WASHINGTON: For months, President Donald Trump has railed against investigators and presented himself as the target of an unfair prosecution.
So when he was asked to pardon former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, who likewise considered himself the target of an unfair prosecution, Trump may have seen some parallels — and a chance to make a statement.
The statement came on Friday when the president granted a full pardon to I. Lewis Libby Jr., who was Cheney’s top adviser before he was convicted in 2007 of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the disclosure of the identity of a CIA officer, Valerie Plame. Libby, the president declared, had not received justice.
“I don’t know Mr Libby,” Trump said in a statement, “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.”
The pardon was only the third of Trump’s presidency but amounted to a dramatic coda to a politically charged case that once gripped Washington and came to embody the divisions over the Iraq War. Libby, who goes by Scooter, was seen by his critics as an agent of a war built on false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and by his friends as a scapegoat for a special prosecutor who was actually trying to bring down Cheney.
Libby has long maintained his innocence, arguing that his conviction rested on a difference of memories. President George W. Bush commuted his 30-month prison sentence while refusing to give a full pardon, saying he respected the jury’s verdict. But Libby’s hopes of overturning his conviction took a turn in 2015 when Judith Miller, a former New York Times reporter and a key witness at his trial, recanted her testimony and a year later a court reinstated his law license.
Victoria Toensing, a lawyer and friend of Libby’s, said Friday that she brought his case to the attention of the White House Counsel’s Office over the summer. Toensing and her husband and law partner, Joseph diGenova, were briefly set to work for Trump as private lawyers last month until they backed out, citing a client conflict.
Toensing would not indicate whether she discussed Libby directly with Trump, but she did say that the president called her Friday to notify her that he had signed the pardon. She then called Libby to give him the news, but he had just undergone an MRI for a back problem and “was a little hazy,” so she told his wife, Harriet.
“It’s taken a long time to get the right thing to happen,” Toensing said. “As a former prosecutor and as a defence attorney, I’m appalled by what happened.”
In a statement later in the day, Libby thanked the president. “For over a dozen years, we have suffered under the weight of a terrible injustice,” he said. “To his great credit, President Trump recognised this wrong and would not let it persist. For this honourable act, we shall forever be grateful.”
Cheney hailed the move. “Scooter Libby is one of the most capable, principled and honourable men I have ever known,” he said in a statement. “He is innocent, and he and his family have suffered for years because of his wrongful conviction. I am grateful that President Trump righted this wrong by issuing a full pardon to Scooter, and I am thrilled for Scooter and his family.”
Bush offered no objection to the decision, even though it conflicted with his own judgement on the case. “President Bush is very pleased for Scooter and his family,” his office said in a statement.
But critics saw hypocrisy in Trump’s decision, coming on the same day that he was denouncing James Comey, the former FBI director.
“On the day the president wrongly attacks Comey for being a ‘leaker and liar’ he considers pardoning a convicted leaker and liar, Scooter Libby,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., wrote on Twitter. “This is the president’s way of sending a message to those implicated in the Russia investigation: You have my back and I’ll have yours.”
Plame, who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said she did not believe the pardon had anything to do with her or Libby but Trump’s own legal issues. “I would say he’s trying to build a firewall,” she said.
His real audience, she added, was the associates who might turn on him. “He’s saying, ‘If you get in trouble, don’t spill the beans, I’ll take care of you.’ This is how the mafia works.”
The White House rejected any connection. “Not at all,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. “One thing has nothing to do with the other, and every case should be reviewed on their own merits.”