Once news broke that President Trump would grant a pardon to Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, a number of media personalities took to the Internet to bemoan the president’s hypocrisy. How could someone who just called former FBI James Comey a “leaker” come to the aid of a person guilty of the same misconduct?
“Calling @Comey a ‘proven LEAKER LIAR’ while you’re about to pardon Scooter Libby, who leaked the identity of a covert CIA employee and was convicted for lying about it to the FBI — well, that’s quite a thing,” tweeted CNN’s Jake Tapper (emphasis mine.)
Now, one could argue that Libby is undeserving of clemency. But there would be nothing hypocritical about Trump pardoning him.
It’s true Libby had been convicted by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who was named by then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey, of obstruction of justice, making false statements and perjury in a tangled case involving Bush-administration leaks and a CIA operative’s identity. But Libby not only was never convicted of sharing Valerie Plame’s name with the media, we now know who did.
Back in 2006, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged he told the late Robert Novak about the CIA researcher in 2003, an incident that kicked off a media firestorm and then a federal investigation. As the theory went, the George W. Bush administration was punishing Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, for writing a 2003 op-ed accusing it of misleading Americans regarding Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
We also know Armitage leaked the name Plame (who now tweets anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in her spare time) not only to Novak but to a Washington Post reporter. And that a number of other administration officials, including Karl Rove, mentioned the name of Plame to major news publications.
We also know Plame’s role at the CIA was highly overstated by her allies. John Rizzo, who was then acting CIA general counsel, would later note that “there was no evidence indicating that any CIA source or operation, or Plame herself, was placed in jeopardy.” The case that had triggered the Libby conviction, according to Rizzo, was one of hundreds of similar referrals, rarely acted on, that the CIA made every year.
The case does remind us that independent counsels are instilled with wide-ranging powers and little oversight and rarely end their terms without some kind of conviction. Lying to them, about anything, is a colossal mistake.
Yet, whatever you make of the Iraq War or the Bush administration, there’s a credible argument to be made that Libby was convicted for the political sins of others. Fitzgerald, after all, would never charge anyone with leaking classified information.
Should Libby be pardoned? Well, that’s another question. James Hohmann of The Washington Post argued that the pardon would once again exhibit “Trump’s disdain for the rule of law” because he “does not believe someone needs to be contrite to get a pardon. Historically, that’s been a norm. But it wasn’t true for Joe Arpaio either.”
Sadly, that’s never really been the norm. Political considerations are the norm that drives presidential pardons, which Trump, like all other presidents, is free to use for whatever reason he sees fit.
Neither Chelsea Manning, whose crimes undermined US security, nor Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican terrorist convicted of “seditious conspiracy,” showed genuine remorse. The opposite, in fact. Yet Barack Obama commuted their sentences.
Marc Rich, the financier and tax cheat whose wife funneled millions to the Clintons, and Susan McDougal, who was willing to sit in prison rather than testify, showed no real regret before being pardoned by Bill Clinton.
It’s wholly plausible, of course, that Trump is only pardoning Libby for political considerations. Perhaps the president is interested in undermining the standing of the special counsel.
While that may be true, accusing Libby of crimes he hasn’t been convicted of, without even throwing in an “allegedly” for good measure, is probably not a standard even ostensibly non-biased journalists should want to create. Not even if it’s helpful in your case against Trump.
David Harsanyi is a syndicated columnist and senior editor at The Federalist.