WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday defended his decision to overturn I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence and left open the possibility of a full pardon.
"As to the future, I rule nothing in and nothing out," Bush said.
The president's commutation order Monday spared Libby from going to prison for 2 1/2 years for perjury and obstruction of justice, but it didn't end the debate over the convicted official's ultimate fate. Some of Libby's supporters continued to push for a full presidential pardon that would forgive his crime and negate his $250,000 fine.
"What's excessive here is the president's caution," conservative columnist Wesley Pruden wrote in The Washington Times. "The verdict was wrong, harsh and vindictive. ... By saving Mr. Libby from prison but leaving in place the rest of a sentence reeking of rotten politics, the president enables the destruction of a reputation and the imposition of a cruel fine."
Libby's critics accused Bush of misusing constitutional authority that was intended to protect citizens from judicial abuse. MoveOn.org Political Action, a liberal group, noted that Libby spent less time behind bars than heiress-gone-wild Paris Hilton.
Bush, who has been far less willing to grant clemency than other recent presidents, has ordered three other commutations. All three involved lengthy sentences for drug-related offenses. And in all three cases, the defendants served lengthy jail terms before Bush freed them.
In Libby's case, Bush ignored Justice Department guidelines that call for consideration of commutation only after the convicted felon reports to prison.
Before his indictment, Libby served double duty as Cheney's chief of staff and a top adviser to Bush.
Earlier this year, the Bush administration urged the Supreme Court to uphold a 33-month sentence for Victor Rita, a gun dealer who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in a case involving allegations of illegal machine-gun sales.
"The questions we should all be asking ourselves today are: Why is the president flip-flopping? Why does Scooter Libby get special treatment?" said Sen. Joseph Biden, of Delaware, a Democratic presidential candidate. He urged Americans to "flood the White House switchboard" with angry phone calls.
Professor Daniel Kobil, an expert on clemency at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, said Bush's limited use of his clemency powers weakens the case for sparing Libby.
In addition to the four commutations, Bush has issued 111 pardons. In contrast, President Bill Clinton ordered 61 commutations and 396 pardons. Former President John Kennedy issued 100 commutation orders and 472 pardons before his first term was cut short by his assassination.
"It's the appearance of favoritism that troubles me," Kobil said. "It's appropriate to use (clemency powers). The question is, do you ever use it for anyone except your cronies? There are plenty of deserving cases out there."
The idea of commutation was first floated publicly by William Otis, who served as a special prosecutor during President George H.W. Bush's administration.
"The case was proved, and the conviction should not simply be wiped away," Otis, a conservative legal scholar, wrote in a June 7 guest column in The Washington Post. "Commutation offers a middle ground."
In an interview Tuesday, Otis said the question now is whether Bush will take the next step and grant a pardon.
"A pardon would be excessive leniency here because of the crime for which Libby was convicted — lying to a grand jury," Otis said. "The grand jury is the prosecutor's most effective weapon to uncover a crime. The offense here is not to be taken lightly."
Bush seemed to agree in a statement Monday explaining his commutation order. The president declared his "respect" for the jury's verdict and agreed with those who consider Libby's crimes serious.
"They argue, correctly, that our entire system of justice relies on telling the truth. And if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable," Bush said.
Retreating from that position with a last-minute pardon would surely generate cries of hypocrisy and could put a lasting blot of Bush's presidential legacy. Still, that doesn't mean that he won't grant a pardon.
"There's always a possibility, or there's an avenue open for anybody to petition for consideration of a pardon," White House spokesman Tony Snow said. "The reason I will say I'm not going to close the door on a pardon is simply this, that Scooter Libby may petition for one."
Snow said Bush "spent weeks and weeks" consulting about Libby's case with senior advisers, including Cheney.
CRITICS RECALL BUSH REJECTION OF TUCKER PLEA
Critics angered by President Bush's decision to spare I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby a trip to prison contrast Bush's sympathy for his former aide to his actions in another high-profile criminal case.
As governor of Texas in the late 1990s, Bush rejected numerous pleas for leniency for death-row inmate Karla Faye Tucker. Supporters ranging from Pope John Paul II to one of the governor's own daughters asserted that Tucker's prison embrace of Christianity and her remorse for a drug-fueled double murder justified a lesser penalty of life in prison.
"My responsibility is to ensure our laws are enforced fairly and evenly without preference or special treatment," Bush said in clearing the way for Tucker's 1998 execution. "I have concluded judgment about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority."