As the clock was running out on George W. Bush’s presidency in late 2008, the president and the vice president edged closer to a showdown.
A year earlier, a Washington jury had delivered a guilty verdict in a case against I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff and one of the architects of the Iraq War, Libby was convicted of lying to a grand jury investigating the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
While his White House was being packed up in boxes, Bush mulled candidates for presidential pardons. Cheney personally pushed for Libby. To the vice president and others in his orbit, Libby’s conviction was the product of an overzealous special prosecutor and a liberal Washington jury – a “witch-hunt,” as numerous conservative commentators wrote.
The vice president pushed hard.
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“Cheney really got in the president’s face,” an individual told Time magazine. “He just wouldn’t give it up.”
But Bush was leery of lifting the felony convictions from the former White House official. The issue finally climaxed in a meeting in the final days of the presidency. The relationship between Bush and Cheney – two allies who had piloted the country through the rubble of the 9/11 attacks, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – reportedly never recovered.
Now President Donald Trump has done what Bush would not.
On Friday, he issued a pardon to Libby. “Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life,” Trump said. “For years, I have heard that he has been treated unfairly,” the president said in a statement.
The unfinished business of the Libby conviction has been a longtime rallying point for conservatives, including current members of Trump’s administration. The right’s narrative about Libby – that he was railroaded by an overreaching, politically driven special prosecutor – syncs with Trump’s view of his own predicament, as special counsel Robert Mueller’s continues to dig into Trump’s world. “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!” the president has tweeted about the Mueller investigation.
Libby was a prominent Washington lawyer with blue-chip credentials – Phillips Academy, Yale University, Columbia University’s law school. According to The Post, his former political science teacher, the neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, urged Libby to work in government. During the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, Libby served in both the state and defense departments on foreign policy issues.
In the George W. Bush White House, Libby was a close confidante of Cheney. Along with Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice and others, he was a key member of the neoconservative clique within the administration pushing for an aggressive expansion of American interests abroad. They were called “the Vulcans.” The brainy and brawny ideology was the architecture behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Libby’s trouble began with the drumbeat leading up to the invasion of Iraq. As The Post previously reported, in January 2003, President Bush used his State of the Union address to justify military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime. The president told the country Iraq officials had attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium in Niger.
Six months later, the New York Times published an opinion piece by former ambassador Joseph Wilson. In the article, Wilson recounted a 2002 trip he made to Niger to substantiate the allegations, later finding them to be false, The Post reported.
On July 14, syndicated columnist Robert Novak penned a column outing Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA “operative.” The CIA requested a Department of Justice investigation into the naming of Plame as an agent – a breach of classified information. An FBI investigation started into whether Plame’s identity was leaked to reporters as political payback for her husband’s public challenge to the administration.
“My name and identity were carelessly and recklessly abused by senior government officials in both the White House and the State Department,” Plame would later say before Congress.
By the end of 2003, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the case.
That left the decision on how to proceed to the deputy attorney general – a man named James Comey.
The future-FBI director appointed Patrick Fitzgerald, a U.S. attorney from Chicago, as special counsel.
The grand jury investigated the leaks. Both Bush and Cheney were interviewed by Fitzgerald. No one was ever charged for outing Plame, but Libby was charged with federal obstruction of justice and perjury charges for lying to investigators.
In March 2007, Libby was found guilty on four felony counts, becoming the highest-ranking White House official convicted since the Iran-contra scandal in the 1980s. He lost his appeal that summer, and a judge sentenced Libby to a 30-month sentence and fined him $250,000.
In July 2007, Bush commuted Libby’s sentence, saying in a statement he had “respect” for the jury’s verdict but found the prison sentence “excessive.” The commutation, however, left Libby with the large fine and two years of probation – and teed up the conflict between Bush and Cheney in the last days of the administration.
As the Bush team prepared to exit the White House, Cheney continued to urge for a full pardon for his former staffer, giving the cause an “extraordinary level of attention,” an insider told Time.
Bush was cautious about pardons, an administration official told Time, and Libby failed to meet the president’s own criteria. “Pardons tend to be for the repentant . . . not for those who think the system was politicized or they were unfairly targeted.”
In an Oval Office meeting, Cheney tried once more to persuade the president. According to Time, he argued Libby was a loyal team player who had been made into a political fall guy. Fred Fielding, the White House counsel, argued against the pardon. Bush eventually sided with Fielding.
Only months after leaving the White House, Cheney expressed his frustration with Bush’s decision. “I was clearly not happy that we, in effect, left Scooter sort of hanging in the wind, which I didn’t think was appropriate,” he told CNN.
Other Bush loyalists also expressed their frustration – including a number who are now in Trump’s orbit.
“Somebody’s going to have to ask President Bush why he went out of his way to say he respected the jury’s verdict,” John Bolton, Bush’s U.N. ambassador and Trump’s new national security adviser, said at the time. “If you think it was a miscarriage of justice, then you think it shouldn’t have gone to a jury to begin with.”
Alan Dershowitz, a vocal Trump defender on cable television, also pushed Libby’s appellate cause, calling his appeals “serious and substantial” and filing a brief in 2007 asking for Libby to be granted bail pending his appeal.
Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova, the husband-and-wife attorney team Trump considered hiring earlier this year, are also vocal Libby backers.
When Libby got his law license back in 2016, diGenova told the Daily Caller: “Comey and Fitzgerald tried to frame Scooter Libby, and they did, but then they didn’t get it done. And then of course that idiot George W. Bush didn’t give him a pardon.”