In a week of political turmoil in Washington, President Donald Trump’s pardon of Lewis Libby did not provoke the outrage it deserved.
Libby, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential advisor Karl Rove and State Department official Richard Armitage, deliberately revealed the identity of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame. They did so entirely for their own political revenge, putting Plame, her family, and others in danger. Libby then lied to federal investigators about what he did and was convicted in federal court of obstruction of justice.
I am very familiar with the facts of what happened because I was the lawyer for Valerie Plame and her husband, Joseph Wilson, in a suit for money damages against Libby, Cheney, Rove, and Armitage.
Trump is simply wrong in making Libby out to be a victim deserving of a pardon.
I should disclose that I am very familiar with the facts of what happened because I was the lawyer for Valerie Plame and her husband, Joseph Wilson, in a suit for money damages against Libby, Cheney, Rove, and Armitage. The case was dismissed on procedural grounds, but the underlying facts were never in dispute.
In 2002, the CIA sent Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson, a former ambassador, to Africa to investigate rumors that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger. Wilson concluded that the rumors were false and wrote a report saying this.
Nonetheless, in his State of the Union Address in January 2003, President George W. Bush declared that Iraq was seeking to buy significant amounts of uranium in Africa. Wilson, in an oped in the New York Times and then on Sunday morning talk shows, said Bush’s statement was false.
This infuriated Cheney and his aides Libby and Rove. They had learned, likely from Armitage, that Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent and they leaked this information to reporters. At the direction of Cheney, Libby told New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper that Plame was a CIA operative.
Soon after, in July 2003, columnist Robert Novak revealed Plame to be a CIA agent. Karl Rove reportedly called Chris Matthews, host of a television program, and said Plame was “fair game.” This became the title of her book on what occurred and then a movie starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts.
Libby lied to investigators and in 2007 he was convicted in federal court of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and two counts of perjury. He was not charged for revealing Plame’s CIA status. His sentence included a $250,000 fine, 30 months in prison and two years of probation.
The federal court of appeal affirmed his conviction. But President George W. Bush commuted Libby's sentence, removing the jail term while leaving in place the fine and probation, calling the sentence “excessive.”
In light of all of this, Trump’s pardon of Libby was seriously misguided. “I don't know Mr. Libby,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House. “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.” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters at the White House last Friday, “Many people think that Scooter Libby was a victim of a special counsel gone amok.”
Libby participated in the despicable act of revealing the identity of a secret agent, ending her career and putting lives in danger, and then tried to cover it up. A jury in federal court found him guilty and the federal court of appeals affirmed the conviction. Yet, this gets characterized by the White House as Libby being treated unfairly and persecuted by a special prosecutor.
I don’t think Trump and Conway really care about Libby. The pardon was meant to send a message. It was a chance to criticize special prosecutors, at the end of a week when it appears that the prosecution is coming ever closer to Trump with a federal court authorizing a search of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s home and office. Also, Libby’s pardon was a message to Cohen and others that Trump has their back with his pardon power.
Trump had the constitutional power to pardon Libby. A president may pardon anyone accused or convicted of a federal crime. But there is a perverse irony in Trump blasting James Comey as a “leaker” and then on same day pardoning someone who engaged in exactly that behavior and then lied about it.
It is yet another instance of Trump ignoring the most basic precept of the rule of law: No one is above the law and those who violate it should held accountable.
Erwin Chemerinsky is dean and professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law; firstname.lastname@example.org.