In what can only be seen as a political payoff, President Bush commuted the 30-month prison sentence that was part of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's perjury conviction. It's hard to be surprised by the move, given the craven way in which this administration operates. It's not a stretch to believe that Judge Reggie Walton was so adamant that Libby not be released pending his appeal because he suspected Bush might trump the entire investigation, trial, jury deliberation, and conviction. President Bush has nothing left to lose by taking this action. Conservatives are upset with him over immigration and a number of other issues. Liberals have been on the hunt for the president's head from Florida in 2000; Iraq has the left in an absolute lather. So what if he pokes a finger in the blindfolded eye of Lady Justice?
President Bush's statement, released on a quiet Monday in July when many people are focused on their Independence Day holiday, has the uncomfortable scent of quid pro quo. Part of the statement reads: "I respect the jury's verdict, but I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison." While he claims to respect the jury's verdict, he certainly doesn't respect the judge's sentence. Overturning a verdict of such a significant crime -- perjury and obstruction of justice -- is disrespectful of the criminal justice. Now that the commutation is granted, Libby has no incentive to come clean on the rest of the story that he couldn't recollect during grand jury testimony or during the trial. Bush/Cheney looked out for Libby, now Libby will look out for Bush/Cheney.
Conservatives are hailing the decision, while liberals are outraged. The response to it all is predictable, but what isn't so clear is what impact this will have on the remainder of the president's term and the Republican presidential nomination fight.
In many ways, the things can't get much worse for the president. Gallup and CNN polls showed that nearly 70% of those queried opposed a pardon for Libby. Given the arrogance surrounding the way in which this administration has operated -- Iraq, domestic surveillance, Guantanamo Bay, etc. -- it's difficult to see how public opinion could have swayed the president. Moreover, it's unlikely that his approval rating, firmly settled in the high-20s, can be improved by this or any other action he takes.
Republican presidential candidates have a problem. On the one hand, they want to rally around a loyal party operative who has served their needs. On the other hand, their support for Libby suggests that the rule of law is less important to them than the rule of political loyalty. How can they run on law and order when their party's standard-bearer shows such contempt for the criminal justice system. That won't sit well with general election voters who are tired of a status quo that includes increasing amounts of corruption and cronyism. These candidates have to balance their political inclinations with the will of the people.
What strikes me in all this is that conservatives are likely to be only temporarily satisfied by all this and some still want the entire conviction tossed out. President Bush's decision to commute rather than pardon isn't enough for some.
So what message is being sent by the commutation? The obvious answer is: you can get away with perjury and virtually any other crime if you're close to the president. A better answer, though, is: the rule of law only applies to those who aren't well connected.
Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of Republicans and the Black Vote. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.