Media echoed, uncritically repeated Snow's equating of Libby commutation with Clinton pardons

››› ››› SIMON MALOY & JULIE MILLICAN

In the July 16 edition of Newsweek, investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff wrote that "Democrats' outrage" over President Bush's July 2 commutation of former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's 30-month prison sentence "lost steam when [Sen.] Hillary Clinton [D-NY] came forward to scold Bush for not respecting 'the rule of law.' " According to Isikoff: "White House aides were all too happy to remind the country about Bill Clinton's own questionable pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich." Isikoff was just one of several media figures and news outlets to echo the White House's claim that the Clintons displayed "chutzpah" in criticizing the Libby commutation, suggesting parity between Bush's decision and Clinton's presidential pardons. Moreover, several media figures themselves equated Bush's commutation with Clinton's pardons and, in some cases, asserted Clinton's actions were worse. But at no point did these members of the media note a key difference in the circumstances surrounding the Libby case and Clinton's pardons: Bush's commutation of Libby's sentence vastly reduced any leverage prosecutors would have to force Libby's cooperation in investigations of other members of the Bush administration. None of the recipients of Clinton's pardons were similarly situated.

Several media figures, including MSNBC's Chris Matthews, brought up Clinton's January 2001 pardon of Susan McDougal. As MSNBC host Keith Olbermann and Democratic strategist Bob Shrum noted (see below), unlike Libby, McDougal was not in a position to either assist or impede an investigation against Clinton at the time of her pardon.

As The New York Times reported, Bill Clinton criticized the Libby commutation on July 3:

In Iowa to promote the presidential candidacy of his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Mr. Clinton was asked by a radio host, David Yepsen, "You had some controversial pardons during your presidency; what's your reaction to what President Bush did?"

"Yeah, but I think the facts were different," Mr. Clinton said. "I think there are guidelines for what happens when somebody is convicted. You've got to understand, this is consistent with their philosophy; they believe that they should be able to do what they want to do, and that the law is a minor obstacle."

"It's wrong to out that C.I.A. agent and wrong to try to cover it up," Mr. Clinton added. "And no one was ever fired from the White House for doing it."

The Associated Press reported on July 3 that Sen. Clinton "drew a distinction between President Bush's decision to commute the sentence of White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby -- which she has harshly criticized -- and her husband's 140 pardons in his closing hours in office." According to the AP:

"I believe that presidential pardon authority is available to any president, and almost all presidents have exercised it,'' Clinton said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "This (the Libby decision) was clearly an effort to protect the White House. ... There isn't any doubt now, what we know is that Libby was carrying out the implicit or explicit wishes of the vice president, or maybe the president as well, in the further effort to stifle dissent.''

During a July 5 press gaggle, White House press secretary Tony Snow responded to the Clintons' criticism by accusing them of "chutzpah": "Now you've got President Clinton and Senator Clinton out complaining about this, which, I got to tell you, I don't know what our Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it." Olbermann challenged Snow's comments on the July 5 edition of Countdown, asserting that White House officials were "demonstrably wrong." Olbermann said that Clinton "typically waited until also after sentences were served" to use his clemency authority and "did not use it to undermine prosecutorial leverage in ongoing investigations":

OLBERMANN: Tonight, in our fourth story on the Countdown, Mr. Bush and his Wizard of Oz-like winged monkeys have instead been reduced to arguing that he is no worse than his predecessor, and even in doing that, they are demonstrably wrong.

The context, of course, the commutation of former Bush and Cheney aide Scooter Libby's prison sentence.

On Tuesday, former president Clinton was asked about the comparisons made by Mr. Bush's defenders.

[begin audio clip]

DAVID YEPSEN (Des Moines Register political columnist): You had some controversial pardons during your presidency. What's your reaction to what President Bush did?

CLINTON: Yes, but I think the facts were different. I think, you know, there are guidelines for what happens when, you know, somebody's convicted. And I think that, you know, you got to understand, I think that this is consistent with their philosophy. They believe that they should be able to do what they want to do, and that the law is a minor obstacle.

[end audio clip]

OLBERMANN: Today, Bush spokesman Tony Snow responded off-camera, saying, quote, "I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it," the implication, of course, that presidential clemency then and now is morally equivalent, Mr. Bush's defenders reminding critics of everyone from Marc Rich, to Roger Clinton, to Henry Cisneros, to Susan McDougal, all of them, like Libby, enjoying ties to the president of their time.

Unlike Mr. Bush, however, Mr. Clinton was consistently generous with clemency, rather than reserving it exclusively for friends. He typically waited until also after sentences were served. His friend Susan McDougal did more than a year. He also did not use it to undermine prosecutorial leverage in ongoing investigations. And in the case of Marc Rich, some prominent Republicans argued he was innocent, most notably, Mr. Rich's lawyer, one I. Lewis Libby, also known as "Scooter."

Despite this distinction, several media figures themselves asserted that the Clinton pardons and Libby's commutation are similar, or that Clinton's pardons were more "egregious":

  • On the July 5 edition of Hardball, host Chris Matthews asked Shrum: "Why on God's earth did Bill and Hillary Clinton, where Bill has got a couple problems on his rap sheet, perjury and obstruction of justice -- he pardoned Marc Rich, his brother Roger, Susan McDougal -- why would he want to step back into the issue of pardons, perjury, and obstruction of justice on the campaign trail for his wife?" In response, Shrum stated that there is a "critical distinction" between Clinton's pardons and the Libby commutation. According to Shrum: "None of those pardons, has anyone ever alleged, could have in any way insulated [Clinton] from some kind of criminal investigation or tough questions about his own conduct."
  • On the July 5 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, guest host Michelle Malkin claimed that Bush has "not abused his power" regarding clemency, whereas "it's absolutely clear that's exactly what Bill Clinton did," adding: "[T]he bottom line ... is that Bill Clinton has no place criticizing President Bush on his use of pardons."
  • On the July 5 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, host Tucker Carlson claimed that Clinton's "pardons were egregious, they were appalling," adding: "Bill Clinton must have something wrong with him to go after President Bush on this one thing, because this is one of Clinton's original sins."

Furthermore, several media outlets simply repeated Snow's comments without noting the distinction between Clinton's pardons and Bush's commutation of Libby's sentence. For instance:

  • On the July 5 edition of the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, guest anchor Judy Woodruff noted that "both Senator Clinton and former President Clinton criticized" the commutation and went on to report: "Today, White House press secretary Tony Snow responded to them, saying, 'I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it.' " Woodruff added: "In the waning hours of the Clinton presidency, 140 people were pardoned."
  • During the July 5 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC News' chief White House correspondent David Shuster noted that "Clinton said that helping a White House aide who leaked a CIA operative's identity is different," but did not further report on this distinction. Schuster went on to state: "Today, the Bush administration hit back. Off-camera, presidential spokesman Tony Snow said, quote, 'I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it.'"
  • CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry twice uncritically repeated Snow's attack on the Clintons, once during the July 6 edition of CNN's The Situation Room and then later that day during CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight. On The Situation Room, Henry claimed that Snow, in attacking the Clintons, has "taken the gloves off here" because the White House "need[s] to rally conservatives" and because he "believes in principle ... that the Clintons are being hypocritical because of the pardons at the end of the Clinton administration." Similarly, during his report on Lou Dobbs Tonight, Henry reported that "the White House is lashing out at Bill Clinton's handling of pardons after the former president charged the law is a quote 'minor obstacle' to this administration," and added that Snow "charg[ed] the Clintons should not be throwing stones over clemency."
  • A July 6 USA Today news brief, headlined "Snow pokes fun at Clintonian 'Chutzpah'," noted Snow's remarks and reported that "Clinton tried to draw a distinction between his pardons and Bush's move to commute Libby's 30-month sentence for perjury in the CIA leak case," by claiming: "I think there are guidelines for what happens when somebody is convicted. ... They [the Bush administration] believe that they should be able to do what they want to do, and that the law is a minor obstacle." The report did not note that Clinton did not pardon anyone who possessed information of possible interest to investigators.
  • A July 6 New York Times article noted only that "the White House hit back at Bill and Hillary Clinton on Thursday for criticizing Mr. Bush's action, with Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, saying they had 'chutzpah' considering that Mr. Clinton had granted a raft of pardons, some controversial, at the end of his presidency." The article did not mention the distinction between Clinton's pardons and Bush commutation of Libby's sentence.

From Isikoff's article in the July 16 edition of Newsweek:

The grumbling from Libby's supporters was nothing compared with the howls of indignation from Democrats, who condemned Bush for pushing harsh mandatory sentences for criminals -- except the one who happened to work at the White House. But the Democrats' outrage lost steam when Hillary Clinton came forward to scold Bush for not respecting "the rule of law." White House aides were all too happy to remind the country about Bill Clinton's own questionable pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

From the July 5 edition of PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:

WOODRUFF: The Bush administration made a renewed defense of the president's use of clemency today. On Monday, Mr. Bush commuted Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence in the CIA leak case. On the campaign trail, both Senator Clinton and former President Clinton criticized the move. Today, White House press secretary Tony Snow responded to them, saying, "I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it." In the waning hours of the Clinton presidency, 140 people were pardoned.

From the July 5 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

SHUSTER: The White House also refused again to say what role Vice President Cheney had in the commutation. Libby's trial revealed the vice president instructed Libby to leak Valerie Wilson's identity as part of the effort to undermine her husband, administration critic Joe Wilson. The evidence revealed that Cheney also got permission from President Bush to leak other classified information to The New York Times.

It's unclear what motivated Libby to lie to investigators, but some Democrats believe he was trying to protect the very highest levels of the White House. As Democratic activists now accuse the president of a cover-up, former president Clinton is weighing in. And yesterday he criticized the Bush administration during an Iowa radio interview.

CLINTON [audio clip]: You got to understand, I think that this is consistent with their philosophy. They believe that they should be able to do what they want to do and that the law is a minor obstacle.

SHUSTER: In the closing hours of his presidency, Clinton pardoned more than 140 people, including fugitive financier Marc Rich. But Clinton said that helping a White House aide who leaked a CIA operative's identity is different. Today, the Bush administration hit back. Off-camera, presidential spokesman Tony Snow said, quote, "I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it."

On camera, Snow's deputy added this.

[begin video clip]

SCOTT STANZEL (White House deputy press secretary): President Clinton issued 141 pardons on January 20, over 200 in the period -- in the post-election period in 2000. So it -- it sort of pales in comparison.

They can disagree with the action the president took, but to use some of the language that they've used is really remarkable.

REPORTER: So are you saying he's not going to have a final-day pardon for Scooter Libby? Just get -- let's get that on the record. Is that what you're saying, that --

STANZEL: The president is on the record on that, and he's not ruling anything in or out.

[end video clip]

SHUSTER: In other words, it's on the record that the president doesn't know what the final record on Libby will be. Democrats, by contrast, have been more clear in their intentions, and that is to keep the Libby controversy alive, and so congressional hearings on the Libby commutation decision are scheduled to begin next week.

[...]

MATTHEWS: Bob, I want to interject a thought here.

Why -- I mean, you're a political tactician and strategist. Why on God's Earth did Bill and Hillary Clinton, where Bill has got a couple problems on his rap sheet, perjury and obstruction of justice -- he pardoned Marc Rich, his brother Roger, Susan McDougal -- why would he want to step back into the issue of pardons, perjury, and obstruction of justice on the campaign trail for his wife?

SHRUM: Well Susan McDougal was acquitted, but putting that aside --

MATTHEWS: But he pardoned her.

SHRUM: -- Scooter Libby was -- Scooter Libby was convicted, but -- and that's the difference. But putting that aside, as a political matter --

MATTHEWS: Bob, wait. Why is Bill Clinton back in the pardon business? I don't get it.

SHRUM: As a political matter -- I was going to answer it, Chris, if you let me. As a political matter, I think they knew that they were going to face these questions in press conferences as they campaigned through Iowa. The press was going to go after them and ask the question again and again.

So, they made the decision to just affirmatively talk about it. I think, as a political decision, it was smart.

RON CHRISTIE (former special assistant to President Bush): No, Bob, that was not an affirmative decision. Bob, I have to cut you off.

That was not an affirmative decision. Senator Clinton made the comment that this administration thinks it's above the law. And President Clinton tried to parse, in the usual Clintonian nonsense, about, oh, well, this administration, you know, they think they are above the law. They said the same thing.

This was a president who pardoned 141 people on his last day in office, and, I might tell you, spending the time today to review some of these pardons, you're talking about Mel Reynolds, someone who was convicted of having sex with a 16-year-old campaign worker, who the president commuted his sentence for bank fraud. You're talking about the McDougals. You're talking about Roger Clinton with his intent to distribute cocaine.

For the Clintons to try to draw any correlation between what President Bush did with Scooter Libby and what President Clinton did during his last day in office is obscene. And this is why I think Senator Clinton is going to have a hard time on the trail, because it is more of that Clintonian nonsense and America is tired of it.

SHRUM: Listen, I think this is absurd and the way you are describing it is absurd. I do not defend all of those pardons that Bill Clinton made on his last day in office. But I think there is a critical distinction: None of those pardons, has anyone every alleged, could have in any way insulated him from some kind of criminal investigation --

CHRISTIE: Susan McDougal, Henry Cisneros--

SHRUM: -- or from answering tough questions about his own conduct.

CHRISTIE: Susan McDougal, Henry Cisneros --

SHRUM: Henry Cisneros? The president was not accused of ever having anything to do with the Henry Cisneros situation.

CHRISTIE: No, actually, Bob, what I'm talking about --

SHRUM: What are you talking about? You just throw names out.

CHRISTIE: No, actually I'm throwing names out in the form of the secretary of Housing and Urban Development --

[crosstalk]

SHRUM: How was Bill Clinton -- how was Bill Clinton related to the Henry Cisneros problem? How was he related? What allegations were there about Bill Clinton?

CHRISTIE: You're talking about a former cabinet secretary from his administration --

SHRUM: You know, Ron, you made a charge -- you made a charge --

CHRISTIE: I'm trying to answer your question -- no, I'm making the charge, you're talking over me --

[crosstalk]

SHRUM:-- I am talking over you because you won't answer the question --

CHRISTIE: I'm trying to answer the question. Stop talking --

[crosstalk]

SHRUM: The question is, how was Bill Clinton implicated in the Cisneros situation?

MATTHEWS: By the way, the only connection -- I know the only connection, and it's tangential, is that, as we all know, Henry Cisneros in his application for the position of HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] secretary gave a dishonest answer about how much money he was paying off his girlfriend.

CHRISTIE: His mistress. That's exactly right.

MATTHEWS: And that was the problem. You can say that is the president's fault, but only, Ron, highly tangential, that somehow Bill Clinton knew how much money that Henry Cisneros was paying his girlfriend as a settlement. How would he have known that?

CHRISTIE: No, Chris, the correlation -- the correlation that I'm trying to make, Chris, is the fact that the Democrats are trying to say that this administration has something to hide and they are being less than honest. What I'm trying to demonstrate is that a number of the people that President Clinton had pardoned had a lot of embarrassing information about the president. That's the point I'm trying to make.

MATTHEWS: Hey, Ron, I want to call this a tie and it's the first time Shrummy has met his match since George W. Bush. Anyway, thank you Bob Shrum and Ron Christie.

From the July 5 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

SUZANNE MALVEAUX (guest host): And at the White House today, the 5th of July fireworks from press secretary Tony Snow. He is laying into Bill Clinton's comments about President Bush and his decision to spare "Scooter" Libby from going to prison.

The former president told a radio interview in Iowa that the Bush administration believes the law is, "a minor obstacle."

Today, Snow is returning fire, suggesting Clinton has nerve to blast Mr. Bush when Clinton himself granted a slew of controversial pardons. Snow told reporters, quoting now: "I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it."

Snow also used an op-ed piece in USA Today to defend the commutation of Libby's 30-month sentence in the CIA leak case.

Let's bring in our own White House correspondent, Ed Henry. Obviously, this is political, somewhat. We can only imagine that Tony Snow has something behind making these comments today -- Ed.

HENRY: Oh, yes, Suzanne. You know Tony Snow. He's taken the gloves off here. The White House is in a pickle. They need to rally conservatives. What is an easier target than to open fire on the Clintons? And that's what he's doing here. He believes in principle, as well, that the Clintons are being hypocritical because of the pardons at the end of the Clinton administration.

But I asked Tony Snow, but are you saying now that two wrongs make a right? And he insisted, no, because he believes that Mr. Bush didn't do anything wrong with the commutation of "Scooter" Libby.

But the White House seems to be having it both ways. They're lashing out at the Clintons, but you'll remember after those Clinton pardons, there were some safeguards added to the system so this wouldn't happen again.

But what Mr. Bush appears to have done is to do an end run around all of that -- Suzanne.

From the July 5 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

KITTY PILGRIM (guest host): Good evening, everybody. We begin tonight with a showdown between the White House and a federal judge over former White House aide Scooter Libby. President Bush declared that Libby will serve probation after commuting Libby's prison sentence in the CIA leak case. However, the judge who sentenced Libby to prison disagrees with the president's assertion on Libby's probation. Ed Henry reports from the White House. Ed.

HENRY: Kitty, it turns out that Scooter Libby may not have to serve any probation, which could undermine one of Mr. Bush's key justifications for the commutation.

To make the case Lewis "Scooter" Libby is not getting a slap on the wrist, the president claims he will serve two years of probation.

[begin video clip]

BUSH: I felt the punishment was severe. So I made a decision that would commute his sentence but leave in place a serious fine and probation.

HENRY [voice-over]: But now the judge says Libby can't serve probation because his sentence was commuted before he did any prison time. "Strictly construed," Judge Reggie Walton wrote this week, "the statute authorizing the imposition of supervised release indicates that such release should occur only after the defendant has already served a term of imprisonment."

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel acknowledged he hasn't read the July 3rd order, but nevertheless tried to insist Libby's probation is not in dispute.

STANZEL: We believe the attorneys, the judge and the probation office can work out those details.

HENRY [voice-over]: But a clemency expert sided with the judge's interpretation and said the president may have erred by not first running the commutation by his own Justice Department.

MARGARET LOVE (former Justice Department attorney): One would have thought he would have consulted with the Justice Department, the people who are the experts on federal sentencing.

HENRY [voice-over]: Their own argument under fire, the White House is lashing out at Bill Clinton's handling of pardons after the former president charged the law is a, quote, "minor obstacle" to this administration.

STANZEL: The hypocrisy demonstrated by Democratic leaders on this issue is rather startling. When you think about the previous administration and the 11th hour fire sale pardons, it's really startling that they have the gall to criticize what we believe is a very considered, a very deliberate approach to a very unique case.

[end video clip]

HENRY: Tony Snow went a step further, charging the Clintons should not be throwing stones over clemency, adding quote, "I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it." Kitty.

PILGRIM: Ed Henry, reporting from Washington.

From the July 5 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

MALKIN: Are you saying that it's some sort of, like, unfair political opportunism to bring these things up; to bring up the fact that the White House was used to sell pardons for so long?

And also, that the disparity between the Bush White House and the Clinton White House on how these things were used -- Bush has used these very judiciously. He has not abused his power in these senses when it's absolutely clear that's exactly what Bill Clinton did.

BOB BECKEL (Democratic strategist): Well, if you think this is judicious to bypass your own Justice Department and the guidelines, and do this in the still of the night --

MALKIN: He left in -- he left in place the probation and the fine. The stain is there, and he's not removing that.

BECKEL: That's right. That's right, and I'll tell you, I'll eat my hat if he doesn't get a full pardon by the time this is over.

MALKIN: First-time offender.

[...]

BECKEL: But - but, look. The -- the fact of the matter is you could argue about what Fitzgerald did. He did it. It was -- and Libby did, in fact, lie about this.

Now I can't help the fact that the guy lied to the FBI and that Fitzgerald pursued him maybe too aggressively. And he should have done this -- he should have brought the Armitage thing out. But it didn't happen that way. And that's just the way things worked.

MALKIN: Well -- it looks -- and the bottom line, though, Bob, is that Bill Clinton has no place criticizing President Bush on his use of pardons.

BECKEL: I -- I think -- I think that probably is a little bit of wishful thinking on your part.

From the July 5 edition of MSNBC's Tucker:

TUCKER: OK, I think you -- I think there's something to what you say. In fairness, there have been a number of conservatives who -- who are bothered by the fact that Scooter Libby lied, and I'm one of them, for that matter. I -- I'm glad his sentence was commuted.

But I want to just go back to Bill Clinton here, who is re-entering the national scene because his wife is trying to become president, basically on his coat tails. His pardons were egregious. They were appalling.

[...]

LANNY DAVIS (former Clinton White House counsel): And do you know that President Bush I didn't pardon anyone who had committed serious crimes?

TUCKER: I'm sure he did. I haven't looked at the list. I'm not here to defend the first President Bush, or -- or the current President Bush.

DAVIS: So, so, so --

TUCKER: I'm merely saying that --

DAVIS: Let's see the [inaudible] standard --

TUCKER: Bill Clinton must have something wrong with him to go after President Bush on this one thing, because this is one of Clinton's original sins.

DAVIS: I didn't find anything unusual about President Clinton criticizing this commutation any more than --

TUCKER: Really?

DAVIS: -- I found unusual about Republicans criticizing president, or you criticizing President Clinton. The fact is, we give the president the pardon power to exercise it, and people will criticize it.

From the July 6 USA Today news brief, under the headline "Snow pokes fun at Clintonian 'Chutzpah'":

The White House responded Thursday to comments by former president Bill Clinton about President Bush's decision to commute the 2½-year prison sentence of former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

In his commutation, Bush left a $250,000 fine, which Libby paid Thursday. At the end of his presidency, Clinton pardoned 140 people. This week, Clinton tried to draw a distinction between his pardons and Bush's move to commute Libby's 30-month sentence for perjury in the CIA leak case. "I think there are guidelines for what happens when somebody is convicted," Clinton said during a radio interview. "They believe that they should be able to do what they want to do, and that the law is a minor obstacle."

"I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday.

From the July 6 New York Times article, titled "Libby Pays Fine, Judge Poses Probation Query":

On the political front, the White House hit back at Bill and Hillary Clinton on Thursday for criticizing Mr. Bush's action, with Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, saying they had "chutzpah" considering that Mr. Clinton had granted a raft of pardons, some controversial, at the end of his presidency.

The developments showed how intense the focus remains on what has been the highest-profile, and most contentious, use of presidential clemency powers by Mr. Bush.

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