If Donald Trump is so outraged by leaks and lying, how could he pardon Scooter Libby? Short answer: To save himself.

When I heard that President Trump had pardoned a pivotal figure from the George W. Bush era, I started having flashbacks. 

A little over 11 years ago, I was one of several journalists who testified at the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to then-Vice President Cheney. Once one of the most powerful men in Washington, Libby was convicted in 2007 of lying to the FBI and obstructing an investigation into whether the Bush administration had outed a clandestine CIA operative, Valerie Plame.

The CIA had asked Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador, to investigate a British report that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was seeking to procure uranium in Africa to build weapons of mass destruction. When Wilson wrote a high-profile op-ed in 2003 saying that he found no such evidence, despite the president’s claim otherwise and the invasion of Iraq a few months earlier, administration officials took aim at Wilson and Plame. 

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Thus was born the CIA leak case. No one was prosecuted for outing Plame, but Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison, slapped with a fine, lost his law license, and was beset by other indignities that befall big shots turned felons.

A few weeks after the June 2007 verdict, Bush commuted Libby’s sentence but didn’t pardon him. The Cheney ally was spared prison, but the fine and other penalties stuck. 

Until last week, the case was largely ignored except for Libby’s neoconservative allies, That’s when Trump pardoned Libby, a move so out of the blue that when I heard it, I wondered, “What the …” The Donald hadn’t even met The Scooter. “I don’t know Mr. Libby, but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly,” the president said in a statement.

So why did Trump help him? I’ve got a few theories based on having been part of Libby’s trial then and watching his miraculous pardon now: 

►It sent a signal to keep quiet. The Libby pardon is like a big life preserver being waved in front of those who have made deals with Russia special counsel Robert Mueller, like former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and those who have not such as his former campaign chair, Paul Manafort. It says to them: “Hey, Libby lied and got convicted by a special counsel and I pardoned him. I can do the same for you.”

There’s really no doubt Libby was guilty, although some of his allies still maintain as much. While he was acquitted on one charge of lying to the FBI stemming from a conversation I had with him in 2003 about Plame, the other four counts were nailed solid during his 2007 trial — especially an easily disproved whopper he told about the late host of NBC’s Meet the Press, Tim Russert, having been the one who told him Plame worked at the CIA. 

►It was a shot at James Comey. This week Comey is hawking his new book, A Higher LoyaltyLong before Trump was president or Comey was FBI director, the 6-foot-8 lawman played an outsized role in the Libby case. It was Comey, then deputy attorney general, who appointed the special counsel in the CIA leak case in December 2003. (Attorney General John Ashcroft had recused himself.)

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Comey tapped his former colleague Patrick Fitzgerald, a Bush-appointed federal prosecutor in Chicago, to be special counsel in the CIA leak case. By pardoning the one conviction from the CIA-led inquiry of the early 2000s, Trump is basically saying that Comey was responsible for a miscarriage of justice now and then.

►It’s more proof Trump has no sense of irony. If you wanted more evidence that this pardon has nothing to do with mercy, remember that Libby is guilty of the very sins — leaking and lying about it — that Trump is constantly accusing Comey and former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe of having committed. Trump was giddy last week when a report by an Obama-appointed inspector general determined that McCabe had improperly leaked.

“He LIED! LIED! LIED! McCabe was totally controlled by Comey — McCabe is Comey!!” Trump tweeted in his usually restrained fashion. He also called Comey “a proven LEAKER & LIAR … He leaked CLASSIFIED information.” 

If Trump is so outraged by leaks and lying, how could he pardon Libby? It’s because pardoning Libby isn’t about consistency, let alone clemency. It’s about a president overturning a conviction to save himself. 

Matthew Cooper was a Time magazine White House correspondent during the CIA leak case. Follow him on Twitter: @mattizcoop

 

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