the chance he may wipe away the former White House aide’s criminal record after already erasing his prison sentence.

“I rule nothing in or nothing out,” Bush said when asked whether he’d pardon Libby before leaving office in January 2009.

The president’s stance, on one level, was merely practical. When he commuted Libby’s 2 1/2-year prison term in the CIA leak case Monday, a court ruling had made jail time imminent. Bush has plenty of time to consider a pardon, depending on how Libby’s appeals go.

Bush’s words had political significance, too. By keeping his options open, he offered hope to the conservative members of his own party who believe he should go further by pardoning Libby. He also kept alive a controversy that could follow him to the last day of his presidency.

Libby, who once wielded enormous influence as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of lying and obstructing justice in a probe into the leak of a CIA operative’s identity.

The long-running case meant the end of Libby’s government career and dovetailed with the broader troubles of Bush’s second term.

Bush abruptly commuted Libby’s prison sentence &#8212 an unusual step, given that it had not yet begun &#8212 five hours after a federal appeals court panel ruled Libby could not delay his prison term. Bush left intact the sentence of two years probation and a $250,000 fine, citing a need for some accountability.

In his first public comments on the matter on Tuesday, Bush defended his rationale.

“I felt like the jury verdict ought to stand, and I felt like some of the punishments that the judge determined were adequate should stand,” Bush said after visiting wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “But I felt like the 30-month sentencing was severe.”

“I made a judgment, a considered judgment,” the president added.

“I stand by it.”

Bush took heat from the left and the right.

On the other side, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the prospect of eventual pardon for Libby: “The motto of this administration seems to be: When you’re in a hole up to your neck, keep digging.”

Unlike the commutation, a pardon would wipe away Libby’s felony conviction.

White House officials cautioned against reading too much into Bush’s comment that he wouldn’t rule out a pardon. Spokesman Tony Snow &#8212 directly addressing those arguing for a pardon &#8212 said the jury system must be respected.

The commutation created confusion about whether Libby could still serve his two-year term of supervised release &#8212 a form of probation available only to people who have completed their prison term. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ordered prosecutors and attorneys to suggest how to continue.