Conservative pundits attacked Clinton for perjury and obstruction, but now defend Libby

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

Several conservative pundits who previously called for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and his removal from office on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice have recently defended the actions of former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. These media figures have either supported President Bush's decision to commute the sentence, called for Bush to grant a full pardon to Libby, or said that the charges against him should never have been pursued by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Unlike Libby, who was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to federal officers and later sentenced to 30 months in a federal prison, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate and was not indicted on criminal charges by independent counsel Robert Ray or his predecessor Kenneth Starr.

George Will

On the January 3, 1999, edition of ABC's This Week, discussing Clinton's pending impeachment trial before the Senate, syndicated columnist George Will said: "If the president's acquitted, jolly good for him. If not, we'll learn either way certain interesting things." Will continued: "I want to know which senators think that perjury is a non-impeachable offense. I want to see them stand up and tell us." Similarly, on the January 10, 1999, edition of This Week, again discussing Clinton's upcoming trial, Will said, "[W]e're going to learn a lot about the Senate. We're going to learn which senators do, and which senators do not believe that calculated, serial perjury is not a disqualification for holding the presidential office. That's going to be interesting."

By contrast, discussing the case against Libby on the March 11 edition of This Week, Will said that he was "disappointed that it ever came to a verdict." Will stipulated that Libby "may have lied -- I don't know," but continued: "[H]ow did we get here? The sense of disproportion all around. This arose out of a newspaper column. I've written 4,500 of those things. They're not that important." Will also claimed that the case "demonstrates again the tendency toward excessive zeal in these [special] counsels with one high-profile case."

William Kristol

On the November 22, 1998, edition of This Week, discussing Clinton's impeachment hearings before the House Judiciary Committee, Weekly Standard editor-in-chief William Kristol said that he believed the committee would approve articles of impeachment against Clinton, adding, "I think it's significant and I think they should." Kristol then asserted that the "most striking thing" about the first day of hearings "was the failure of a single Democratic member of that committee to say perjury is a serious matter, lying under oath is a serious matter, and then to, if they want to then argue it shouldn't be impeachable, let them make the argument." He continued:

KRISTOL: Not a single person said, tried to explain to the American people why lying under oath by the president of the United States is not an impeachable offense. I thought it was, I mean, and I say this not as a Republican, but in all honesty, the Democratic Party has had many great moments in its history. I did think November 19th, 1998, was really a day of disgrace for the Democratic Party. They simply refused to condemn perjury and refused to explain why they weren't simply telling the American people perjury's no big deal.

On the July 3 edition of NBC's Today, however, Kristol defended Bush's decision to commute Libby's sentence and asserted that Fitzgerald should never have pursued the charges in the first place:

KRISTOL: Scooter Libby does not deserve to go to jail. I would remind Joe Wilson that Scooter Libby did not leak Valerie Plame's name. Richard Armitage told [syndicated columnist] Robert Novak, we now know, about Valerie Plame's name, so this was an investigation that should never have happened. There was no underlying crime."

As Media Matters for America noted, although Libby did not reveal Plame's CIA identity to Novak -- who publicly disclosed it in a July 14, 2003, column -- Fitzgerald alleged that Libby did discuss Plame's CIA employment with then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller on three occasions prior to the publication of Novak's column.

Wesley Pruden

In the February 12, 1999, edition of his column, Washington Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden compared the 55 senators who voted to acquit Clinton to "the jurors in the O.J. Simpson trial, who were determined to ignore the evidence and free the man they knew was guilty." He also asserted that the senators gave Clinton "a pass" for "lying to the grand jury," and referred to them as having "signed on for the fix."

In his July 3 column, however, Pruden praised Bush for commuting Libby's prison sentence and thereby "[r]edressing a particularly odious miscarriage of justice." Pruden excused Libby's actions, claiming that Plame "was not really a covert agent, anyway, and even if she had been the law protecting covert agents did not actually apply to her." In fact, in a May 25 court filing, Fitzgerald explicitly stated that Plame "qualified" as covert under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Moreover, Fitzgerald attached to a May 29 filing a summary of Plame's CIA employment, which stated that "the CIA ... now publicly acknowledges that Ms. Wilson was a CIA employee from January 1 2002 forward and the previously classified fact that she was a covert CIA employee during that period."

Wall Street Journal Editorial Board

In a July 14, 1999, editorial, the Wall Street Journal editorial board quoted its own support of the "forced resignation" of President Richard Nixon in 1974: "It is a crime for an ordinary citizen to obstruct justice, and surely it [is] an abuse of office for a President to do so for narrow political motives." The editorial continued: "Today, we believe, essentially the same standards should apply to President Clinton." The editorial stated that "in the end, Senators should ask, knowing what we have now learned about Bill Clinton, can we trust him with our highest office?" The editorial went on to ask:

What manner of man is it who takes sexual advantage of 21-year-old interns? Who conducts sex in the Oval Office and, according to Monica Lewinsky's testimony, while discussing affairs of state on the phone with, among others, members of Congress? Who, he now admits, lied in a sworn deposition, to his colleagues, to the American people for some seven months and until confronted with DNA evidence from a semen-stained dress? Who defends his deposition lies as not perjury by telling a grand jury "it depends on what the meaning of `is' is" ? Who offers similarly cavalier answers to 81 questions from the House Judiciary Committee, and then reacts to impeachment by the House by staging a pep rally of his supporters on the White House lawn? Who now in papers filed with the Senate dismisses criticism of all this as "myths," once again giving the back of his hand to the earnest advocates of an apologize-and-censure compromise?

Speaking for ourselves, we do not expect political leaders to be well-adjusted personalities; the demands of ambition are too great. But even by this relaxed standard, Mr. Clinton's character is over the top. The center of the dysfunction is not the sex but the lies, which come so effortlessly because at any given moment he believes them.

By contrast, in a July 3 editorial on Libby's commutation, The Wall Street Journal said that "Mr. Libby got caught in a perjury net" and criticized Bush for commuting Libby's sentence rather than pardoning him outright:

These columns have had cause to defend the Bush Presidency from what we've seen as often meritless or exaggerated partisan attacks, notably over national security and the Iraq war. This, however, will stand as a dark moment in this Administration's history. Joe Wilson's original, false accusation about pre-war intelligence metastasized into the issue of who "outed" his wife, Valerie Plame, as an intelligence officer. As the event unfolded, it fell to Mr. Libby to defend the Administration against Mr. Wilson's original charge, with little public assistance or support from the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell or Stephen Hadley.

In no small part because of these profiles in non-courage, it was Mr. Libby who found himself caught up in prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's hunt for the Plame leaker, which he and his masters at Justice knew from Day One to be State Department official Richard Armitage. As Mr. Fitzgerald's obsessive exercise ground forward, Mr. Libby got caught in a perjury net that we continue to believe trapped an innocent man who lost track of what he said, when he said it, and to whom.

Tony Snow

In a December 11, 1998, column titled "Impeachment? Yes, Congress can't condone lying," then-syndicated columnist Tony Snow asserted: "We have reached a rare point of clarity in our national discourse: The House Judiciary Committee will decide this week whether it is acceptable for a president to commit perjury." He claimed that Clinton "seems to be the only person in a position of authority who thinks he didn't lie repeatedly under oath," and described the case as "straightforward." He also asserted that Clinton's legal team "seems blissfully unaware of what the courts have said about such behavior in the past" and that "[a]t this moment, at least 116 people are serving time in federal prison for perjury many for fibbing about the sort of carnal hanky-panky the president experienced in the Oval Office and its environs." He concluded: "The issue is simple: Does Congress condone lying? If so, has the concept of truth become as quaint and meaningless as Arthurian chivalry?"

However, Snow, who was named White House press secretary in April 2006, defended Bush's decision to commute Libby's sentence in a July 5 USA Today op-ed. Snow claimed: "[N]o president in recent history has made more careful use of the pardoning power than George W. Bush: The president believes pardons and commutations should reflect a genuine determination to strengthen the rule of law and increase public faith in government." He asserted that "[i]n reviewing the case, the president chose to rectify an excessive punishment," and stated that while the president knew "he would take hits in the court of public opinion," he commuted Libby's sentence "knowing he was doing the right thing." A Media Matters review found that none of the media outlets reporting on Snow's USA Today column mentioned his previous column calling for Clinton's impeachment.

From Snow's December 11, 1998, column:

We have reached a rare point of clarity in our national discourse: The House Judiciary Committee will decide this week whether it is acceptable for a president to commit perjury.

President Clinton seems to be the only person in a position of authority who thinks he didn't lie repeatedly under oath during the course of our long national gross-out. In like manner, his legal team seems blissfully unaware of what the courts have said about such behavior in the past...

Nobody believes such nonsense, and that is why this case is critically important. Impeachment isn't a legal process. It doesn't turn on fine parsing of legal lingo. It is a political inquiry that challenges honorable men and women to express common-sense morality.

Alexander Hamilton expressed the point in The Federalist 65: The subjects of (an impeachment inquiry) are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.

Lets enumerate some of the political considerations at work here. Suppose for a moment that Congress decided not to impeach or to censure as a way of avoiding tougher action. That would send a couple of immediate messages that it is acceptable under some circumstances to lie under oath, and that the president enjoys special privileges and immunities, including the luxury of evading punishment for unlawful behavior...

When members of the Judiciary Committee, and then the House itself, vote on a perjury count, the action will mark our generations place in history. There is nothing easy about the case, but one can say it at least is straightforward. It doesn't involve Byzantine land deals in Arkansas. It doesn't depend on ones knowledge of our convoluted campaign-finance statutes. It doesn't even require the White House to produce long-lost records.

The issue is simple: Does Congress condone lying? If so, has the concept of truth become as quaint and meaningless as Arthurian chivalry?

From the January 3, 1999, edition of ABC's This Week:

COKIE ROBERTS (co-host): Well, here it is 1999, and we are talking about the United States Senate trying President William Jefferson Clinton on impeachable offenses. It is something we didn't expect to be talking about at this point last year, certainly. We've given George Stephanopoulos the day off. Bill Kristol, welcome.

So, should they do this truncated thing that these senators are talking about?

WILL: No. They should have, as the Constitution stipulates, a trial. If the president's acquitted, jolly good for him. If not, we'll learn either way certain interesting things. I want to know which senators think that perjury is a non-impeachable offense. I want to see them stand up and tell us.

From the January 10, 1999, edition of ABC's This Week:

SAM DONALDSON (co-host): Pardon me for being naive. Call me Mr. Chump, but when you strip away all the rest, whether Ken Starr's a bad man, whether Linda Tripp would wiretap without permission, all of this, and you come down to did the president commit perjury, did he obstruct justice, two crimes? I'm willing to believe that the Senate really has moved forward toward a judicial way to settle that, rather than just kick the ball around and say, like my friend, Mary McGrory, used to say, Patsy Senate wringing her hands just didn't want to come to grips to with reality.

KRISTOL: I'm a fellow chump. I want to join Sam in chumpdom. I think it was a good -- I don't think it was a good result for the White House for this reason. If there had been a 55 to 45 vote at 5 p.m. Thursday, the outcome would be ordained. I mean, there would be just no chance that the Senate would go ahead and remove President Clinton. I do think the 100 to zero vote leaves the playing field open, so to speak. It leaves open the possibility, at least, that sitting as jurors, they will consider the evidence. And that is dangerous for the White House, and that is why the White House was, desperately wanted, I think, a partisan vote and kept pushing the Senate Democrats to hang tough and not compromise.

ROBERTS: What could possibly be learned that we don't already know?

WILL: Well, we're going to learn not much about the president. I think we'll learn a little something about some witnesses, perhaps. But we're going to learn a lot about the Senate. We're going to learn which senators do, and which senators do not believe that calculated, serial perjury is not a disqualification for holding the presidential office. That's going to be interesting.

From the March 11 edition of ABC's This Week:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (host): Scooter Libby convicted of perjury, the vice president's former chief of staff. Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, said the investigation is over but the politics are not. Here to talk about that, our roundtable. I'm joined as always by George Will, Fareed Zakaria, welcome back to David Corn of The Nation magazine and Torie Clarke. And, George, let me begin with you. Vice President Cheney actually had a kind of an unusual statement. He actually made a comment on the verdict. He said he was disappointed in the verdict. Were you?

WILL: Well, I was disappointed that it ever came to a verdict. That is, Mr. Libby -- and this was a conscientious jury, certainly took their time -- may have lied. I don't know, but how did we get here? The sense of disproportion all around. This arose out of a newspaper column. I've written 4,500 of those things. They're not that important.

CLARKE: Right. This is -- no, I think this is --

WILL: One other thing. On the other hand, we have yet now redundant evidence that an independent counsel, this one, this prosecutor, Mr. Fitzgerald, three months before he got to Washington, Armitage had in a sense solved the mystery about who had outed Mrs. Plame. This demonstrates again the tendency toward excessive zeal in these counsels with one high-profile case.

From the November 22, 1998, edition of ABC's This Week:

ROBERTS: So after all these many months, the Judiciary Committee finally has its first day of impeachment hearings. Kenneth Starr testifies for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours. And now it seems like the end is very clear and it's not impeachment, Bill.

KRISTOL: But I think the House Judiciary Committee will vote to impeach the president of the United States.

ROBERTS: And is that, what does that mean?

KRISTOL: Well, it means a lot. It only happened, what, twice in U.S. history. I think it's significant and I think they should.

ROBERTS: Yes, but they do it as a straight partisan line vote, does it go down as just a totally political act?

KRISTOL: Well, it's an interesting question, which party will be blamed for partisanship. And the most striking thing about Thursday was the failure of a single Democratic member of that committee to say perjury is a serious matter, lying under oath is a serious matter, and then to, if they want to then argue it shouldn't be impeachable, let them make the argument. Not a single person said, tried to explain to the American people why lying under oath by the president of the United States is not an impeachable offense. I thought it was, I mean, and I say this not as a Republican, but in all honesty, the Democratic party has had many great moments in its history. I did think November 19th, 1998, was really a day of disgrace for the Democratic party. They simply refused to condemn perjury and refused to explain why they weren't simply telling the American people perjury's no big deal.

From the July 3 edition of NBC's Today:

MEREDITH VIEIRA (co-host): Bill, you described yesterday as a "very good moment" for the president, but he did not grant the pardon that you and many other conservatives were hoping for. So was it a "good moment" for you, or just take what you can get?

KRISTOL: No, it was a good moment. It was an act of justice. Scooter Libby does not deserve to go to jail. I would remind Joe Wilson that Scooter Libby did not leak Valerie Plame's name. Richard Armitage told Robert Novak, we now know, about Valerie Plame's name, so this was an investigation that should never have happened. There was no underlying crime. The jail sentence was way beyond what the appellate -- what the court's own advisory probation committee, which is totally non-political, recommended. The president did the right thing. I would have preferred a pardon, but I think the president did the right thing in commuting his sentence.

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