A Snow job on Libby

As the House plans a hearing, the White House press secretary mounts a factually challenged defense.

By Tim Grieve

Published July 5, 2007 2:52PM (EDT)

The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing next week on the "Use and Misuse of Presidential Clemency Power for Executive Branch Officials." In USA Today this morning, White House press secretary Tony Snow launches a preemptive defense with an Op-Ed piece titled "President Respects Justice."

Somewhere between attacking Bill Clinton for engaging in "a mad rush to push through pardons with dizzying haste" and complaining about the "vicious vilification" surrounding the Scooter Libby prosecution, Snow says George W. Bush just "did what he does normally" in commuting Libby's sentence: "He proceeded on the basis of principle, and arrived at a sound and just decision -- knowing he would take hits in the court of public opinion, but also knowing he was doing the right thing."

In Bush's defense, Snow makes two points, neither of which is exactly true. First, Snow stresses that, in commuting Libby's sentence rather than granting him a pardon, "the president made clear that he would not second-guess the jury that found Libby guilty." But the morning after Bush made his clemency order, both Bush and Snow refused to rule out the possibility that the president will grant Libby a full pardon down the line. When Bush was asked about a pardon, he said he would "rule nothing in and nothing out." Snow said he would not "close the door on a pardon." So while it's true that Bush said in his clemency order that he wasn't second-guessing the jury just yet, he certainly hasn't "made clear" that he won't do so later.

Snow's second line of defense: Although Bush has wiped away Libby's 30-month prison term, he left in place "two of the major punishments": a $250,000 fine and a requirement that Libby serve two years on probation. While it's true that Libby will be stuck with the fine -- a sum to be paid, no doubt, by the folks who have lined up to fund his legal defense -- it's not at all clear that he will have to endure two years, or even a day, on probation. As Judge Reggie Walton has noted, federal law does not provide for probation -- technically, "supervised release" -- except in conjunction with a period of incarceration. Thus, by declaring that Libby need not serve any time in prison, Bush may have also freed him, inadvertently or not, of the probation period Snow is using to minimize the effect of what the president did.

Not that any of this will actually matter to the world-turned-upside-down folks who still work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Surveying the scene, Snow declares himself "proud" of the president, a man who "believes pardons and commutations should reflect a genuine determination to strengthen the rule of law and increase public faith in government."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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