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Pressure on Bush for a Libby pardon

Supporters' calls trigger instant condemnation

Lewis I. "Scooter" Libby and his wife, Harriet, faced the media as they left the US Federal Courthouse in Washington Tuesday. (Jason Reed/REUTERS)

WASHINGTON -- President Bush came under pressure yesterday from supporters of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to pardon the former White House aide convicted this week of perjury and obstruction of justice, setting up a difficult decision that could inflame an already volatile political environment.

Libby's attorney and allies said Bush should not wait for Libby to be sentenced and should use his executive power to spare Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff the risk of prison for lying to a grand jury and FBI agents about his role in leaking the name of an undercover CIA officer.

But the prospect of a pardon triggered instant condemnation from Democrats and caution signals from some Republicans wary of another furor.

Defense lawyers for Libby said they were focused on seeking a new trial and appealing Tuesday's jury verdict, while making clear that they believe the president should step in. "Our number one goal is to see Scooter's conviction wiped out by the courts and see him vindicated," attorney William Jeffress Jr. said in an interview. "Now, I've seen all the calls for a pardon. And I agree with them. To me, he should have been pardoned six months ago or a year ago."

In his first comments on the case since the verdict, Bush told CNN that he has to "respect that conviction" but "was sad for a man who had worked in my administration." He did not rule out a pardon but implied it is not imminent. "I'm pretty much going to stay out of it until the course -- the case has finally run its final -- the course it's going to take," he told Univision during an interview previewing a trip to Latin America that begins today.

No one knows better than Libby how politically hazardous a pardon can be. Before he became Cheney's chief of staff, Libby served as an attorney for Marc Rich, the financier whose pardon by President Bill Clinton in the last hours of his administration provoked a storm of complaints. Now he finds himself in the same situation as his onetime client, hoping for the beneficence of a president.

The pardon power is enshrined in the Constitution and is completely up to the president's discretion. In recent decades, however, presidents have been increasingly reluctant to use it for fear of political trouble. When they have exercised it in controversial cases, they typically have waited until their terms were at an end, as Clinton did with Rich, Susan McDougal, Roger Clinton, and others, and as George H.W. Bush did in pardoning former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and others implicated in the Iran-Contra investigation. Libby is the highest-ranking White House official convicted of a felony since that scandal.

Otherwise, pardons in recent times generally have been granted to people convicted years earlier of non violent crimes, who have completed their sentences and redeemed themselves. Bush has granted 113 pardons over six years, nearly a modern low, and has never pardoned anyone who had not already completed his sentence and been released from prison. He has commuted the sentences of three others.

Libby faces a likely prison sentence of 1 1/2 to three years for lying about his role in the disclosure of the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson, wife of war critic and former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. But he could avoid jail time until after the 2008 presidential elections through appeals, according to legal specialists, timing that would make a pardon more politically plausible.

Libby's defense team intends to seek a new trial and possibly appeal his conviction on four felony counts. US District Judge Reggie Walton has scheduled sentencing for June 5, and many lawyers expect him to allow Libby to remain out of prison pending appeals that could last through late 2008.

Some Republicans said yesterday that Bush should wait for that process to play out. "It's probably too early for the White House to reach a determination," said former representative Robert Walker, Republican of Pennsylvania. Libby "is certainly entitled to take this into the appeals process, and I don't think it should be interfered with."

But if special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald insists that Libby begin serving his sentence right away and Walton agrees, it could force the question sooner. "Then the issue could ripen very fast," said Bradford Berenson, a former Bush White House lawyer, who said he expects a debate within the White House about what to do.

"It seems likely that the vice president will advocate for a pardon," he said. "What's less clear is whether the president would agree."

Libby allies urged Bush to move right away to put an end to a prosecution they consider blown out of proportion. "He absolutely should do it," said Victoria Toensing, a former federal prosecutor who has been one of Libby's most prominent public supporters. "It was a case that never should have been brought in the first place. "