WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday left open the possibility of an eventual pardon for former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
"As to the future, I rule nothing in and nothing out," the president said a day after commuting Libby's 2 1/2-year prison term in the CIA leak case.
Bush said he had weighed his decision carefully to erase Libby's prison time for lying and obstruction of justice. He said the jury's conviction should stand but the prison term was too severe.
"I made a judgment, a considered judgment, that I believe was the right decision to make in this case," the president said. "And I stand by it."
Bush spoke to reporters after visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. His decision on Libby was roundly criticized by Democrats; Republicans were more subdued, with some welcoming the decision and but others saying he should have gone further.
Earlier Tuesday, chief Bush spokesman Tony Snow said Bush was satisfied with his decision to commute Libby's sentence.
"He thought any jail time was excessive. He did not see fit to have Scooter Libby taken to jail," Snow said.
The spokesman told reporters at a White House briefing that even with Bush's decision, Libby has a felony conviction on his record, two years probation, a $250,000 fine and probable loss of his legal career. "So this is hardly a slap on the wrist," Snow said. "It is a very severe penalty.
While Democrats criticized the president, Snow said Bush was "getting pounded on the right for not granting a full pardon."
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who sentenced Libby to prison, declined Tuesday to discuss the case or his views on sentencing. "To now say anything about sentencing on the heels of yesterday's events will inevitably be construed as comments on the president's commutation decision, which would be inappropriate," the judge said in an e-mail.
With prison seeming all but certain for Libby, Bush on Monday suddenly spared Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. His move came just five hours after a federal appeals court panel ruled that Libby could not delay his prison term. The Bureau of Prisons had already assigned Libby a prison identification number.
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Asked whether Cheney — who calls Libby a friend and who has enormous influence within the White House — had pressed for Bush to commute Libby's sentence, Snow said, "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."
"I'm sure that the vice president may have expressed an opinion. ... He may have recused himself. I honestly don't know," Snow said.
However, the president made the decision without seeking any advice from the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Justice Department, the White House had previously said.
Snow defended Bush's decision to not follow the usual course of running the matter past the Justice Department, saying details of the case were still fresh in everybody's mind, and that the president did not need to be brought up to date on details.
A White House apology
Democrats have charged cronyism in Bush's sparing Libby jail time. But Snow said, "The president does not look upon this as granting a favor to anyone, and to do that is to misconstrue the nature of the deliberations."
"He spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to maintain the faith in the jury system, and he did that by keeping intact the conviction and some of the punishments," Snow said.
Snow was asked by a reporter if anyone in the administration would ever apologize for what led to the entire investigation - public disclosure that Valerie Plame, the wife of anti-war critic Joseph Wilson, was an undercover CIA officer.
"Yeah, it's improper to be leaking those names," Snow said. Pressed on whether someone in the administration owed the American public an apology, Snow said, "I'll apologize. Done."
Wilson, meanwhile, suggested the president's decision was an effort to protect Cheney and perhaps his own office.
In an interview with APTN, he called Bush's action "a continuation of the cover-up for which Scooter Libby was originally convicted."
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald disputed Bush's assertion that the prison term was excessive. Libby was sentenced under the same laws as other criminals, Fitzgerald said. "It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals."
Some lawyers said Bush's statement about Libby's harsh sentence showed that the administration was out of touch with the reality of today's federal sentencing guidelines. People like Libby — first-time, nonviolent offenders — frequently receive lengthy sentences.
"This was a very common sentence, not a startling sentence," said Scott L. Fredericksen, a former federal prosecutor who currently works as a defense lawyer in Washington.
Because he was not pardoned, Libby remains the highest-ranking White House official convicted of a crime since the Iran-Contra affair.
That didn't stop an avalanche of criticism from Democrats.
"Libby's conviction was the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Bush's decision showed the president "condones criminal conduct."
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