President Donald Trump issued a full pardon Friday to I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, suggesting he had been "treated unfairly" by a special counsel.
Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, was convicted in 2007 of lying to investigators and obstruction of justice following the 2003 leak of the covert identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. President George W. Bush later commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence but didn't issue a pardon despite intense pressure from Cheney.
"I don't know Mr. Libby," Trump said in a statement issued by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, "but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly. Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life."
The White House said a witness against Libby later changed her version of events and noted that he had a decade of public service and an "unblemished" record since. He had already been reinstated to the bar by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
In a statement, Libby said, "My family and I are immensely grateful to President Trump for his gracious decision to grant a pardon. For over a dozen years we have suffered under the weight of a terrible injustice. To his great credit, President Trump recognized this wrong and would not let it persist. For this honorable act, we shall forever be grateful."
Libby's case has been criticized by conservatives, who argue he was the victim of an overly zealous and politically motivated prosecution by a special counsel. Another twist is that the special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, was appointed by James Comey, deputy attorney general at the time. Comey later became head of the FBI but was fired by Trump and has since written a book highly critical of the president.
“Scooter Libby is one of the most capable, principled, and honorable men I have ever known," former Vice President Cheney said. "He is innocent, and he and his family have suffered for years because of his wrongful conviction. I am grateful that President Trump righted this wrong by issuing a full pardon to Scooter, and I am thrilled for Scooter and his family.”
In a brief comment from George W. Bush's office, the former president said: “President Bush is pleased for Scooter and his family.”
Fitzgerald denied that Libby's prosecution was unjust.
"While the President has the constitutional power to pardon, the decision to do so in this case purports to be premised on the notion that Libby was an innocent man convicted on the basis of inaccurate testimony caused by the prosecution," he said Friday. "This is false."
The criticism echoes critiques of Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading an investigation into Russian election interference, possible coordination with Trump associates and potential obstruction of justice by the president. Trump has called that probe a "witch hunt."
Libby's attorneys, Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, issued a statement thanking Trump for "addressing a gross injustice" they said was inflicted by Fitzgerald and Comey. Trump knows the attorneys and had had sought to add them to his legal team defending him in the Russian investigation, but it was determined diGenova and Toensing had conflicts of interest that would prevent them from joining.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway earlier Friday said, "Many people think that Scooter Libby was the victim of a special counsel gone amok." Asked if a pardon would be about Comey, Conway said no.
Before Trump issued the pardon, Plame said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Friday that the move would be "yet another indication of Donald Trump's deep disrespect for those that have served and sacrificed for this country — something that he hasn't done a lot of."
She said the timing seemed to be "aimed at an audience of three," including Trump's former campaign chief Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who have been charged with crimes stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe. Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and agreed to cooperate with the special counsel's office.
Plame also mentioned Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
"For Donald Trump this has everything to do with his future," she said. "What he's putting out there is the idea that you can pardon people for serious crimes against national security."
Plame later added in a statement that Trump's pardon "is not based on the truth," saying that "Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury in a fair trial."
The pardon was the third for Trump. He granted one last year for former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was awaiting sentencing for contempt of court. Trump also pardoned a U.S. Navy sailor who was convicted of taking photos of classified portions of a submarine.
It is noteworthy that the pardon deals with a case involving leaks to the press, given that Trump has raged against press leaks throughout his presidency. This week he slammed Comey as a "leaker" for authorizing a friend to disclose that he had kept memos about private conversations with Trump.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, said Trump's pardon of Libby "makes clear his contempt for the rule of law" and "sends a troubling signal to the President’s allies that obstructing justice will be rewarded." She called this "a threat to the integrity of the Special Counsel investigation, and to our democracy."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed back on this thinking, saying Friday that "one thing has nothing to do with the other" and that "every case should be reviewed on their own merits."
And Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, tweeted after the announcement to thank Trump, saying Libby is "a good, honorable and innocent man who was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct and a miscarriage of justice."