WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Monday spared former White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby a prison term, enraging Democrats who accused Bush of abusing power in a case that has fueled debate over the Iraq war.
Stalwart conservatives in Bush’s Republican party had pressured him to pardon Libby -- Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff -- and saw him as the victim of an overly zealous prosecutor when he was sentenced last month to 2-1/2 years in prison for obstructing a CIA leak probe.
Bush stopped short of an outright pardon, leaving intact a $250,000 fine and Libby’s two-years’ probation. A senior White House official said Bush felt it was important to respect the jury process that convicted Libby of perjury.
“I respect the jury’s verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive,” Bush said in a statement. “Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby’s sentence that required him to spend 30 months in prison.”
The announcement came at the start of the Independence Day holiday week with Congress in recess and at the end of a day in which the news was dominated by Bush’s high-level talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Democrats who have launched several investigations into Bush administration actions immediately blasted the decision.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid called Bush’s action “disgraceful.” He said Libby’s conviction was “the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war.”
He said the president had the power to commute Libby’s sentence but “history will judge him harshly for using that power to benefit his own Vice President’s chief of staff who was convicted of such a serious violation of law.”
“As Independence Day nears, we are reminded that one of the principles our forefathers fought for was equal justice under the law. This commutation completely tramples on that principle,” said a frequent Bush critic, New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer.
Cheney, who was distressed by Libby’s conviction, was described by a spokeswoman as supporting the president’s decision.
A federal judge ruled last month that Libby would have to report to prison in six to eight weeks. An appeals court on Monday rejected Libby’s request to remain free while he appealed his conviction.
Libby was sentenced to prison for lying and obstructing an investigation into who blew the cover of a CIA officer, Valerie Plame, whose husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, had criticized the Iraq war.
Plame said the unmasking destroyed her career and was retaliation after her husband accused the administration of manipulating intelligence to build its case for the Iraq war.
Bush’s decision left in place an order that Libby pay a $250,000 fine and spend two years on probation.
“He will remain on probation. The significant fines imposed by the judge will remain in effect,” Bush said. “The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant, and private citizen will be long-lasting.”
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