WASHINGTON — President Bush wiped away the prison sentence of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on Monday, calling it an "excessive" punishment for a "first-time offender with years of exceptional public service."
On the day that Libby's last bid to stay out of prison was rejected by an appeals court, Bush said he had decided to act -- not by pardoning Libby of his crime, but by commuting his 30-month sentence. Bush's action spares Libby from prison, but it does not erase Libby's felony conviction for perjury and obstruction in the CIA leak case.
It "leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby," Bush said in a statement, including the likely loss of his license to practice law. Libby also faces a $250,000 fine and two years' probation.
Libby, 56, was Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff and a powerful figure inside the Bush White House during the buildup to the Iraq war.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 2 inches; 95 words Type of Material: Correction
Libby commutation: A chart in Section A on Tuesday accompanying an article on President Bush commuting I. Lewis "Scooter Libby's prison sentence listed past presidential commutations and pardons. It should have indicated that the totals for several presidents were given in fiscal years, which run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 and are the way the Department of Justice tracks the records. Thus, President Kennedy was listed from 1961 to 1964; President Johnson from 1964-1969; President Nixon from 1969-1975; and President Ford, 1975-1977. In addition, Gerald R. Ford's middle initial was mistakenly given as "E."
Compared with other presidents, Bush has granted few pardons or commutations, and those were usually for people who had already served their sentences. As governor of Texas, he also spoke with pride of not interfering with death sentences and executions.
Under the Constitution, the president's decision to pardon a criminal or to commute his prison term cannot be overturned by Congress or the courts. It can be criticized, however, and Democrats were quick to lambaste the president.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called it "disgraceful." Libby's conviction "was the one faint glimmer of accountability for the White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war. Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone," Reid said.
"When it comes to the law, there should not be two sets of rules -- one for President Bush and Vice President Cheney and another for the rest of America," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) "Even Paris Hilton had to go to jail."
Several Democratic presidential candidates also condemned the action, including Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who called it typical of an administration that "has consistently placed itself and its ideology above the law."
However, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said the president "did the right thing today.... The prison sentence was overly harsh and the punishment did not fit the crime."
Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, said: "After evaluating the facts, the president came to a reasonable decision and I believe the decision was correct."
Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who is considering entering the GOP race for the White House, said Bush should have gone further. "While for a long time I have urged a pardon for Scooter, I respect the president's decision. This will allow a good American, who has done a lot for his country, to resume his life."
Bush could still pardon Libby later.
William Jeffress Jr., one of Libby's lawyers, said Libby had no comment.
"As for the defense lawyers," Jeffress said, "we continue to believe the conviction itself is unjust but are grateful for the president's action in commuting the prison sentence."
Some legal observers said it still would be possible for the defense to continue its appeal. If it is successful, Libby will then avoid the taint of the felony conviction and the loss of his law license. Jeffress said the defense would fight to have the entire case thrown out.
Libby was questioned by the FBI in fall 2003 about the leak of the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame, whose husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, had publicly accused Bush and Cheney of falsely claiming that Iraqi agents had tried to purchase fuel for nuclear weapons in Africa. Wilson had been sent to the nation of Niger to assess the nuclear material claim and had found it baseless.
Libby denied that he had discussed Plame in June 2003, but nine witnesses later testified that he had spoken of her.
Libby was prosecuted for lying to the FBI and to a grand jury and for obstructing justice. In March, he was convicted by a jury in Washington, and last month, a federal judge sentenced him to 2 1/2 years behind bars.
On Monday morning, Libby was on the verge of becoming the first high-level White House official to be sent to prison since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Three judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit turned down his request to stay free, saying he had not raised a "substantial question" about his conviction.
In his two-page statement Monday, Bush said: "I have carefully weighed [the] arguments and the circumstances surrounding this case. I respect the jury's verdict." He described Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald as "a highly qualified, professional prosecutor who carried out his responsibilities as charged."