AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump today took the extraordinary step of overruling his Republican predecessor George W. Bush and granting a pardon to Lewis Scooter Libby. He served as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby was convicted in 2007 of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Joining us to discuss this turn of events is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. And, Nina, this is going back more than a decade. What happened?
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Well, Libby was accused and then convicted in connection with the leak of a CIA officer's identity, and that of course can be a crime. Because the attorney general was recused, the then-deputy attorney general, James Comey - yes, Audie, that James Comey - appointed longtime career prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to conduct the investigation.
Fitzgerald ultimately didn't charge anyone with the actual leak. But he did charge Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, with obstruction and lying to the FBI and lying to the grand jury. And Libby was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.
CORNISH: But to be clear, he didn't actually go to prison, right?
TOTENBERG: Correct. Vice President Cheney lobbied hard with President Bush asking that Libby be granted a pardon. Bush then asked a team of White House lawyers to examine the case, and they concluded there was substantial evidence justifying the conviction. So Bush told his vice president he wouldn't grant the pardon. Instead he would commute Libby's prison sentence.
And an angry Cheney then accused Bush of, quote, "leaving a good man wounded on the battlefield." And Bush said in his book that he was taken aback by the harshness of Cheney's remark. Aides to both men have said that after that the two were never really close again.
CORNISH: Why would President Trump choose to grant this pardon, a pardon that Bush refused?
TOTENBERG: It is rather peculiar that a president who complains daily about leaks is pardoning a man convicted of involvement in a national security leak. But conservatives allied with former Vice President Cheney have long championed a pardon. And one of them, by the way, is John Bolton, the new national security adviser to the president. And of course the pardon may send another message - that Trump is willing to use his pardon power to reward loyalists and to punish prosecutors he sees as running amok.
CORNISH: So this goes back to James Comey, right? I mean, he appointed the Libby prosecutor.
TOTENBERG: Yes, Comey, who went on to become FBI director and was himself fired by Trump, leading to the appointment of Robert Muller, another former FBI director who Trump almost daily accuses of conducting a witch hunt.
CORNISH: President Trump said in a written statement today that he was pardoning Scooter Libby because one of the witnesses against him recanted her testimony and claimed that the prosecutor misled her.
TOTENBERG: That would be Judith Miller, a former reporter for The New York Times and a one-time NPR freelance reporter. She spent 85 days in jail refusing to testify about her conversations with Libby related to the leak. And she testified only after Libby released her from her promise to him of confidentiality. But of course she was one of at least eight witnesses, many of them high-ranking Bush administration officials and CIA officers as well as other reporters, who contradicted Libby's story. Libby's lawyers argued that his statements to the grand jury and the FBI weren't lies. They were simply different recollections than others had.
CORNISH: President Bush in the end saved Lewis Libby from jail. What does Libby get from a pardon?
TOTENBERG: Well, a pardon doesn't void your conviction. It is official forgiveness. Libby was disbarred after the conviction. But in 2016 he was reinstated, and in reinstating Libby the Bar Association did mention the Miller recantation. Basically I think Libby probably gets at this point is some sense of vindication, a sense that his name has been wiped clean of a stain.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Nina Totenberg. Nina, thank you.
TOTENBERG: Thank you.
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