WASHINGTON — President Trump has pardoned Scooter Libby, the George W. Bush administration aide convicted of lying to the FBI in an investigation into a leak of the identity of a covert CIA agent.
The pardon marks a stunning epilogue to a story of Bush administration intrigue, as Libby was a central figure in attempts to discredit reports that the government manipulated intelligence in order to justify the invasion of Iraq.
“I don’t know Mr. Libby,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House press secretary. “But for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly. Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life.”
But it also comes amid an FBI investigation into the Trump administration, and attempts by Trump and his allies to discredit former FBI director James Comey — who was the Justice Department official with oversight over the Libby case in 2005. Comey, who was fired by Trump last year, has just written a book calling Trump "unethical and untethered to truth."
Democrats saw the pardon as a transparent attempt by Trump to thwart the investigation on whether Trump associates colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
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“This pardon sends a troubling signal to the president’s allies that obstructing justice will be rewarded," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday. "The suggestion that those who lie under oath may be rewarded with pardons poses a threat to the integrity of the special counsel investigation, and to our democracy."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there was no connection between the Libby case and the current special counsel investigation. "One thing has nothing to do with the other, and every case should be reviewed on its own merits," she said.
Formally named I. Lewis Libby but known by his "Scooter" nickname, Libby was the chief of staff to then-VicePresident Richard Cheney who became a key figure in what became known as the Valerie Plame affair.
Cheney had asserted that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain nuclear weapons. And so Libby told a number of journalists that it was Plame who decided to send her husband on the mission — thus blowing her cover.
But one of those journalists — New York Times reporter Judith Miller — recanted her grand jury testimony in 2015. In her book, she wrote that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald cajoled her into testifying against Libby, causing her to give an incomplete and misleading account of her conversations with him.
Libby was convicted of lying to the FBI and was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2007. A month later, President George W. Bush commuted his prison sentence — but specifically required him to complete a two-year probation, pay $250,000 fine and perform 400 hours of community service
That commutation fell short of the full and unconditional pardon that then-Vice President Richard Cheney, who Libby served as chief of staff, had urged Bush to grant. A pardon would constitute a full legal forgiveness for the crime and restore all of Libby's civil rights.
In pardoning Libby, the White House cited Miller's disavowal of her testimony, and the fact that the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reinstated his license to practice law in 2016.
But Fitzgerald said Friday that Libby's conviction was based on multiple witnesses and documents — including Libby's own testimony before the grand jury. "There was no impropriety in the preparation of any witness, and we did not tell witnesses what to say or withhold any information that should have been disclosed," he said.
"The president has the right to pardon Mr. Libby and Mr. Libby has been pardoned. But the facts have not changed," Fitzgerald said.
The Libby case has some parallels with the current wide-ranging investigation into Trump associates — and even some of the players are the same.
Comey was then the deputy attorney general, and he appointed a special counsel to oversee the FBI investigation. The FBI was then led by Robert Mueller, now the special counsel in the Trump investigation.
Justice Department officials said Friday that Libby did not have a pardon application pending with the Office of the Pardon Attorney — a process that requires an FBI background check.
But under the Constitution, the presidential pardon power is absolute, and Trump has bypassed the regular process before. He pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio for contempt of court before he could be sentenced, and also Kristian Saucier, a Navy submariner convicted of mishandling classified information. Neither case was eligible under Justice Department guidelines.
According to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, there were 2,271 pardon requests pending as of March 31.