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Pardoning Scooter Libby is Trump's swampiest decision

On the campaign trail in 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump railed against the Iraq War (never mind his support for the 2003...

Posted: Apr 14, 2018 8:53 AM
Updated: Apr 14, 2018 8:53 AM

On the campaign trail in 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump railed against the Iraq War (never mind his support for the 2003 invasion), beat up on the Bush family political dynasty and, with three words that pulled together all that and more, promised to "drain the swamp" in Washington.

A couple years on, the bog remains thick with the creatures Trump promised to drive out. He's even introduced some new breeds. But there is nothing that Trump or his lieutenants have done that comes close, in sheer fetid swampiness, to pardoning the criminal former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a move the White House made official on Friday.

Americans have tragically short memories. For certain sorts of politicians, that can be a great gift. For Trump, it probably means the pardon will go down without much of a sustained uproar from even the liberal provinces. That's thanks in part to the sizable number of Democrats who have come to regard Bush-era malfeasance and scandal as petty or low-stakes when held up against Trump's behavior.

Inside the Beltway, the real prospect of a Libby pardon -- from when it was first reported on Thursday -- immediately became a Rob Mueller-related parlor game. The big question: Was Trump considering the move as a way of signaling to Paul Manafort and others caught up in the special counsel investigation that he will reward them for keeping mum?

"So what's the message here?" former Bush White House ethics chief and ubiquitous Trump critic Richard Painter asked in a tweet. "Lie to a grand jury to protect political superiors and you will get a full pardon?"

Maybe so. That Trump would send up a flare to his old allies, some of them already cooperating with Mueller, makes some tactical sense. He's also expressed sympathy in the past for Libby, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer in 2007 that Cheney's man "probably took a bullet for the administration." But again, that's all speculation -- and, for now at least -- beside the point.

What we know for sure -- because his conviction capped off a years-long scandal -- is that Libby was found guilty in 2007 of obstruction of justice, twice perjuring himself before a grand jury, and lying to FBI agents during their probe into who leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame in 2003, shortly after the Iraq War began.

That summer, Plame's husband, the former diplomat Joe Wilson, accused the administration in a New York Times op-ed that summer of twisting "intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program ... to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

Concluding that Cheney's office had dismissed evidence, turned up by Wilson, that dented the case for invading Iraq, Wilson concluded his piece by writing: "The act of war is the last option of a democracy, taken when there is a grave threat to our national security. More than 200 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq already. We have a duty to ensure that their sacrifice came for the right reasons."

Fifteen years on, nearly 5,000 US service members are among the Iraq War dead. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed. The violence continues to this day, most notably as part of the fight to permanently uproot ISIS.

Libby was one of the leading proponents of the war. President George W. Bush spared him from serving prison time, commuting a 30-month sentence, deeming it "excessive." From there, a long campaign -- spearheaded by Libby's powerful friends in Washington's permanent ruling class -- began its work. Among the more vocal Libby defenders, according to The New York Times, is new Trump national security adviser John Bolton.

Hours after word came down on Friday, a spokesman for Bush said of the pardon, "President Bush is very pleased for Scooter and his family."

In its own statement, the Trump White House set out its reasoning, then offered this instructive coda -- emphasis mine.

"Before his conviction, Mr. Libby had rendered more than a decade of honorable service to the Nation as a public servant at the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the White House. His record since his conviction is similarly unblemished, and he continues to be held in high regard by his colleagues and peers."

On this latter point, there should be no doubt. They'll be partying in the swamp tonight.

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