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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    President Bush is leaving office


  2. Anderson says:

    Daniel Larison quashes the Libbyerals:

    If it were true that Libby wasn’t guilty of much of anything, it stands to reason that a jury would not have found him guilty. If, on the other hand, he did lie under oath and impede a federal investigation–regardless of why he did this or whether there had been anything criminal about the original leak–then that is exactly why he should not be pardoned. The reliability of witness testimony under oath is essential to the proper functioning of the system, and cooperation with investigators is an equally important part, and it is unacceptable to undermine this. Obviously, the justice system is not perfect, juries can come to the wrong conclusion and prosecutors can engage in misconduct, and no doubt some true believers will insist that the latter is the case, but Libby’s defenders usually have no doubts about the system’s integrity. It is precisely and only when “their own” are in danger of being penalized for things they actually did that we hear all these heartfelt appeals for clemency. Bush already commuted Libby’s sentence. As was clear at the time, Bush was washing his hands of the matter once and for all when he did that.

  3. Franklin says:

    I’ll give Bush some credit for this lack of action. It’s a perk that has been abused and I think he erred on the right side this time.

  4. Crust says:

    [E]ven Scooter Libby was not spared

    Huh? Libby was about to go to jail, when Bush commuted his sentence so that he never served a minute. Sure Libby still had to pay a $250,000 fine, but that’s rounding error on his legal bills anyway.

  5. Moonbat Boy says:

    He couldn’t find any terrorists or fugitives to let off the hook?

  6. MarkedMan says:

    I think the positive motivations for Bush not pardoning Libby or pre-emptively pardoning a host of others have to be viewed sceptically. After all, Bush has a significant personal motivation for not pardoning anyone close to the workings of the Whitehouse: Anyone pardoned loses the ability to claim the fifth. They have to testify when called and truthfully tell all they know, or go to jail if they don’t.