President Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's prison sentence on Monday will fuel speculation that others at the White House helped coordinate the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA officer in 2003. But politically the move makes sense.
Democrats may hope Bush's act of clemency will be another self-inflicted wound at a time when the White House is already hurting. Only 21% of Americans thought Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, should be spared, according to recent polls, while around 70% thought he should not. For this unpopular President to show mercy to the convicted staffer of his even more unpopular Vice President would seem the Democrats' ideal end for the affair that began when columnist Robert Novak first wrote that Administration officials had outed Plame to him in interviews.
And within minutes of Bush's signing of the document that lets Libby avoid 30 months in jail, Democrats were declaring it the capstone in a cover-up to protect Vice President Cheney and perhaps the President himself. Senate majority leader Harry Reid called it a "disgrace." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it a "betrayal of trust of the American people." Barack Obama's campaign released a statement saying the decision "cements the legacy of an Administration characterized by a politics of cynicism and division, one that has consistently placed itself and its ideology above the law."
But in fact, Bush's move was not much of a surprise to Democrats or anyone else in Washington. Libby had been convicted in March after years of investigation and trial, and Bush's staff had intimated since then that some form of clemency would be in the offing, hinting that the imminence of jail time for Libby would prompt a move. When a federal appeals panel unanimously ruled Monday that he would have to serve the time, Bush's move came within hours.
And politically the move will probably change little. Those who suspect the worst about the Administration's role in the Plame case are not likely to become any more motivated than they already were against Bush and the Republicans. On the right, the Republican base, which demanded mercy for Libby, will be placated. Had Bush not acted, they would have turned on him, weakening the last pocket of support he has. And for those Republicans who think Libby is getting off easy, Bush's lengthy written statement stressing that Libby still must serve probation and pay a hefty fine may not be enough to settle the queasiness they feel about the whole affair. But few will flee to the Hillary Rodham Clinton for solace.
At the White House, Bush backers were quick to try to soften any public relations damage the decision might cause. They claimed Solomonic wisdom had been applied to a thorny case, leaving untouched the verdict while sparing a former loyalist the "excessive" penalty of time in the slammer. Bush's lengthy written statement unnecessary given the absolute authority he has under the Constitution to grant clemency claimed respect for the verdict and the jury. "There'd been a lot of questions about intervening at points along the way," said one senior White House official, "And the President had always been clear that he was not going to act until he needed to. And that came at the point when Libby was going to serve jail time."
Bush's letter will do little to placate those who suspect a cover-up. On Capitol Hill investigations continue into the matter. In a recent deposition at the House Committee on government oversight, staffers asked Karl Rove's former executive assistant what she knew about the Valerie Plame leak case. After a little thought, the assistant, Susan Ralston, said she had a "vague recollection that [Rove] and Scooter Libby talked about this subject often." Comments like that only strengthen the impression that Libby's obstruction of justice and Bush's commutation have left important questions unanswered in the case.