One of the curious ambiguities of the Libby commutation controversy is what role Dick Cheney played in the process. As the recent Washington Post series made clear, not much happens in this White House without the VP’s direct involvement (i.e., dictation), but what did Cheney do to keep his former chief of staff out of jail?
The Bush gang has been more than a little cagey about the details, which generally hints at the answer. The Post reported this week, “An unanswered question last night was Vice President Cheney’s role in advocating leniency for his former chief of staff and alter ego.”
Reporters tried to get a few more details out of Tony Snow on Tuesday, but came up short. At one point, Snow told the press corps, “I’m sure that the vice president may have expressed an opinion,” but added shortly thereafter, “[Cheney] may have recused himself.”
Michael Isikoff sheds some light on the subject, noting the internal deliberations.
The president was conflicted. He hated the idea that a loyal aide would serve time. Hanging over his deliberations was Cheney, who had said he was “very disappointed” with the jury’s verdict. Cheney did not directly weigh in with Fielding, but nobody involved had any doubt where he stood. “I’m not sure Bush had a choice,” says one of the advisers. “If he didn’t act, it would have caused a fracture with the vice president.”
Well, we certainly can’t have that, now can we? (Bush may not have had a “choice”? It’s good to know who’s in charge in the West Wing.)
Isikoff also added an interesting detail I hadn’t heard before: Bush asked White House Counsel Fred Fielding to help determine whether Libby’s jury made the right call. Far from respecting the verdict, as the White House has been emphasizing all week, the president hoped to find that the jurors came to an unreasonable conclusion, which in turn would make it easier for Bush to intervene.
Fielding came up empty. As Isikoff explained it, he “reluctantly concluded that the jury had reached a reasonable verdict: the evidence was strong that Libby testified falsely about his role in the leak.”
In other words, the president learned just how guilty Libby really was, but commuted the sentence anyway because he “hated the idea that a loyal aide would serve time.”
Well, that and the fact that Libby still had plenty of damaging information about Bush and Cheney that they needed to keep under wraps.