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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 has saved former top White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby from serving a two-and-a-half-year prison term. This evening, the president commuted Libby's sentence after a federal appeals court refused to delay the sentence pending appeal.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins us now. And Nina, we should say the odds of what the president did not today, he did not pardon Lewis Libby.

NINA TOTENBERG: That's right. He commuted his prison sentence. So the $250,000 fine, the conviction, and the two-year period of probation remain in place. But Libby will not have to go to jail, which is hardly insignificant.

SIEGEL: And all this came about suddenly today, why?

TOTENBERG: Because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled today that Libby's appeal raised no substantial legal question and thus, that there were no grounds to delay his going to prison. And if ever there were a signal that an appeal was going nowhere this was it and Libby was headed to prison within weeks.

SIEGEL: The president released a statement in which he spelled out his rationale for commuting the sentence. How would you describe what the president says is his reasoning here?

TOTENBERG: Well, he went through the reasons that Libby supporters say he shouldn't have to go to jail, and the critics say he should have to go to jail. The president said the Libby critics argued correctly that our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth, and that if the person does not tell the truth, particularly if serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable. I respect the jury's verdict, the president said, but I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend 30 months in prison.

Now, we should add here that the president has never before done this. He has always taken the position that he will only consider even pardons after - when a person has already served his or her prison time. So this is really a first time thing. And it also comes after the Supreme Court in a nearly identical case where a first-time offender, long public service upheld a sentence in identical charges that was harsher than this.

SIEGEL: Really? The president makes mention of Mr.' Libby's young children, and also the damage to his reputation that he's already suffering.

TOTENBERG: That's correct. And that he probably - you know, it'll hurt his ability to practice law. He'll probably lose his license because he's still is guilty of a felony.

SIEGEL: Mr. Bush obviously is going to receive a great deal of criticism from those people whom he cites in his statement who felt that Mr. Libby should be sentenced to jail.

TOTENBERG: Well, the fact is that Mr. Bush has the lowest public approval ratings, I think, since Richard Nixon. The only people sticking with him are the hardcore base. The hardcore was very animated about this and wanted Mr. Libby pardoned. And he's not done that. He's done one step short of that. But I imagine it will satisfy them and get this off his plate. He'll have to deal with a lot of hoo-ha for the next few days, but it's probably not going to hurt him anymore than he's already hurt by the Iraq war.

SIEGEL: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thank you, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Robert.

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