Updated at 6:28 p.m. ET
President Trump took the extraordinary step Friday of overruling the judgment of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and granting a pardon to I. Lewis Libby Jr., who served as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Libby, known as "Scooter," was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2007 in connection with the leak of a CIA officer's identity. Bush had commuted Libby's sentence but did not issue a full pardon.
"I don't know Mr. Libby, but for years, I have heard that he has been treated unfairly," Trump said in a statement from the White House. (Full statement below.) "Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life.'"
The Libby pardon is only the latest twist in a story of spies, leaks, accusations of hidden motives and abuse of power. In pardoning Libby, Trump, who complains almost daily about leaks, put himself in the peculiar position of pardoning a man convicted of involvement in a national-security leak.
There has been no indication that Trump had a particular interest in Libby's case until recently, when John Bolton, an ally of Cheney's, took over as national security adviser at the White House.
Democrats reacted sharply to Trump's pardoning. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House intelligence committee, linked the pardoning to the Russia investigation. Pelosi said the pardon shows Trump is willing to pardon those who lie under oath — and that is a "threat" to the Mueller investigation "and to our democracy."
Asked about it at a briefing with reporters, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders disputed the notion that the president pardoned Libby to send a message in the Russia probe.
She called it the "right thing to do" and wouldn't comment further on why he did it because Trump doesn't know Libby.
Conservatives have long championed Libby's cause, but Bush, while commuting Libby's 2 1/2-year sentence, thus saving him from prison, refused to pardon him.
Pressed repeatedly by Cheney at the time of Libby's conviction, Bush asked a team of White House lawyers to examine the case. But when they concluded that the jury had substantial reason to convict, Bush told his vice president that he would not pardon Libby, prompting an angry Cheney to reply, "You are leaving a good man wounded upon the field of battle."
In his own book, Bush said he was taken aback by the harshness of the remark. "In eight years, I had never seen Dick like this, or even close to it. I worried that the friendship we had built was about to be severely tested."
Indeed, according to friends of both men, the relationship never was the same between the two men.
In pardoning Libby, Trump has not done much concrete for Cheney's former chief of staff. Libby was disbarred after his conviction but reinstated in 2016. In some jurisdictions, a convicted felon also loses the right to vote, but in the District of Columbia and Maryland, felons can vote once they have served their time in prison.
A pardon grants forgiveness for a crime, not exoneration, but many see it as removing the stigma of a conviction.
Trump's pardon may send another message — that he is willing to use his pardon power to reward loyalists and to punish prosecutors he sees as running amok.
Spies, spooks and a Comey connection
Libby was prosecuted by Patrick Fitzgerald, a longtime career prosecutor, appointed to investigate the leak of the CIA officer's identity by then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey.
Comey went on to become FBI director and was fired by Trump, a move that led to the appointment of Robert Mueller, another former FBI director whom Trump almost daily accuses of conducting a "witch hunt."
The saga that led up to Libby's conviction began in 2003 when Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat, wrote a New York Times op-ed column, contending that Cheney had deliberately ignored evidence showing that Iraq was not seeking to acquire material needed to build nuclear weapons.
Wilson's claim, undercutting the justification for waging war against Iraq, was based on material he gathered in Niger for the CIA.
To undercut Wilson's claim, administration officials told reporters that he had been sent on the fact-finding mission at the behest of his wife, Valerie Plame, who worked at the CIA.
Publication of that leak blew her cover, a potential federal crime. Libby was not charged with disclosing a CIA officer's identity, however. Nor was the man who actually did blow Plame's cover, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. But Armitage readily admitted his involvement to prosecutors and a grand jury.
Libby, however, was convicted on four counts of obstruction of justice, lying to the FBI and lying to the grand jury. He maintained that the differences between his testimony and others was just a matter of a different recollection of events.
In all, eight witnesses, many of them high-ranking members of the Bush administration, contradicted Libby's testimony. And the judge in sentencing him called the evidence "overwhelming."
Bush, in examining the case afterward, was willing to save Libby from going to prison by commuting his sentence, but he was not willing to pardon him.
Plame said in a statement Friday afternoon that "Trump's pardon is not based on the truth," reiterating that Bush reviewed the facts and decided against a pardon.
Fitzgerald, the prosecutor in the case, also said in a statement that Trump's decision to pardon Libby "purports to be premised on the notion that Libby was an innocent man convicted on the basis of inaccurate testimony caused by the prosecution. That is false. There was no impropriety in the preparation of any witness, and we did not tell witnesses what to say or withhold any information that should have been disclosed. Mr. Libby's conviction was based upon the testimony of multiple witnesses, including the grand jury testimony of Mr. Libby himself, as well as numerous documents."
Trump's decision to pardon Libby is one of three pardons he has issued in his nearly 15 months in office. Most notably, he pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff whose crackdown on immigrants in the U.S. illegally, resulted in a conviction for criminal contempt.
That was a charge supported by the Trump Justice Department — until the president pardoned him.
Here's the full statement from the White House:
"Today, President Donald J. Trump issued an Executive Grant of Clemency (Full Pardon) to I. 'Scooter' Lewis Libby, former Chief of Staff to Vice President Richard Cheney, for convictions stemming from a 2007 trial. President George W. Bush commuted Mr. Libby's sentence shortly after his conviction. Mr. Libby, nevertheless, paid a $250,000 fine, performed 400 hours of community service, and served two years of probation.
"In 2015, one of the key witnesses against Mr. Libby recanted her testimony, stating publicly that she believes the prosecutor withheld relevant information from her during interviews that would have altered significantly what she said. The next year, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals unanimously reinstated Mr. Libby to the bar, reauthorizing him to practice law. The Court agreed with the District of Columbia Disciplinary Counsel, who stated that Mr. Libby had presented 'credible evidence' in support of his innocence, including evidence that a key prosecution witness had 'changed her recollection of the events in question.'
"Before his conviction, Mr. Libby had rendered more than a decade of honorable service to the Nation as a public servant at the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the White House. His record since his conviction is similarly unblemished, and he continues to be held in high regard by his colleagues and peers.
"In light of these facts, the President believes Mr. Libby is fully worthy of this pardon. 'I don't know Mr. Libby,' said President Trump, 'but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly. Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life.' "
NPR political reporter Jessica Taylor contributed.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump today took the extraordinary step of overruling his Republican predecessor George W. Bush and granting a pardon to Lewis Scooter Libby. He served as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby was convicted in 2007 of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Joining us to discuss this turn of events is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. And, Nina, this is going back more than a decade. What happened?
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Well, Libby was accused and then convicted in connection with the leak of a CIA officer's identity, and that of course can be a crime. Because the attorney general was recused, the then-deputy attorney general, James Comey - yes, Audie, that James Comey - appointed longtime career prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to conduct the investigation.
Fitzgerald ultimately didn't charge anyone with the actual leak. But he did charge Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, with obstruction and lying to the FBI and lying to the grand jury. And Libby was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.
CORNISH: But to be clear, he didn't actually go to prison, right?
TOTENBERG: Correct. Vice President Cheney lobbied hard with President Bush asking that Libby be granted a pardon. Bush then asked a team of White House lawyers to examine the case, and they concluded there was substantial evidence justifying the conviction. So Bush told his vice president he wouldn't grant the pardon. Instead he would commute Libby's prison sentence.
And an angry Cheney then accused Bush of, quote, "leaving a good man wounded on the battlefield." And Bush said in his book that he was taken aback by the harshness of Cheney's remark. Aides to both men have said that after that the two were never really close again.
CORNISH: Why would President Trump choose to grant this pardon, a pardon that Bush refused?
TOTENBERG: It is rather peculiar that a president who complains daily about leaks is pardoning a man convicted of involvement in a national security leak. But conservatives allied with former Vice President Cheney have long championed a pardon. And one of them, by the way, is John Bolton, the new national security adviser to the president. And of course the pardon may send another message - that Trump is willing to use his pardon power to reward loyalists and to punish prosecutors he sees as running amok.
CORNISH: So this goes back to James Comey, right? I mean, he appointed the Libby prosecutor.
TOTENBERG: Yes, Comey, who went on to become FBI director and was himself fired by Trump, leading to the appointment of Robert Muller, another former FBI director who Trump almost daily accuses of conducting a witch hunt.
CORNISH: President Trump said in a written statement today that he was pardoning Scooter Libby because one of the witnesses against him recanted her testimony and claimed that the prosecutor misled her.
TOTENBERG: That would be Judith Miller, a former reporter for The New York Times and a one-time NPR freelance reporter. She spent 85 days in jail refusing to testify about her conversations with Libby related to the leak. And she testified only after Libby released her from her promise to him of confidentiality. But of course she was one of at least eight witnesses, many of them high-ranking Bush administration officials and CIA officers as well as other reporters, who contradicted Libby's story. Libby's lawyers argued that his statements to the grand jury and the FBI weren't lies. They were simply different recollections than others had.
CORNISH: President Bush in the end saved Lewis Libby from jail. What does Libby get from a pardon?
TOTENBERG: Well, a pardon doesn't void your conviction. It is official forgiveness. Libby was disbarred after the conviction. But in 2016 he was reinstated, and in reinstating Libby the Bar Association did mention the Miller recantation. Basically I think Libby probably gets at this point is some sense of vindication, a sense that his name has been wiped clean of a stain.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Nina Totenberg. Nina, thank you.
TOTENBERG: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY PECORARO'S "FINDING PARKING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.