ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
The White House is defending President Bush's decision to commute the prison sentence of former top aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The president announced late yesterday he would spare Libby a 30-month prison sentence for obstruction of justice and perjury in the CIA leak case. The president called the prison term excessive and, in a brief statement to reporters today, the president refused to rule out the possibility of a full pardon for Libby later on.
Coming up, analysis from our regular political commentators. First, here's NPR's White House Don Gonyea.
DON GONYEA: White House Press Secretary Tony Snow started his daily briefing today as though it were just any daily briefing. He previewed the president's trip to visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed. He gave a report on the number of soldiers who have reenlisted in the Army. The subject that had dominated the news overnight didn't come up until Snow said…
Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): And with that, I'll take questions.
GONYEA: The first one, no surprise, was about Libby. Is commuting his prison sentence the final word, a reporter asked, could a pardon still come later? Snow didn't rule it out, but he said that so far there's been no petition for a pardon from Libby's lawyers.
Mr. SNOW: Well, let me put it this way. The president thinks that he has dealt with the situation properly.
GONYEA: Next question: Did the vice president weigh in on the sentence? After all, Libby was Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Cheney has repeatedly praised Libby as a friend and trusted aide, and has publicly said he hope that his name would be cleared through appeals.
Here's Tony Snow.
Mr. SNOW: My guess is that - I don't have direct knowledge, but on the other hand, the president did consult with most senior officials and I'm sure that everybody had an opportunity to share their views.
GONYEA: And there was the question about the president's statement yesterday that the 30-month prison sentence was excessive, even though the prosecutor in the case, Patrick Fitzgerald, countered in his own statement that it was handed down by a respected federal judge who was following sentencing guidelines - the very guidelines upheld as reasonable last month by the Supreme Court.
Mr. SNOW: I know you're trying to get into the business of having an abstruse legal argument with Patrick Fitzgerald. I'm not going to do it.
GONYEA: And what about White House worries that Libby would seek to shorten his sentence by speaking publicly about the things the White House would rather keep secret? Was that a concern for the president?
Mr. SNOW: No. He thought it was an improper punishment.
GONYEA: Did Libby get special treatment because of who he is? No, said Snow. And Snow insisted that politics played no role in the decision and that the president was not seeking to please conservatives whose support he relies on. And so it went for all but the very end of the briefing when the topics of immigration and tainted food from China took up the final minute or so.
Within the hour, in the midst of a visit to soldiers recovering from war wounds, President Bush also responded to a question about Libby and the potential for a pardon still to come.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I felt the punishment was severe, and so I made a decision that would commute his sentence that leave in place a serious fine - and probation. As to the future, I'm - you know, rule nothing in or nothing out.
GONYEA: Reaction from conservatives and Republicans has been mostly positive, although many would still prefer a full pardon for Libby. Among Democratic congressional leaders and presidential candidates, condemnation has been the rule. They decry the clemency order, a special treatment for a high-powered friend or even hush money.
Here's Hillary Clinton campaigning in Iowa last night.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): What we saw today was elevating cronyism over the rule of law.
GONYEA: So add this to the things that Democrats will use against Republicans and against a White House already struggling to weather overwhelming public disapproval of the job Mr. Bush is doing overall.
Don Gonyea, NPR News.
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