As is often the case in the Bush White House, it was a decision made swiftly, and with stealth. For weeks, allies of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby had aggressively lobbied the president to pardon Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. Libby's powerful supporters—including major GOP fund-raisers like Florida developer Melvin Sembler, the chairman of his legal-defense trust—argued that Libby's conviction in March in the CIA leak case was a miscarriage of justice. Libby's allies pressed their argument with White House aides but got nowhere. George W. Bush's senior staff was under strict instructions: listen politely, but give away nothing about what the president might ultimately do.
Behind the scenes, Bush was intensely focused on the matter, say two White House advisers who were briefed on the deliberations, but who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters. Bush asked Fred Fielding, his discreet White House counsel, to collect information on the case. Fielding, anticipating the Libby issue would be on his plate, had been gathering material for some time, including key trial transcripts. Uncharacteristically, Bush himself delved into the details. He was especially keen to know 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. But Fielding, one of the advisers tells NEWSWEEK, reluctantly concluded that the jury had reached a reasonable verdict: the evidence was strong that Libby testified falsely about his role in the leak.
The president was conflicted. He hated the idea that a loyal aide would serve time. Hanging over his deliberations was Cheney, 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." (White House officials and Cheney declined to comment. "As you know, we don't discuss internal deliberations," a Cheney spokeswoman tells NEWSWEEK.)
Last week, just hours after a three-judge panel rejected an appeal for a delay in Libby's sentence, the president intervened. He said Libby's 30 months were "excessive," and he was reducing it to zero. He left intact the conviction and $250,000 fine—which Libby promptly paid with a cashier's check. But Bush didn't clear Libby entirely. He said he respected the jury's verdict and described special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald as a "professional prosecutor." Bush's choice of words rankled Libby's supporters, since it seemed to make it harder for Bush to grant a full pardon. (The next day, Bush said he wouldn't "rule out" a pardon.)
The grumbling from Libby's supporters was nothing compared with the howls of indignation from Democrats, who condemned Bush for pushing harsh mandatory sentences for criminals—except the one who happened to work at the White House. But the Democrats' outrage lost steam when Hillary Clinton came forward to scold Bush for not respecting "the rule of law." White House aides were all too happy to remind the country about Bill Clinton's own questionable pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.
In part, Bush may have stopped short of a full pardon precisely to keep Libby and other White House aides away from Democrats on Capitol Hill. Investigators in Congress are eager to call Libby to testify about the Plame case and prewar Iraq intel—an invitation Libby can continue to resist by claiming he can't talk as long as his appeal remains alive in the courts.
The White House has used the same line to shield itself from questions about the case. When the effort to discredit Wilson surfaced in 2003, Bush vowed to fire anyone on his staff who leaked classified information about Plame to the press. Last week a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Tony Snow why Bush hadn't dismissed Karl Rove—who was found to be one of the White House leakers. "We are not going to make comments in detail until the legal process is over," Snow responded. "And it is not—there is still an appeal." Nobody at the White House would be disappointed if that appeal just happened to drag on until Jan. 20, 2009.