The verdict in the I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby trial was more than a judgment against one of the Bush administration’s most senior aides: It was also seen as an indictment of the White House political operation he helped design and direct.
And it undermined the administration’s credibility at a time when the president is trying to build support for his Iraq war policy in the face of increasingly outspoken opposition from Democrats and deepening skepticism among voters.
Libby’s conviction on charges of lying to federal investigators raises another difficult issue, one the White House may find it hard to shake off as the 2008 political campaign gathers speed: the possibility of a pardon.
Libby’s conviction on four counts of lying to federal investigators about the Valerie Plame leak case hits the administration on several levels: In addition to eroding its already weak credibility on Iraq, it sullies the integrity of an administration that came into office with pledges of moral rectitude.
Getting past those problems will be harder because the question of whether Bush should or would use his pardon power on Libby’s behalf probably will dog the White House through the 2008 presidential campaign and into the last days of his administration. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) threw down the gauntlet just minutes after the verdict was read.
“Lewis Libby has been convicted of perjury, but his trial revealed deeper truths about Vice President Cheney’s role in this sordid affair. Now President Bush must pledge not to pardon Libby for his criminal conduct,” Reid said in a statement.
Libby’s appeals will also keep the case in the spotlight.
Though many outside Washington saw the long trial as a kind of political circus, the charges were some of the most serious to be prosecuted in Washington in many years. As a result, the conviction may turn out to be a more serious blow to the administration than many may have foreseen.
“This administration was very scandal-free in its early years,” said David Gergen, a Republican political strategist and expert in damage control. “Now for the first time they have a criminal taint at the highest reaches of the president’s circle. That’s something they are not going to be able to erase.”
The verdict came amid a seeming torrent of bad news for the White House.
“Another red-letter day for the administration,” said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was President Reagan’s final White House chief of staff, noting other news on Tuesday -- the deaths from a bomb attack in Iraq, congressional hearings on neglect of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and a “happy-talk speech” on Iraq by Bush to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“This cascade of bad news doesn’t stop, and it’s catching up to them,” Duberstein said, referring to Bush and Cheney.
The rough road ahead for the White House was signaled by the aggressive reactions of Democrats to news of the verdict -- and by the effort of many prominent Republicans to sidestep the development, rather than rush to the administration’s defense.
Democrats have long complained that Bush’s political aides have manipulated information and policy decisions -- both at home and overseas -- to a degree unprecedented in the recent past. They have blamed Cheney and his aides, as well as political strategist Karl Rove, for their highly political approach to the decision to depose Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq, as well as such issues as the abortive campaign to overhaul Social Security.
“The jury’s verdict confirms the lengths to which the White House -- particularly the office of the vice president -- was willing to go to conceal their effort to vilify anyone who spoke the truth about the flaws in their justification for war,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
“Today’s guilty verdicts are not solely about the acts of one individual,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “This trial provided a troubling picture of the inner workings of the Bush administration. The testimony unmistakably revealed -- at the highest levels of the Bush administration -- a callous disregard in handling sensitive national security information and a disposition to smear critics of the war in Iraq.”
For the most part, Republicans tried to dodge questions about the verdict.
“I’m not going to comment,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), when confronted with a question during a news conference, “except I will say I know Scooter Libby and I’ve always considered him to be a fine man and a dedicated public servant.”
Tom Griscom, who as White House communications director during the final two years of the Reagan administration was at the center of efforts to rebuild the president’s image and political standing after the Iran-Contra scandal, said that Bush, Cheney and their neoconservative advisors may not pay a huge price for Libby’s conviction.
That’s because their credibility was already damaged, he said.
The administration’s integrity had been successfully challenged some time ago, he said, as the reasons it cited for going to war in Iraq began to crumble. “It’s almost like this is just one more piece on ... that pile of lost credibility,” he said.
Griscom said that because Libby worked directly for Cheney, his conviction “taints the administration, but it doesn’t go directly into the Oval Office.”
“This is clearly aimed at the vice president’s office, not the Oval Office,” he said.
Kenneth Khachigian, a California Republican political consultant who has known Cheney since they both worked in the Nixon administration, said the verdict would have little political impact because “whatever negative elements there were played out at the time of the investigation and indictment. It’s not going to get any worse.”
One of the few Republicans who sounded a defiant note was Mary Matalin, a former aide to the vice president who serves as an outside advisor. Matalin said she did not think that there would be any “political fallout” for Cheney.
“Everyone is really sad,” Matalin said, adding that there was “lots of respect and affection for Scooter” among Cheney associates.
Presidents often suffer politically for issuing pardons, which helps explain why they usually wait until their final days in office to do so. And in the most high-profile cases, it can be up to the president’s successor to issue the pardon.
For instance, it was Bush’s father who pardoned six former Reagan administration officials, including former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger in 1992.
Gergen said that Bush was unlikely to consider a pardon until after the 2008 presidential campaign. Even then it would be politically difficult, unless Libby’s expected appeal was past and he was already serving his sentence.