President's Move on Libby Risks Fallout

What were the politics behind President Bush's decision to commute I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison term? What will the fallout be for Republican lawmakers in next year's elections?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Bush this afternoon spared former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby from a two-and-half-year prison term. Mr. Bush issued an order that commutes Libby's sentence, which Mr. Bush called excessive. It was not a pardon.

The former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney now faces a $250,000 fine and probation after his conviction on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. Those came in the case of the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name to the press.

Earlier today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that Libby's appeal raised no substantial legal question and refused to postpone his sentence.

Well, NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea is in Kennebunkport, Maine, with the president today and he joins me now.

Don, you're there covering the president's meeting with Russian President Putin. Was this a surprise, the commutation of Libby's sentence?

DON GONYEA: Well, it's a surprise and it's not a surprise. It's a surprise when you're covering a summit and you're focused on U.S.-Russian relations. But frankly, this has been out there. I mean, I don't think the conviction of Lewis Libby was minutes old before people started speculating and asking White House officials if President Bush was going to issue some sort of a pardon.

This is not a pardon, but as soon as we did get the word that the federal appeals panel was saying that Mr. Libby had to go to jail pending his appeals, no surprise at all that this has come down.

SIEGEL: Do you know anything about the process by which it came about? Whether Libby's lawyers formally sought this action from the president or not?

GONYEA: We're not getting a lot of details in this immediate aftermath, but we do know that White House lawyers have been looking at that president's options for some weeks now. We also know that Lewis Libby has a lot of powerful friends, not the least among them, Vice President Cheney.

And the president has been hearing from a lot of them, making the case as to why Scooter Libby should not have to go to jail. And it appears that he has listened to those arguments.

SIEGEL: Let's talk a little bit about the politics here. Obviously, there are great many Democrats who will be very loudly critical of this commutation of sentence. There are also many Republicans who believe this is at least the right thing to do, if not an outright pardon.

GONYEA: We had all thought that perhaps the most likely time for a pardon or for this kind of action would be after the 2008 elections, so it wouldn't be an issue. This is going to be an issue that Democrats will be using as part of the case that they are already making against the White House, and it is something that Republican candidates will be forced to defend. And some may stand up and say, hey, look, as the president said, Scooter Libby is still getting a harsh punishment - probation and $250,000 fine. But look for it to be a major part of the political dialogue.

SIEGEL: Another point of timing here, news of the commutation is coming out a couple of days before the Fourth of July, Independence Day holiday and typically, it's a conventional wisdom that on the eve of a big holiday, attention to the news diminishes greatly.

GONYEA: Exactly. You bury the news by putting it out just before a holiday, or as this White House has done quite frequently, on Friday night after 7 p.m., so it only hits the Saturday papers. But Robert, this one's a hard one to bury.

SIEGEL: Don, one last question. The president had refused to answer questions at news conferences about this for so long, saying the matter is in litigation, somebody's at trial. Do we think the president will now answer a question about this decision or are they going to say, no, it's all done now?

GONYEA: I think he has to. And in a statement today, he says - I'll read it to you. He says, I've said throughout this process that it would not be appropriate to comment or intervene in the case until Mr. Libby's appeals have been exhausted. But with the denial of bail being upheld and incarceration imminent, I believe it is now important to react to that decision. He has reacted. He's opened the doors, so he's going to have to take questions about it as well.

SIEGEL: NPR's Don Gonyea with the president in Kennebunkport, Maine. Thank you very much, Don.

GONYEA: Thank you.

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