On Friday, President Donald Trump pardoned Scooter Libby.
At first glance, it was a very odd move.
After all, Trump conceded in issuing the pardon that he didn’t know Libby at all. And even George W. Bush, who worked closely with Libby when the latter served as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, refused to pardon Libby, who had been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2007 for his role in the leaking of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Bush commuted Libby’s sentence, resisting the pardon push led by Cheney among others. (Bush’s unwillingness to pardon Libby led to a break in the relationship between the outgoing president and his second-in-command.)
Other than acknowledging he didn’t know Libby, Trump offered only this comment about the pardon: “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.”
So, what gives? Why Libby? And as importantly, why now?
Here are a few ideas to explain Trump’s motivations in all of this:
1. He wants to send a message about out-of-control special prosecutors
Libby was charged and convicted as the result of a probe by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Libby allies argued that Fitzgerald was far too aggressive and ventured too far afield in his pursuit of Libby.
A special counsel who is overstepping? Sound familiar?
Just in case you missed the message, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is here to help. “Many people think that Scooter Libby was a victim of a special counsel gone amok,” said Conway in a Friday interview with Fox News.
In pardoning Libby, Trump can send a very clear message about how he feels about special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. (As if anyone living on planet Earth hadn’t received that message before.) He can also send a more subtle message about his willingness to step into the breach for those who he believes have been unfairly persecuted by a special prosecutor.
2. He is friends with Libby’s lawyers
Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, the husband-wife legal team, have an association with Libby. And they were expected to join Trump’s legal team last month before unnamed “conflicts” ended that plan. We all know that Trump is big one helping his friends and punishing his enemies. Which brings me to…
3. Comey appointed Fitzgerald as special counsel
After Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself in the Plame investigation, a newly installed deputy Attorney General named James Comey was put in charge of the probe. (The similarities between that probe and the Mueller probe are absolutely uncanny.) Comey picked Fitzgerald to run the investigation. And that appointment, eventually, led to Libby’s conviction. How could Trump pass up a chance to stick it in the eye of Comey? Answer: He couldn’t.
4. Trump has never liked the Bushes
Speaking of sticking it in peoples’ eyes, the Libby pardon also functions as a middle finger to the Bush clan. As I noted above, George W. Bush refused to pardon Libby – a move that enraged Cheney. Then consider that Trump has had a very dicey relationship with the Bush family – most notably his one-time 2016 primary opponent Jeb Bush and former President George H.W. Bush. To Trump, the Bush clan is everything he hates about politics – and elites more generally. A family who acts like they are “to the manor born,” who discount street fighters like Trump and who turn their noses up at him. Now that he’s in charge, why not strike back against all those people who dismissed him? Trump is in charge now – and he wants to make sure everyone knows it.
5. Trump is no fan of the Intelligence community
The idea of a White House operative being unfairly maligned by the intelligence community fits squarely into Trump’s suspicion of a deep-state operation looking to hurt people they don’t agree with ideologically. In that way, the Libby case was tailor-made for Trump, as it played into his preconceived notions of the problem within the ranks of the nation’s top intelligence agencies. In pardoning Libby, Trump believes he proved his point about the mixed motives of some within the intelligence community.