Libby Commutation Reactions

As one would expect, last evening’s news that President Bush has commuted Scooter Libby’s jail sentence has spawned a huge amount of controversy in the blogosphere, with some decrying it as the greatest outrage since Watergate and others complaining it didn’t go far enough.

From the Left:

  • Nancy Pelosi: “The President’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence does not serve justice, condones criminal conduct, and is a betrayal of trust of the American people.”
  • Marcy Wheeler: “This amounts to nothing less than obstruction of justice.”
  • Jane Hamsher: “This president’s contempt for the rule of law is thorough and complete.”
  • Jeralyn Merritt: “President Bush’s commutation of I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby’s sentence is simply stunning, both in its hypocrisy and its arrogance.”
  • Reid Stott: “[T]he Bush administration simply no longer gives a damn, about public opinion or the rule of law.”
  • Doug Berman: “It will be interesting to see if, after the President has made clear that he views the guidelines are “excessive” for one of his pals, others with sentencing power begin to give less respect to the guidelines when the fates of less connected defendants are in the balance.”
  • Anonymous Liberal: “Libby, apparently, doesn’t deserve to be treated the way the law demands that others be treated. He’s special. And what makes him special? Clearly nothing other than the fact that he is a well-connected Republican.”
  • Bob Cesca: “If Scooter Libby had been some unfortunate nobody who was either black or poor or retarded . . . “
  • Digby: “This is a very, very depressing day, even though we knew it would happen in one way or another. It’s just a continuation of this administration’s complete disregard for the law and their belief that they are entitled to special treatment because, well, they are just, so special.”
  • Duncan Black: “President Bush engages in ongoing obstruction of justice by commuting Scooter Libby’s sentence.”
  • Taylor Marsh: “George W. Bush today proved that the rule of law doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican. It’s all about the rule of politics.”

From the Right:

  • Patrick Frey: “You do the crime, you do the time. The jury said Scooter Libby did the crime. He should do the time.”
  • Steven Taylor: “One cannot lie to a grand jury and since he was a public servant at the time, that would seem to make the lying all the more problematic.”
  • Ed Morrissey: “It strikes a balance that few will appreciate now, but later will accept as wise, as far as it goes.”
  • Jay Currie: “Justice would have been served by a full pardon; but Bush rarely gets stuff right.”
  • Rob Bluey: “Libby still has to pay a $250,000 fine and will be left scarred permanently, a penalty that’s harsh enough.”
  • Andrew Sullivan: “When there are no normal channels of governance in this White House, it means the fusion of Cheney-Bush acting as extra-legal agents of their own power. We really no longer have the rule of law operating. We have the privileges and lies and policies of two men. The law is no competitor. And shamelessness is their ally.”
  • Orin Kerr: “I find Bush’s action very troubling because of the obvious special treatment Libby received.”

The claims that this is somehow and “obstruction of justice” or outside the “rule of law” are simply bizarre. This power is expressly granted to the president in the Constitution. Indeed, it’s in the first sentence of the part of the Constitution which delineates the powers of the president (Article II, Section 2):

The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

It’s listed before the enumeration of his foreign policy duties, for goodness sakes. The issuance of a pardon or commutation isn’t a sidestepping of the process: It is expressly a part of the process.

Further, this power is plenary. He doesn’t need anyone’s permission to exercise it nor does he need to jump through any hoops. Yes, there are long-established bureaucratic processes whereby the Justice Department vets petitions. They were put in place because presidents seldom know anything about the cases in question and don’t have time to read petitions that come pouring in. That obviously doesn’t apply in this case. As Bill Dyer observes,

Critics see it as cronyism, but in fact, no one is better qualified to judge the value of Libby’s public service than President Bush. Huge, huge portions of what Scooter Libby did as a key inside figure in implementing the Administration’s response to 9/11 and global terrorism is still highly classified. But the President knows on a first-hand basis what the man contributed, what its value has been, and under what critical and pressure-filled circumstances he served. And as it happens, George W. Bush is the one person in whom the Constitution entrusts the power to weigh that public service against the serious crimes of which Libby stands convicted. And he clearly thinks “this particular convicted felon” is deserving, even though there will be a political price to pay.

As to the “special treatment” issue: Of course it’s special treatment. Were Libby not a senior administration official, he’d never have been in this mess to begin with.

I heard Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this morning on NPR saying that Libby’s conviction “was the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence.” That’s exactly why he should have been pardoned, in my view.

First, because there was no underlying crime in the “efforts to manipulate intelligence.” Despite spending millions of dollars and years investigating the leaks, no one was ever charged. Indeed, we quickly found out who had told Bob Novak about Valerie Plame’s CIA job — and it wasn’t Scooter Libby. Yet, Richard Armitage, the actual leaker, was never charged.

Second, and more importantly, the responsibility for “efforts to manipulate intelligence” goes to the top. To the extent that information supporting going to war was cherry picked, it wasn’t Scooter Libby’s doing. Yes, he was in a powerful position as the VP’s chief of staff. He was not, however, a decision maker. If someone is going to be “accountable” for whatever offenses Reid imagines occurred, it should be George W. Bush. He is, after all, The Decider. He, not Scooter Libby, is The Commander Guy.

If Reid and Pelosi think the administration should be held accountable for manipulating intelligence, the same Constitution that empowers President Bush to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence gives them a remedy: Begin impeachment proceedings. In my view, that would be about the dumbest thing they could do, politically. But that’s the appropriate recourse if they actually believe the administration lied to get us into a war. If, on the other hand, it’s just cheap political rhetoric, they should pipe down.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Congress, Law and the Courts, The Presidency, US Constitution, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I started to leave it comment, and then it become long to enough to warrant its own post.

  2. Nice summary. Too bad we can’t use outrage to supply the power grid. The supply is seemingly endless.

  3. John Gibson says:

    Hypocrisy all around…. Those on the right who thought Clinton should have been impeached for lying under oath who think there is nothing wrong w/Scooter’s sentence being commuted are hypocrites.

    Those on the left who thought Clinton being impeached for lying to the grand jury was ridiculous but now are up in arms about Scooter’s sentence being commuted are hypocrites.

  4. Fersboo says:


    Despite having just a layman’s understanding, if that, of Constitutional Law, I agree 100%.

    I’m just glad I got here before your resident howler monkeys arrived.

  5. Grewgills says:

    Those calling this maneuver obstruction of justice or saying it demonstrates the administrations disdain for the rule of law are not questioning Bush’s legal right to commute Libby’s sentence. They are pointing the obvious. The administration designated its fall guy, then commuted his sentence, and justice was avoided if not obstructed by this action.

    The no one was charged therefor there was no underlying crime defense is ridiculous when someone is convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.

  6. James Joyner says:

    The no one was charged therefor there was no underlying crime defense is ridiculous when someone is convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.

    In some cases, sure. In this case, though, Libby did not stop prosecutors from getting to the truth. Fitzgerald and everyone else knows who “leaked” Plame’s name to Bob Novak: Richard Armitage. Armitage “confessed” to that.

    What justice, therefore, did Libby obstruct?

    I think he probably lied to the grand jury and was, at the very least, trying to pull a Clinton (“it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”) but wasn’t quite as clever. Given, though, that the lie was about something other than a material fact in the case, I’m not sure it merits 30 months in prison.

    And, again, the real anger here is not about Libby’s actions but about the administration’s actions. Bush and Cheney should be the subject of whatever “justice” is meted out, not a hireling.

  7. cian says:

    Yes, he was in a powerful position as the VP’s chief of staff. He was not, however, a decision maker.


    Not to be Fresboo’s monkey or anything, but, actually, Libby was a decision maker. He could decide to follow Cheney’s instructions and lie to the grand jury, or follow his conscience and… wait, your right.

  8. legion says:

    Indeed, grewgills. Any time one of these wingers brings up the whole ‘no underlying crime’ load of crap, ask them to explain why then Libby engaged in a deliberate, systematic, months-long campaign of lying to federal investigators.

    Then remind them that lying to investigators, lying under oath, and obstruction of justice _are_ crimes, regardless of what you’re lying about.

    George W. Bush is a lying, cowardly, treasonous oathbreaker, and the only reason I don’t actively despise him is the remaining shred of pity I still have for the pathetic tool. You don’t actually think Bush made this decision himself, do you? I’d wager a good chunk of money that Scooter told Cheney he’d sing like a bird if he ever went to jail. Cheney told W what to sign, and that was it. It’s the only reason for commuting the sentence before the appeals failed.

    Bush said he’d demand full cooperation in the investigation from everyone in the WH, and he lied. He said he’d punish anyone involved, and he lied. He said he’d stay out of it until Libby’s appeals were exhausted, and he lied. Any last vestiges of respect I might have ever had for him or the office he’s desecrated are now gone.

  9. John Thompson says:

    You’ve got to love the left. The NYT alerts the Muzzies to the use of an entirely legal and evidently highly successful wiretapping program during a time of war–that is evidently fine. Libby doesn’t remember an old conversation about a non-covert self-outed CIA operative whose primary mission evidently is to undermine the current administration quite the same way Tim Russert remembers the conversation, and you’d think the heavens were falling. The left has one standard and one standard only to judge all events–if it is even arguably bad for America, it is a good thing. If it could even arguably, even tangentially, benefit America, it is an outrage and must be stopped. The left is a cancer that I am very much afraid is going to prove terminal.

  10. John Thompson says:

    Ah legion–I hope you look good in a burqa. You won’t get any special treatment just because you’re on their side now.

  11. ken says:

    Thanks James, reading your blog makes it clearer to us how the conservative mind works and why people like Osama bin Laden and Scooter Libby remain free and unmolested by justice. Good work.

  12. Fersboo says:

    Ken, don’t forget Sandy Berger in that list!

  13. LaurenceB says:

    Like JJ, I have no real sense of outrage over Libby and therefore, I am genuinely unperturbed by the commutation.

    That having been said, I would feel a lot better about being on the Republican side in this matter if I felt at least a little, teeny-weeny bit of shame/indignation from “my side” in regards to the Administration’s manipulation of intelligence leading up to the war. Oh well.

  14. Steve Plunk says:

    What was the lie? Perjury is making a knowingly false statement. What was that statement and how was it proven knowingly false? I know I should already know this but in all the roar I seem to have missed the critical lie that almost netted a man 30 months in prison. Can somebody help me on this?

  15. Scott Swank says:

    Patrick Fitzgerald made it quite clear that in his opinion Karl Rove would have been charged with intentionally revealing the identity of a covert CIA operative, but that Scooter Libby’s perjury prevented Rove’s direct implication. How is such perjury defensible?

    Consider Al Gore’s chief of staff engaging in such behavior to protect comparable crimes by Bill Clinton’s chief political advisor. Would we have heard the same defenses of such behavior from conservative voices? The Right was in a perpetual state of outrage during the Clinton administration, but nothing approaching the magnitude of this crime was ever alleged.

  16. cian says:


    That he didn’t leak Plame’s name to the press. That Tim Russet gave him the name and it was only afterwards that he spoke to Cooper and others. At trial Libby maintained that he simply got his timeline mixed up he was that busy and it must have been someone else who mentioned her name. That he was only passing on information already in the public domain.

    The jury didn’t buy it and found him guilty of perjury. Which, I guess, is proving his statements were knowingly false, and making false statements knowingly to a grand jury, apparently, is a crime and used to be punishable by jail time. Still is, by the way. For some.

    Hope that helped. You been out of the country long?

  17. ken says:

    I know I should already know this but in all the roar I seem to have missed the critical lie that almost netted a man 30 months in prison. Can somebody help me on this?

    This is another funny thing about conservatives.

    They can sit at a computer hooked up to the Internet with all the relevant information readily available to them at the end of a few keystrokes and pretend not to know how to get it.

    Steve, use google, find the trial transcripts and read them.

  18. G.A.Phillips says:

    Patrick Fitzgerald is nothing more then another Libreal witch hunter who when faced with the truth of the investagation refused to go after one of his own, and should be charged for his misconduct, if any one is needs to go to jail it’s him.

  19. Ron Holland says:

    “Scooter” Libby Is A Pawn in the Cheney/Neocon Foreign Policy Cabal

    As President, Bush certainly has the right to pardon Libby but this disregard for the will of the majority of Americans in this situation is just business as usual for the politicians of both political parties. For too long they have generally ignored the will and views of productive, working Americans for the powerful special interests that control both political parties.

    It is time to take control of Washington away from the special interests and return to a decentralized, limited federal government controlled by the voters. The best way to accomplish this is politically through the Ron Paul Campaign and by education of the American public on the benefits of direct democracy and limited confederation government like our first central government, The Articles of Confederation.

    For more information, review the free, online book, “The Swiss Preserve Solution” which highlights how Swiss style confederation government and direct democracy could restore limited government to the United States. Read Restoring America’s Original Republic with the Swiss Confederation Institute at

  20. Derrick says:

    Patrick Fitzgerald is nothing more then another Libreal witch hunter who when faced with the truth of the investagation refused to go after one of his own, and should be charged for his misconduct, if any one is needs to go to jail it’s him.

    You have to love Republicans. If you dare put doing your duty over fealty to the Bush Administration, you are nothing but a Libreal, just like Richard Clarke, Matt Dowd, Paul O’Neill, etc. Refusing to be a loyal Bushie, is obviously evidence of a Libreal bias.

  21. Steve Plunk says:


    I asked a genuine question that 999 out of a 1000 Americans cannot answer. I have not been out of the country so your comment is taken as a cute insult. Nice.

    I thought the issue of the actual leak was never included in Libby’s charges. Where is Armitrage’s name in all of this since he is the leaker?


    That’s the funny thing about liberals. You ask a sincere question and you get the same condescending attitude you normally get. Sometimes we ask here because we have work to do so we can’t read every legal document on the web. I asked politely so why not answer politely?

    So from what I gather Libby’s timeline is the basis for the charges and the conflicting evidence is the memory of Russert and Cooper? Armitrage leaked the name but the leak was never established as an illegal leak? Cheney knew and Rove knew but no charges were levied against them? Many claim Wilson lied to Congress about his trip yet no charges there? It all sounds like a mess but not a crisis of law or the American way.

  22. cian says:


    I don’t think your numbers are quite correct. According to SurveyUSA’s latest figures, that would be 400 out of 1000. The other 600 are fairly sure a crime was committed, though I do recognise that this is not the answer you want or are willing to hear, despite your desperately obvious attempts to seem genuinely interested.

  23. legion says:

    OK Steve, here’s a decent mini-reference.

    Now, I too don’t have the time or spare brainpower to sort through the transcripts, but here’s the impression I get from what I have read: Armitage mentioned that Plame was in the CIA, but he had no idea what her actual connection to or job in it was; hence, his was not an ‘illegal’ leak. From the path Fitzgerald took in investigating the leak, it appears that either Libby hmself or the source Libby got Plame’s name from (either Cheney or Rove; possibly both) did know she was covert and did know her identity was supposed to be protected. As for the lie, Libby’s recollections flatly contradicted those of Russert, Martin, Cooper, Novak, etc. His assertions were unconvincing to the jury (and the appellate judge). It wasn’t ‘he said, she said’; rather it was ‘he said, everybody else connected to the case said’. Ergo, he was convicted by a jury and the judge felt his performance was so tgransparent he had little chance of changing the outcome with an appeal.

  24. Fersboo says:

    Legion, it should be obvious to anyone with an internet connection that Valarie Plame was not a covert operative at the time of the ‘leak’. That is unless it is standard operating procedure to list yourself in Who’s Who when you are a covert agent.

  25. JohnG says:

    I don’t think Libby’s testimony kept Fitzgerald from prosecuting Rove. I think it was the fact that the leak originated from Richard Armitage might have had more to do with it.

  26. G.A.Phillips says:

    whatever Dude.

    And I would love to see you make fun of my spelling face to face.

  27. randomlife says:

    The thing that I’m concerned about is that yes, the president may have the power to commute jail sentences, but I’m sure that the reason that power was included in the Constitution was so that the president could right wrongs, not so that he could help out his friends.

    If he really believes that Libby’s sentence was wrong and unjust, he should discuss it with the judge and jurors. Why is their reasoning wrong and his right? Maybe the president could convince the judge and jurors that the 30 month jail sentence was too harsh — maybe they would convince him that it wasn’t. I would just love to hear that discussion.

    The president has a lot of power. Can he use it any way he wants? Sure. Should he? I don’t think so.

  28. Steve Plunk says:


    Thank you. I appreciate the straight forward answer to my sincere question. I wanted to make sure I understood what the crime actually was before making any judgement as to the appropriateness of the sentence. I have since read one account of a juror who flatly said Libby was guilty but did not deserve to go to jail. From what I can see I would agree with that.

    The President said he would take appropriate action against those who broke the law. I see a $250,000 fine and no pardon as pretty severe punishment for a man like Libby.

  29. Don’t forget that these are felony convictions. That alone carries some extra weight.