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President Bush Commutes Libby 30-Month Jail Term

July 2, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The first story is the announcement by the White House early this evening — in fact, moments ago — that President Bush commuted the prison sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff.

Libby had been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for his role in the CIA leak scandal. The president’s action means Libby will remain free.

For reaction, we go to Mark Halperin, senior political analyst for Time magazine — he joins us from Iowa — and from NewsHour senior correspondent Gwen Ifill, who’s in New Hampshire.

Hello to you both. And this just happened, so I realize I’m asking both of you to react to something that’s fresh in the news.

Mark, what is your sense, having followed this story, along with the rest of us, of why the president did this? In his statement, he said that he thought the prison sentence was excessive.

MARK HALPERIN, Senior Political Analyst, Time Magazine: Well, Judy, I think he did what he wanted to do all along. My gut is that the president believes, as he said in his press release announcing this, that he saw both sides of the occasion, an unusually conciliatory release from this White House, laying out the arguments against doing anything to lessen Mr. Libby’s sentence.

But I think there were two things at play, both maybe not by coincidence, subjects of Washington Post stories very much talked about in political circles. One, the power of Vice President Cheney. The Post did a long series talking about just how influential Vice President Cheney was. And, of course, the vice president’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, is the person whose sentence was commuted here.

The other thing is the story in the Washington Post saying President Bush’s presidency is over, in effect. This president is not looking, at this point I don’t think, to reach out to Democrats. He’s looking to do what he wants to do. He’s looking to appeal to people who already support him. There will be a lot of support for what the president did on one side; on the other side, though, there’s going to be a lot of anger.

Pressure from Republican Party?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gwen, what's your sense of how much pressure the president might have been under from people in his own party to do what he did today?

GWEN IFILL: Well, Judy, there's been some pressure, no question about it. But up until now, the president had been resisting it. He had been saying he wanted to see how this thing played out on the legal field before he weighed in.

And, of course, today was the day that Scooter Libby finally got his final answer from the court, which was that they would not delay his sentence and it would have to begin immediately. In his statement that he put out from the White House that Mark alluded to, the president basically said that was the trigger for him.

And if you saw the statement which went on at some length weighing the pros and cons of this, it's clear that the White House had been looking through all of its legal books trying to figure out the way to justify what he was doing, which is that leaving the $250,000 fine intact, and lifting the 30-month prison sentence.

Also, the president is, if his critics are to believe, is entering severe lame-duck status, which means that at this point there's nothing politically to lose. Many of the Republican candidates on the trail have said that they were in favor of Scooter Libby's being given a pardon, as well as a lot of the people who are closest to the White House base.

So that's what we had. The president is also a very loyal man. And Scooter Libby was loyal to the president and the vice president, and he's being repaid in kind.

A strong reaction on both sides

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, you were saying the reaction, there's going to be strong reaction on both sides. What do you expect that reaction will be?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, I think the right will say that the president did the correct thing. As Gwen said, the presidential candidates seem supportive of this. Many members of Congress, many members of the political conservative community in Washington and around the country have made this a test of this president's loyalty to their cause. And, of course, many of those same people are mad at him on issues like immigration and spending, and so they'll be pleased by this.

The blogs are going to go crazy on the right. They're probably going to go more crazy on the left. They're going to say that this symbolizes and enacts yet another move by George Bush to put himself and his friends and his staff above the law. It's going to be a very negative reaction.

And, of course, although the White House said that the underlying offenses that the independent counsel, the special prosecutor, was looking into weren't the crimes that Libby was convicted of, a lot of Democrats, a lot of liberals are going to say this relates to the Iraq war and the president's failure to fess up to and own up to what he did in initiating the war and defending against its critics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gwen, picking up on what you said just a moment ago quickly, how do you think this does affect the remainder of this president's time in office, the fact that he's done this, again, not a pardon but a commutation? And what effect does it have on the presidential campaign?

The effect on the campaign

GWEN IFILL: Well, you have to look over at what happened in the past week. The president is having a hard time. He's losing Republicans on Iraq, as we have discussed. He's had a big loss on immigration. He really doesn't have that many things left on his plate that he's interested in getting out.

And so, right now, the point is do what he wants to do, as Mark said, and that's one of the things he wanted to do. And right now, there's no evidence that the president is spending a lot of time thinking about the people who are fighting to succeed him, so they're going to have to figure out what it means for them on their own.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gwen, just quickly, on the campaign?

GWEN IFILL: On the campaign, that's what I mean. I think that the candidates, the Republicans especially -- we know what the Democrats are going to say. They're going to say this is an outrage and all of that. And I think the Republicans are basically -- who are also trying to win a primary and trying to win over that base that Mark talked about -- are going to pretty much embrace it.