By Elana Schor - 03/06/07 08:40 PM EST
Vice President Dick Cheney, Libby’s former boss, appeared before GOP senators at their weekly policy luncheon without addressing the jury’s guilty verdict on four out of five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements, according to several lawmakers present. Libby’s legal team vowed to appeal, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wasted no time in hailing the verdict and challenging the White House.
“It’s about time someone in the Bush administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics,” Reid said, adding that the trial “revealed deeper truths about Vice President Cheney’s role in this sordid affair. Now President Bush must pledge not to pardon Libby for his criminal conduct.”
The trial of Cheney’s former chief of staff has provided much fuel for Democratic condemnation of the White House’s conduct during the early days of the war in Iraq. The new congressional majority squared that circle yesterday, pushing Bush to hold Libby accountable by forgoing a pardon while depicting Libby as “the fall guy,” in the words of one juror who spoke publicly after the verdict.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) echoed Reid, urging Bush not to consider sparing Libby from the likely three-year prison sentence he faces.
“It sends a terrible message at a time when we are demanding accountability from the generals at Walter Reed … to suggest anyone in our government is above the law,” Durbin said.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean lent his voice to the chorus of demands for a presidential pledge not to pardon, citing Bush’s 2003 vow to “take the appropriate action” against any White House employee found to be involved in the leak of an undercover agent’s classified identity.
“While he failed to keep his promise to fire the leaker, he should pledge not to pardon Scooter Libby,” Dean said in a statement.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) also recalled Bush’s 2003 comments, comparing the questions raised by the administration’s revealing of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson to the questions raised by the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
“It would be a serious mistake for the president” to pardon Libby, Landrieu said, “given the pattern of corruption and incompetence that have unfortunately become a hallmark of this administration.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke on the verdict, agreeing with Reid on the need for a presidential pardon pledge. Pelosi remarked that testimony by former White House officials at the trial “unmistakably revealed … a callous disregard in handling sensitive national security information and a disposition to smear critics of the war in Iraq.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Democratic Caucus vice chairman, was the among the first lawmakers to ask for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate how the leak of Plame Wilson’s name was tied to comments made by her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, a critic of the Bush administration’s original rationale for invading Iraq.
“The evidence in the trial made clear that there were many others involved in manipulating intelligence and leaking classified information to intimidate those who were telling the truth,” Schumer said in a statement yesterday that made no mention of a pardon. “Yet those others remain unpunished, many staying in their current jobs — that is the real tragedy of this.”
Though unnamed by Schumer, Cheney is the principal figure whose involvement in the internal pushback against Wilson was revealed by the seven-weeks-long trial. Cheney offered no public comment yesterday, and White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the administration policy to withhold comment on ongoing investigations would continue in light of Libby’s appeal.
Perino also told reporters that a pardon was “a hypothetical situation” that she had not addressed with the president, declining to rule it out.
When asked about a possible Libby pardon, most Republicans described the current speculation as premature. Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.) were among those expressing such a sentiment.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had no comment on the meaning or impact of the verdict.
Yet McCain questioned Reid and other Democrats seeking assurances of no amnesty for Libby: “Did any Republicans call on [former President] Clinton not to pardon the aptly named Mr. Rich?”
McCain referred to Marc Rich, a financier who fled to Switzerland in 1983 to escape U.S. imprisonment. Clinton pardoned Rich just before leaving office in 2001.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who shares the brighter spotlight of a presidential run with McCain, released his own statement on the verdict. “Leaks and innuendo in pursuit of a flawed policy lead to shameful episodes such as this. It should never happen again,” Obama said.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), another White House hopeful, called the verdict “appalling” in a statement.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) declined to offer a reaction to the verdict, noting that he considers Libby a friend. Kyl said Democratic demands for Bush to rule out a pardon were attempts to score political points off of Libby’s predicament.
“It speaks for itself,” Kyl said. “There’s a great Latin phrase: res ipsa loquitur.”
Pardoning Libby would be “a Nixonian-caliber mistake” by Bush, said Brent Budowsky, a former aide to the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas), who was an original author of the law that prohibits disclosure of classified agents’ identities.
As the administration begins to assert a case for military action against Iran, Budowsky said, excusing the only official prosecuted in the Plame affair further would compromise the credibility of White House intelligence assertions. Of the political liability for Republicans, he added: “You’ve got 21 Republican senators up for reelection. Would any of them want to defend a pardon?”