Libby goes free
Here's the White House statement on the commutation. It's a pretty balanced document, but in the end it mostly pays lip service to the arguments favoring at least a short prison stay. He stripped away the 30-month jail term, leaving the $250,000 fine and a lengthy probation term.
Bush made the decision after consulting just a handful of advisors. He explicitly did not consult friends of Libby, who wanted to lobby for clemency. But neither did he consult the Justice Department or the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, as is routine in such cases.
Previously I noted that some clemency was probably warranted, but Libby needed to serve at least some jail time or else the president's political capital would all but evaporate. I still think that's true.
Here's what might have been going through Bush's head:
The White House appeared to be calculating that no matter what he did to keep Libby out of prison, Bush would not make Democrats happy, and if he did nothing, he would infuriate his strongest conservative supporters.
He's probably right about the Dems, but they now have even more reason to be even more opposed to him. Meanwhile, polls show a strong majority of voters didn't want Libby pardoned. They'll view comutation as essentially the same thing, so now Bush has lost them. A large minority felt that the jail sentence was excessive, but also feel that no jail time at all is too lenient. Further along the spectrum, many of his conservative supporters were demanding a full pardon, and consider the partial commutation too little, too late.
As well, hanging over it all is the question of whether Libby is being protected because he lied to protect his superiors in the Plame case.
Had Bush waited to commute Libby's sentence; or commuted it to even six months in jail, he would have demonstrated that actions have serious, tangible consequences -- not a fine that will be paid by well-heeled supporters and a meaningless probation. Yes, Libby has had his reputation smirched. But not in the circles that matter. He will land on his feet, in some silk-stocking law firm or lobbying outfit, and his conviction will simply be a footnote in his biography.
The only part of the sentence with real teeth was the jail term. And Bush has now made that disappear entirely.
It was a poor move, politically, legally and morally. It sends entirely the wrong message, and seems to confirm that the administration considers itself above the law, willing to let the legal system do its work only as long as it reaches a conclusion that the administration likes. This may not be a fair or accurate impression; but Bush has brought it on himself.
Update: Just as a refresher, here's a month-old excellent debunking of five common Libby myths by the Washington Post. The summary: Plame was covert; Libby did leak her identity; there's no solid evidence Rove was involved; Cheney dislikes bad press, however much he might pretend otherwise; and the White House has yet to discipline anyone involved in the leak of Plame's name. (h/t: Centrisity)
Update II: Bush's split-the-difference move has created a small legal kerfuffle. Libby was sentenced to two years of "supervised release" after his prison term, a condition Bush left intact. But in order to qualify for supervised release, a defendant must serve prison time. So what happens now? If the requirement of prison time is clear, I don't think the judge has the authority to make up something to address this situation. So look for Libby's sentence to be modified to unsupervised probation. that leaves the $250,000 fine as the only remaining part of the sentence -- and even that will likely be paid by someone other than Libby.
Libby, politics, midtopia