Yesterday, the president of the United States, in putting out a written statement concerning his decision to commute the 30-month prison sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby to zero-time-served, reminded the American people that Scooter Libby, despite not having to go to prison, still would suffer in the future.
President Bush stated that Mr. Libby had been convicted of the “serious” charge of lying under oath; he expressed respect for Independent Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald; and he noted that Mr. Libby would still have to pay a fine of $250,000. And then he stated, clearly in the context of his statement’s emphasis, that commutation did not mean Mr. Libby would be granted a clean slate in the future:
“The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant, and private citizen will be long-lasting.” (My emphasis.)
When I read this sentence, I logically interpreted it to mean that there would be no future pardon for Mr. Libby by President Bush, since the time between now and January 20, 2009 — just over 18 months — certainly couldn’t be considered “long-lasting” by most people. With a pardon, Mr. Libby in all likelihood could continue to practice law, could vote, retain firearms and have all other benefits of citizenship as if the felony conviction had never occurred. Thus, I reasoned, as I believe most people did when they read this sentence, that the president intended it to preclude the possibility of a pardon for Mr. Libby.
If he did not mean that, and meant the phrase “long-lasting” to mean less than 18 months, he certainly would have pointed that out — in order to avoid being misleading.
Moreover, the president’s statement was pretty balanced in explaining why he chose commutation and not pardon. He presented the perspectives of both critics of Mr. Libby as well as supporters, and then explained he thought commutation of the prison sentence was the right thing to do.
So that is why last night, during an interview on CNN, I described Mr. Bush’s decision, at least in his mind, as a good “compromise” — between no pardon at all, which would infuriate his conservative base, and granting a pardon, which would seem dismissive of the serious crimes of perjury and obstruction on which a jury convicted Mr. Libby and thus inconsistent with the conservative views on “law and order” and being tough on criminals.
One of my co-panelists, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, took issue with my word “compromise” as apparently too forgiving, since he strongly believed the commutation of Mr. Libby’s sentence under these circumstances was an extreme and unwarranted step. Mr. Toobin pointed out, for example, that the president had commuted a sentence that hadn’t begun to be served, which is highly unusual, according to most experts.
So I went back to the president’s statement, and again re-read the sentence:
“The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant, and private citizen will be long-lasting.’
And I sent Mr. Toobin an e-mail overnight, citing this sentence in the president’s statement, and telling him I believed this meant that Mr. Bush had, in fact, excluded the possibility of a pardon within the next 18 months — that is, of course, if 18 months is not regarded by anyone sensible as “long-lasting.”
But wait: Less than 24 yours later, President Bush’s press secretary, Tony Snow, someone I consider a good friend and highly respect, said he wouldn't “close a door” on the possibility of a pardon at all. “There is always a possibility,” he said.
Say what, Tony? Are you really saying, “It depends on the definition of the word ‘long-lasting’”?
Say it ain’t so, Tony.
Are Republicans actually going to defend the parsing of words by a president? If so, could anything be more deliciously ironic and hypocritical for us Democrats with not-so-short memories to seize on?
In fact, the reaction of many congressional Republicans — and all the Republican presidential candidates — belittling the seriousness of Mr. Libby’s crime of perjury and obstruction of justice, in a case in which Mr. Libby declined to take the stand (as was his right) to defend himself, is a classic example of the double standard.
The very same people, it seems, who most huffed and puffed about President Clinton admitting to testifying falsely in a civil deposition in a case thrown out on summary judgment now seem most dismissive of Mr. Libby’s conviction of perjury and obstruction of justice by a jury of his peers.
In fact, President Clinton was not convicted of perjury before a grand jury as was Mr. Libby. The Republican-controlled Senate heard that charge against President Clinton, a charge made in an almost entirely party-line impeachment vote by the House of Representatives, and acquitted President Clinton. In fact, the Republican-controlled Senate (with 55 members) couldn’t even muster a majority vote in favor of conviction, much less the necessary two-thirds.
Does anyone expect at least one of the presidential candidates, let’s say, the sanctimonious Rudy Giuliani, who always boasts about his record as a prosecutor, to point out that the 30-month sentence on Mr. Libby was imposed by a Republican-appointed judge? That such sentence was consistent with federal sentencing guidelines — the very guidelines that conservatives otherwise criticize liberal judges for ignoring or refusing to sentence to the max?
Does anyone expect one of the Republican candidates for president to be intellectually honest and suggest that, at the very least, “long-lasting” means longer than 18 months?
If anyone believes any Republican presidential candidate will do so, please let me know. I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you for $5.00.