The real reason for the Libby commutation?

Over the weekend, two pundits offered their take on why President Bush commuted his former aide's prison sentence.

By Alex Koppelman

Published July 9, 2007 2:00PM (EDT)

Though it's been a week since the announcement of President Bush's decision to commute Scooter Libby's prison sentence, the story shows no signs of dying quite yet. This weekend brought two new takes on the commutation, and the reasoning that brought the president to his choice.

ThinkProgress noticed conservative pundit Bill Kristol on Fox News Sunday this week, explaining what he believes is the rationale for why the commutation was announced when it was. Though many -- including ourselves -- have speculated that the commutation was timed to a Court of Appeals decision that would have meant Libby could not remain free on bail during his appeals, Kristol has other ideas. And surprise, surprise: The timing, Kristol believes, was political.

"Here's why the president acted the way he did. He knew Bill Clinton was joining Hillary in Iowa on July 4th," Kristol said. "... So on July 2nd, Ed Gillespie, who's a very canny Republican operator, said, Let's pardon Libby. Clinton will rise to the bait, and we could spend the last half of the week debating the unbelievable Clinton pardons against the defensible Bush pardon.

"So I regard this as an extremely clever Machiavellian move by the president. It cheers me up. It cheers me up about the Bush White House, and I'm really heartened."

Separately, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff offers up an account, from White House insiders, of Bush's deliberations on the commutation and why he ultimately decided to go the way he did. Notably, Isikoff paints a picture of Bush as focused on the details of the case; that's quite different from how Bush has acted in the past when questions of clemency came before him, and Isikoff himself calls it uncharacteristic. Isikoff offers one possible reason for Bush's diligence: "He was especially keen to know," Isikoff says, "if there was compelling evidence that might contradict the jury's verdict that Libby had lied to a federal grand jury about when -- and from whom -- he learned the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson, wife of Iraq War critic Joe Wilson."

Turns out, though -- sorry, Libby supporters -- that the conclusion of White House Counsel Fred Fielding was that "the jury had reached a reasonable verdict: The evidence was strong that Libby testified falsely about his role in the leak."

But, of course, Libby's prison term was commuted anyway. Isikoff seems to think he knows the reason why. "The president was conflicted. He hated the idea that a loyal aide would serve time," Isikoff writes. "Hanging over his deliberations was [Vice President Dick Cheney, for whom Libby served as chief of staff], who had said he was 'very disappointed' with the jury's verdict. Cheney did not directly weigh in with Fielding, but nobody involved had any doubt where he stood. 'I'm not sure Bush had a choice,' says one of the advisers. 'If he didn't act, it would have caused a fracture with the vice president.'"

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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