"I don't know Mr. Libby," President Donald Trump said when announcing the pardon of former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. "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."
However, since his 2007 felony conviction -- and his commuted 30-month prison sentence -- I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby has regained his right to vote and his license to practice law. Trump's decision, therefore, raises the critical question: Why is he granting a pardon for Libby at all?
Libby spent years overseeing a mini fiefdom in the West Wing. He had an unprecedented triple title: Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser as well as assistant to the President. In 2007, he was found guilty of lying about his role in the leak of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to the press and was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Though George W. Bush commuted the sentence, Cheney insisted then that Libby should have been granted a full presidential pardon.
When I interviewed Cheney a month after Trump won the presidential election, it surprised me that eight years after leaving the White House he was just as angry about Bush's refusal to pardon his longtime right-hand man as he was the day he left the White House.
It was the most passionate he became in our more-than-hourlong discussion about the vice presidency for my next book. I asked Cheney if he would be pushing for a pardon for Libby (in the weeks between the election and our conversation, he said he had talked with incoming Vice President Mike Pence several times) but he would not answer the question directly.
Friends say they do not think anything bothered Cheney more than what he described as leaving a man on the battlefield. Libby was usually by his side when he received the top-secret President's Daily Brief, an intelligence summary compiled by the CIA, in the early morning hours at the vice president's residence, and he was Cheney's closest adviser in the White House. "I did everything I could [to convince Bush to pardon him]. Without question, it was the most tense element of the relationship between myself and the President," Cheney said in an interview at his home in suburban Washington. "I still want to see a pardon, that's the only thing that I think is justified by the circumstances ... It's a travesty. ..."
"We had a very, very heated exchange the last time we had lunch in the White House the week of the inaugural," Cheney told me, of an exchange with Bush. "It's a subject we don't discuss."
The decision not to pardon Libby clearly weighed on Bush, too. Riding together in the motorcade to the Capitol with his successor, Barack Obama, Bush advised him to come up with a pardon policy early on in his administration and to stick to it, no matter what. After Obama's inauguration, Cheney and Libby did not see each other for more than a year. Since leaving the White House, Bush has described his relationship with Cheney as "cordial." "But he lives in Washington and we live in Dallas," Bush told C-SPAN.
Trump's decision to reverse course on Bush's approach may be motivated by several factors. While it could be purely out of the kindness of his heart, it may also have been done as a personal favor to Cheney, who has been advising Vice President Mike Pence.
The President might also be sending a message to his close aides Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, who are embroiled in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. He may be indicating that he will be willing to pardon them, too, should he need to. After all, if Trump is willing to pardon a man he does not even know, then pardoning his own former aides willing to protect him from Mueller's investigation would seem entirely possible.
But the pardon also shows his about-face on the Bush White House. During the Republican primary, Trump called the war in Iraq "a big, fat mistake" and said the US invasion "destabilized the Middle East." Now he has made one of the war's leading proponents, John Bolton, his national security adviser, and he has granted its chief architect, Cheney, his greatest wish.
"I've got a lot of confidence in Mike," Cheney told me. And with Trump's surprise pardon, it seems Pence has repaid Cheney for his advice.