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Does the Scooter Libby pardon have implications for the Russia probe?

President Trump on Friday pardoned Scooter Libby, a top aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney, 11 years after his conviction for lying to investigators and obstructing justice. Trump didn’t know Libby, so why do it now? To discuss the possible implications for the Russia investigation, John Yang talks with Richard Ben-Veniste, the former chief lawyer in the Watergate Task Force.

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  • John Yang:

    Now back to President Trump's pardon of a Bush administration official.

    In a statement, the president said he doesn't know Scooter Libby, but heard for years that he had been mistreated.

    I Lewis Libby, who goes by Scooter, was Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. He came under investigation in 2003, after speculation that he leaked the identity of a secret CIA operative Valerie Plame, to newspaper reporters. Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had criticized the Bush administration's rationale for invading Iraq.

    In 2007, a federal court found him guilty of four felonies, including lying to investigators and a grand jury, and obstructing justice. Libby was sentenced to 2.5 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Before he went to prison, President George W. Bush commuted his sentence, but rejected pleas from Cheney to pardon him.

    Before Libby's pardon, today, Plame questioned Mr. Trump's motivations.

  • Valerie Plame:

    This is definitely not about me. It's absolutely not about Scooter Libby. It's is about Donald Trump and his future. The message being sent is, you can commit perjury, and I will pardon, if it protects me, and I deem that you are loyal to me.

  • John Yang:

    To discuss the pardon and its possible implications for the Russia investigation, we're joined by Richard Ben-Veniste. He's a partner at the Washington office of Mayer Brown. He served on the 9/11 Commission and he was chief of the special prosecutor's Watergate Task Force.

    Mr. Ben-Veniste, thanks and welcome.

    First of all, what's your reaction to this pardon?

  • Richard Ben-Veniste:

    I think it's the president flexing his pardon power.

    It also serves to poke a finger in the eye of the intelligence community. The disclosures relating to Valerie Plame that ended her career, effectively, as an undercover operative, case officer of the CIA, was a big blow, and they're feeling it.

  • John Yang:

    There was a lot made at the time during the trial that Libby was protecting the vice president. Is this a message? Is a message being sent to people in the Russia investigation?

  • Richard Ben-Veniste:

    I think the message is there, and it has been repeated often before this pardon that the president might exercise his pardon power with respect to individuals such as Mr. Flynn, such as Mr. Manafort, and such as perhaps others who are caught up in the investigation of the Russian interference in the 2016 election.

    It's interesting to note that, in Watergate, the offers of presidential clemency that were secretly made to Watergate burglars were a part of the conspiracy to obstruct justice.

    Here, in bright lights, there is discussion of whether individuals who may have damaging information about the president will be pardoned or subject to clemency.

  • John Yang:

    So could you make an obstruction of justice case, do you think?

  • Richard Ben-Veniste:

    Well, it's a matter of the president's intent in exercising a constitutionally given power, the power of the pardon, which is explicit. Only if it is exercised for corrupt purposes and with a corrupt intent would there be a violation of law.

  • John Yang:

    There's been a lot of talk about the president threatening or talking about firing the deputy attorney general, Rosenstein, as a way of getting someone who might fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel. It reminds a lot of people of the Saturday Night Massacre during Watergate.

    Would that amount to — I mean, could you make an obstruction of justice case out of that?

  • Richard Ben-Veniste:

    You could, again, if there was evidence that the intention, if such a firing were to take place, was corrupt, whether it was for the purpose of obstructing the investigation.

  • John Yang:

    And this seems like — we don't know what's going on inside the special counsel's investigation. You have been inside a special counsel's investigation.

    It seems like a big week this week, when we had the raids on Michael Cohen's office and residence and the president's personal attorney. Does it feel to you, given your experience, that we're at an important point in this investigation?

  • Richard Ben-Veniste:

    Well, now we have tapes, John, that are alleged to have been made by Mr. Cohen. We don't know what's on them, and we understand they have been seized.

    We have new information, as a result of the U.S. attorney's office filing a response to Mr. Cohen's attorneys' attempt to freeze the material and keep it from the hands of the U.S. attorney's office.

    And there are so many parallels to Watergate now. We have had hush money, tapes, electronic interference with the opposition party. Now we have Russia involved. So, there's so much here to unpack, and the special counsel is doing exactly what he should be doing in maintaining silence.

    There have been no leaks, just as there were no leaks in Watergate, where we had explosive information on the secret tapes that we obtained. Yet none of that leaked out, and that's just the way Mr. Mueller should be conducting his investigation.

  • John Yang:

    Richard Ben-Veniste, former Watergate prosecutor, thanks so much.

  • Richard Ben-Veniste:

    Thank you, John.

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