Bush Pardons Sparingly
Breaking with recent tradition, President Bush is leaving office without a bevy of controversial last-minute pardons. As Michael Isikoff reports, even Scooter Libby was not spared.
On Bush’s last full day as president, Bush did commute the sentence of two former Border Patrol agents—Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos—for shooting a Mexican drug dealer and then lying about it. But White House press spokesman Tony Fratto told NEWSWEEK “you should not expect any more” pardons and commutations from Bush before he leaves office Tuesday. Another senior official, who requested anonymity discussing sensitive matters, confirmed that no more pardons would be granted.
Bush’s decision leaves a long line of rejected pardon applicants, many of whom have retained politically well-connected Washington lawyers, to make their case for presidential mercy in Bush’s final days in the White House. Among them were junk-bond king Michael Milken, media mogul Conrad Black, former Illinois GOP governor George Ryan and former Louisiana Democratic governor Edwin Edwards. Bush also apparently turned down a last-minute plea from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski to pardon her former GOP colleague Ted Stevens for his recent political corruption conviction.
But the decision not to pardon Libby stunned some longtime Bush backers who had been quietly making the case for the former vice presidential aide in recent weeks. A number of Libby’s allies had raised the issue with White House officials, arguing that as a loyal aide who played a key role in shaping Bush’s foreign policy during the president’s first term, including the decision to invade Iraq, Libby deserved to have the stain of his felony conviction erased from the record. In the only public sign of the lobbying campaign, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial strongly urging Libby’s pardon.
I’m ambivalent on the case of Libby and wouldn’t have objected to a pardon. What we got instead was Bush at both his best and his worst: He commuted Libby’s sentence at a time when it was in the news, sparing his loyal staffer jail time when it counted while maximizing the political damage to himself. There would have been zero price to pay for finishing the job with a pardon — how low can his ratings go, after all? — but he didn’t do it. Perhaps he thought that Scooter’s deeds didn’t merit jail but should nonetheless remain on his “permanent record.”
It also marks a stubborn consistency, doing what he thinks is right regardless of the views of others.
The rejection of Libby’s bid is consistent with Bush’s overall stingy record when it comes to using presidential pardon powers. In part as a reaction to Bill Clinton’s last-minute pardon spree, including the especially controversial one granted to fugitive financier Marc Rich, Bush has issued far fewer pardons than any president in modern history, according to clemency scholars. In the case of Ramos and Compean, whose conviction in the 2005 shooting of a Mexican drug dealer ignited a fierce debate over illegal immigration, Bush accepted the jury’s verdict, according to Fratto. But the president concluded that the prison sentences—for more than 10 years each—were too harsh. The president was also influenced by bipartisan congressional support for a commutation from lawmakers such as Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, California Democrat Diane Feinstein and (before he left to join the new Obama administration) Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Fratto said.
He was, it seems, Bush to the end.