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MoveOn Puts Impeachment Back on the Table

In the wake of President Bush's commutation of prison time for convicted felon Lewis Libby and a developing constitutional clash over important subpoenas, influential Democratic activists are pressing Congress to put impeachment back on the table.

Today MoveOn.org, the powerhouse group of 3.2 million political activists, launched an unprecedented petition calling on Congress to impeach Vice President Cheney if he defies congressional subpoenas issued to investigate the Bush administration's purge of prosecutors at the Justice Department. Leading bloggers have also launched a targeted campaign to specifically lobby Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee to put impeachment back on the table, and as The Nation's John Nichols reports, some members of Congress say it is now time to "reconsider impeachment proceedings."

The Judiciary Committee is led by John Conyers, who introduced a bill last Congress to explore impeachment proceedings. It drew support from about one out of seven House Democrats at the time. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi said impeachment was off the table during the mid-term campaign, and Conyers later sent an email to his national supporter list echoing the Speaker's promise.

Leaving aside the detailed debate over when, how and why impeachment proceedings would ever begin, Congress should never have taken the prospect of impeachment off the table. It is a constitutionally protected check against runaway executive power and lawlessness -- problems that Americans are quite familiar with lately. (Politicians are fond of reiterating their willingness to keep the option of nuclear bombs "on the table" in foreign policy, so surely constitutional oversight and accountability can remain on the table too.) When Congress tries to govern without its full power, the President can act with impunity. Here's how the New York Times explained Bush's commutation today:

Mr. Bush comes at the decision a weakened leader, with his public approval ratings at historic lows for any president, his domestic agenda faltering on Capitol Hill and his aides facing subpoenas from the Democrats who control Congress. Those circumstances offer him a certain amount of freedom; as Mr. Black said, "He knows he's going to get hammered no matter what he does."

 

See? Without further consequences on the table, Bush's historically low support, refusal to work with democratically elected officials in the coequal branch and mounting investigations into serious wrongdoing only serve to give him more "freedom." And with that freedom, Bush and Cheney are fighting to preserve the freedom of a convicted felon, defy congressional investigations and continue to undermine the law and the Constitution through spying, torture and detention policies. How can they be stopped? At times like these, Americans might want to consider what the Founders would do.

Mercy Me

Clemency has not been a hallmark of George W. Bush's political career, as governor of Texas or President of the War on Terror. But apparently the prospect of Dick Cheney's former Chief of Staffspending 30 months in jail caused Junior to actualize his kinder, gentler side. As long as he is feeling soft on crime, I have three pardons the President should consider.

1. John McCain. No one has been more loyal recently--from the surge to immigration reform--or suffered more for it. With his campaign's finances on the brink, Bush should consider unleashing his Rangers to help put the Straight Talk Express back on the fast track, especially now that the Roberts Court has torpedoed McCain's campaign finance law (quelle irony).

2. Senate Republicans. They twist and turn and one-by-one break rank as they await Gen. David H. Petraeus's report in September and their electoral fate next November. If not for his country then for the sake of hisparty, Bush should commute their sentence by re-declaring "mission accomplished" and bringing the troops home.

3. Himself. As W. reminded us repeatedly during his first debate with John Kerry being president is ""hard work." It is especially hard work when you put your Vice President in charge of all operational control and then have to account for his misdeeds. But no matter how wrong-tracked he will have left the nation after he leaves office, Jesus will still love him and this he knows, because the Bible tells him so.

 

Jackson: Impeachment Is the Right Response

Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., a member of the House of Representatives so Constitutionally-minded that he wrote a book on the subject, responded as a founding father would have to the news that President Bush had commuted the 30-month prison sentence of former White House insider I. "Scooter" Libby.

How so? By calling for consideration of the impeachment of the president for abusing the pardoning – and the related commutation of sentences -- privileges of his office.

"In her first weeks as leader of the Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi withdrew the notion of impeachment proceedings against either President Bush or Vice President Cheney," announced Jackson. "With the president's decision to once again subvert the legal process and the will of the American people by commuting the sentence of convicted felon Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, I call on House Democrats to reconsider impeachment proceedings. Lewis Libby was convicted of lying under oath to cover up the outing of active, undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame. It is beyond unthinkable that the president would undermine the legal process to protect a man who engaged in treason against the United States government, threatening the security of the American people. In November's election, voters put Democrats in charge of Congress because they believed our pledge of oversight and accountability. Now it's time for us to honor that pledge. The Executive Branch should be held responsible for its illegalities. Our democratic system is grounded in the principle of checks and balances. When the Executive Branch disregards the will of the people, our lawmakers must not be silent. Today's actions, coupled with the president's unwillingness to comply with Senate and House inquiries, leave Democrats with no other option than to consider impeachment so that we can gather the information needed to achieve justice for all Americans."

The founders were exceptionally clear on the question of what should be done if a president abuses his privilege to pardon an associate, or by extension to commute the sentence of an aide.

James Madison, who is rightly referred to as "the father of the Constitution," wrote extensively about the times in which impeachment would be necessary. "[If] the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty," observed the man whose notes provide the essential outline of the deliberations of the Constitutional convention.

Madison's Virginia compatriot, George Mason, who was an even more ardent advocate of impeachment, was similarly concerned about abuses of the power of the president to keep the law from touching his associates. The man now remembered as "the father of the Bill of Rights" feared that a future president might attempt to shield himself by preventing the prosecution or jailing of an aide who could testify to the president's involvement in a high crime or misdemeanor.

Mason suggested that impeachment would surely be in order were a president to attempt "to stop inquiry and prevent detection" of wrongdoing within his administration -- as the Bush White House is currently doing with its use of executive privilege to undermine congressional investigations of the politicization of federal prosecutions. Equally, the thoughtful founder suggested, impeachment would be in order were a president might to "pardon crimes which were advised by himself" -- as Bush has essentially done with the commutation of the sentence of his own former counselor and the chief of staff of his vice president.

The prosecution of Libby brought out the details of Cheney's deep involvement in the scheming to discredit a critic of the administration, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, whose wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA operative. And it is impossible to imagine that Bush was unaware of the manipulations in which Cheney and Libby engaged. Unfortunately, the precise nature of the president's involvement would only have become clear had Libby chosen to testify openly and honestly in court or before the Congress -- a prospect dramatically reduced by Bush's commutation of the sentence.

Mason said at the time of the Constitutional convention, in a summer 220 years ago, that: "No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued."

His point was that, if a president could not be impeached, he could not be held to account. To neglect the demand of that accountability, especially in moments when abuses became clear, Madison suggested "might be fatal to the Republic."

Congressman Jackson, who has studied more seriously than most the call of the founders, has responded as they intended. In demanding that impeachment be put back on the table, he is not attacking Bush, Cheney or Libby. Rather, he is defending the Republic in precisely the manner that Mason, Madison and their contemporaries intended.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Bush Assaults Rule of Law to Save Libby

 

"The true saint is the person who whips and kills the people for the good of the people."

 

-Charles Baudelaire

 It is tempting to view the commutation of prison time for Lewis Libby, the disgraced White House aide convicted of lying and obstructing justice, as another instance of craven hypocrisy by President Bush. As a candidate in 1999, Bush assured voters, "I don't believe my role is to replace the verdict of a jury with my own," unless "new facts" arose or the trial was "unfair" -- a standard which the Libby case clearly fails.

Or perhaps the commutation will serve as a disturbing reminder of how the administration regularly lies with impunity in Washington. President Bush famously promised, in serious tones at a televised White House meeting, to both fire and punish anyone involved in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Instead, he retained all the senior officials embroiled in the scandal, even after their roles were exposed in trial testimony and news reports, with no visible consequences. Now the President is using his clemency power to protect the one official convicted on related crimes. In his surreal statement about that choice, Bush volunteered his belief that "if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable."

But it would be wrong to criticize Bush's decision as one more hypocritical or deceitful maneuver, because it is actually far more profound.

The commutation of the 30-month prison sentence for Lewis Libby, the highest-ranking White House official convicted of a felony since Iran-Contra, fits into a larger, systemic assault on American rule of law by the Bush Administration.

In fact, Libby's special treatment is a microcosm of current U.S. policy. Libby is basically receiving a post-conviction protection that the Bush Administration now routinely extends to many potential criminals in the U.S. government. The administration successfully pushed legislation last year granting immunity to officials who might someday be prosecuted for war crimes or torture. It is a policy that embodies the administration's distinctly un-American view that powerful government officials should operate above the law.

The same legislation, the Military Commissions Act, strips constitutional rights and habeas corpus in a direct attack on the protections that have grounded the rule of law in America since its founding, 231 years ago this week. The unconstitutional act, like the administration's illegal detention, torture, spying and secret prisons, will continue as long as the federal courts ignore the administration's criminal conduct in deference to claims of executive authority in the Global War on Terror.

Even when the courts have confronted Bush's assault on the rule of law -- overruling detention policies in two cases and one spying lawsuit -- the administration has stayed or circumvented the rulings, shielded law-breakers within the U.S. government, or simply lied by claiming all of its activities, including those found unconstitutional by U.S. courts, are legal. When pressed on illegal torture techniques, for example, Bush made the Nixonian declaration that "whatever we have done is legal." Then there is the slew of rear-guard actions that the administration uses to subvert the law and our democratic process. These include extreme secrecy, defying congressional subpoenas, extralegal signing statements and unprecedented assertions of the "state secrets privilege" - a courtroom tactic where the administration literally tells judges that cases should not proceed because they might jeopardize "state secrets." (It often works.)

The administration defends this assault on the rule of law as vital to defending the homeland. If anything, the most vocal Bush supporters are proud of their zeal to commit crimes that supposedly advance national security. The Republicans running to replace Bush frequently tout their willingness to whip the people for the good of the people, as Baudelaire would say, while Bush's leading Democratic opponents have rarely tackled these issues head on. (Kerry "rarely" mentioned torture in the 2004 campaign, since Democrats generally thought human rights were "political suicide" after 9/11, as Georgetown Law Professor David Cole argues in the new NYRB.)

Of course, Libby can't even claim a "trade-off" between law and security. He lied to FBI agents to cover up the outing of a CIA agent that compromised national security. The motivation for the leak was a potentially illegal hit job to discredit American citizens who had served in the U.S. government. It was as dirty and petty as Watergate, except this time the crooks broke into their own files to attack opponents.

Since the Libby commutation is part of a much broader problem, the President's opponents cannot afford to simply criticize it in isolation. They have a duty to outline an alternative agenda that prioritizes the rehabilitation of the rule of law. Which candidates will commit to rolling back the legislative immunity for war criminals? Who will commit to confronting every official responsible for mishandling classified information (including Libby and Cheney), practicing torture and illegally spying on American citizens? Who will pursue investigations now -- not "if elected" -- to follow the horrors of Abu Ghraib up the chain of command, past the Taguba Report, however high they go?

That is the surest way to begin rescuing the rule of law in this country and restore the public trust. Because as Americans gather for July 4th celebrations, talk will likely turn to two convicted criminals who embody Bush's approach to the rule of law: Lewis Libby and Paris Hilton. So powerful and rich, they can live above the law, and they make no apologies for it. Americans overwhelmingly opposed a pardon for Libby, and initial polling suggests they oppose the commutation. The question for politicians is not whether they agree with the public on this fundamental matter of law and order, but what are they going to do about it?

UPDATE: Blogger and author Marcy Wheeler argues that Bush's preference for commutation instead of a pardon is also designed to subvert the rule of law. "He commuted Libby's sentence, guaranteeing not only that Libby wouldn't talk, but retaining Libby's right to invoke the Fifth," she writes. For congressional responses, blogger Phoenix Woman notes that House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers is expected to hold hearings on the commutation next week.

Bush Commutes Libby's Jail Sentence

It's appropriate.

The president who led the nation into a disastrous war in Iraq by peddling false statements and misrepresentations has come to the rescue of a White House aide convicted of lying by commuting his sentence. Before the ink was dry on today's court order denying Scooter Libby's latest appeal--a motion to allow him to stay out of jail while he was challenging his conviction--George W. Bush commuted Libby's sentence. Libby will no longer have to serve the 30-month prison sentence ordered by federal district court Judge Reggie Walton. He will, though, have to pay the $250,000 fine that was part of the sentence.

The commutation--which is not a pardon and does not erase Libby's conviction--is a reminder that Bush and his crew do not believe in accountability. Bush has been rather stingy in the use of his pardon power. And regulations issued by his Justice Department note that recipients of pardons should serve their sentences and demonstrate contrition before obtaining presidential absolution. (Libby had expressed no remorse and was not scheduled to report to jail for several weeks.) Yet with this commutation, Bush ducked those requirements, and he is allowing Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, who was found guilty of lying to federal investigators in the CIA leak case, to go unpunished. The fine will be no problem for Libby. His neoconservative friends and admirers will kick in to cover that tab. (Perhaps even Cheney will send a check.)

Libby had become a symbol of the Bush White House's problem with the truth. After all, his lies had been designed to block FBI agents and federal prosecutors from learning the full truth of a White House effort to discredit a critic who had accused the Bush administration of twisting the prewar intelligence. And now the final act in the long-running CIA leak scandal--Bush's commutation--stands as another symbol of this grand theme: lying doesn't really bother this crowd. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush claimed he would bring responsibility to the White House and, as a PR stunt, he dubbed his campaign jet Accountability One. Yet with this commutation, he takes the position that in his administration an aide who purposefully misleads government officials investigating a possible national security crime need not be held fully accountable.

This is no shocker. Early on in the CIA leak affair, the White House announced that anyone involved in the 2003 leak that disclosed the CIA employment of Valerie Wilson, an undercover Agency officer, would be booted out of the administration. But Karl Rove, who had disclosed classified information about Valerie Wilson to two reporters and who apparently lied about his actions to White House press secretary Scott McClellan, was not pink-slipped. Bush has never acknowledged this broken promise. (Libby left the White House only after he was indicted in the fall of 2005.)

Bush shielded Rove, and now--better late than never--he's doing the same for Libby. Ever since Libby's conviction in March, neoconservative and conservative Libby partisans have been urging--or demanding--that Bush pardon Libby. They have cried that his indictment, his conviction, and his sentence were travesties of justice. They blasted Bush for declining to intervene in the proceedings, branding the president (their pal!) a coward. They acted as if Bush's refusal to pardon Libby was a personal betrayal of each and everyone of them. They showed more concern for Libby than any of the civilians who have perished in Iraq in the years since they, Libby and their allies engineered the invasion of Iraq. Libby was their cause; he was one of them.

Once again, Bush, being nudged by the neocons, has sent a clear message: telling the truth doesn't matter. Bush has refused to acknowledge that he, Cheney, and other administration officials--to be polite about it--stretched the truth about Iraq and the threat it posed before the war. Today, he says that if you lie to protect the White House (especially the vice president), you can escape retribution. But if Bush, Cheney and the others could get away with big untruths about war, why shouldn't Libby get away with small lies about a cover-up? Fair's fair, right?

The foundation of a democratic judicial system is that the sentence fits the crime. In this instance, the commutation fits the administration.

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JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Bush Commutes Libby's Sentence

This afternoon, after three appeals court judges turned down Scooter Libby's latest appeal, George W. Bush commuted the convincted felon's sentence, wiping out the 30 month prison stay a federal judge had handed Libby. But the $250,000 fine remains. I'll have more on this later...

Party for the Planet

This Saturday, people around the world will attend more than 5,000 parties in honor of a much idolized, much abused celeb-of-the-moment. No, it's not Princess Di. These parties aim to help the planet, by committing the guests to work against climate change. It's the first time the political house party has ever been used globally, according to the organizers, and it's reached at least 114 countries so far, including Bosnia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines. (Note the rather severe troubles facing people in those countries. So, those of you thinking of not bothering because you have your own problems to deal with? You might want to think again.) Organized by Avaaz (which I've written about in this space before) and MoveOn, the house parties will coincide with the Live Earth concert. Big fat global concert events don't always accomplish much. (Remember Live Aid? Or worse, the dreadful "Feed the World" theme song? Block that 80s flashback!) But the organizers of these house parties believe Live Earth can be different, and they're aiming to, according to Ricken Patel, executive director of Avaaz, "turn the moment into a movement." Party guests will pledge not only to change consumption habits but more importantly, to engage in political action on this issue. They'll agree to pressure their governments to sign on to a global climate treaty agreeing to a 90% reduction in emissions over the next generation. What are you doing Saturday night?

Libby Turned Down Again, Getting Closer to Jail

Is Scooter Libby really going to jail now? Today a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, turned down Libby's request to remain free on bond while his attorneys appeal his conviction on obstruction of justice charges. In a two-sentence ruling, the three judges said that Libby "has not shown that the appeal raises a substantial [legal] question." This means that Libby will have to report to a federal penitentiary as soon as the Bureau of Prisons finds a spot for him, and that could occur within weeks.

Libby's defenders--the folks who claimed he was wrongfully investigated, then wrongfully indicted, then wrongfully convicted by a jury, then wrongfully sentenced to 30 months and a $250,000 fine--will no doubt say this matter was wrongfully decided by these three judges (one of whom was a Ronald Reagan appointee and one of whom was a George H.W. Bush appointee). But (hopeless) legal arguments aside, this ruling will cause the neocons (and their conservative allies) to intensify the campaign for a Libby pardon. (I recently detailed the Let Libby Go crusade here.) Now the Libby Lobby will pump up the volume, pressing George W. Bush to intervene.

Libby's champions seem to be motivated, in part, by an intense sense of personal betrayal. Libby partisans have essentially accused Bush of being an ingrate and coward for not rushing to the rescue of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. With the clock ticking on Jail Day for Libby, the Save Scooter advocates can be expected to voice further their frustration and resentment.

Will Bush yield? There's no telling. So far he's kept his distance from the Libby case--which stands as a reminder that Bush led the nation to an unpopular war on the basis of misrepresentations and false statements. But one thing's for sure: if Bush doesn't pardon this former White House aide, he will receive plenty of abuse from people who once hailed him for initiating the war they had craved for years. The pro-war neocons often appear distant from the disastrous consequences of the invasion of Iraq, including the civilian casualties of the war. But when it comes to the plight of Libby, an architect of the war convicted of lying, they feel his pain so passionately. We are all Scooter!, they practically proclaim. And in a way, they're right.

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JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Obama Hits Another Homer

Barack Obama hit another one out of the park. By now you've heard all about the $32.5 million the Illinois Senator's campaign raised in the second quarter of this year. That's five million more than the big kahuna, Hillary Clinton, who was easily supposed to win the money chase. And well more than three times the amount of John Edwards.

Obama tapped over a quarter million donors en route to smashing all primary fundraising records. That's a very impressive number. But let's not lose sight of what it all means.

Obama's first quarter take was powered by a lot of small donors. And to his credit Obama doesn't accept money from lobbyists. But that didn't stop him from cozying up to powerful sectors such as Wall Street and raising a boatload from places like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. We'll know the details of the second quarter take soon enough.

Money corrupts. Take one look at Washington today. Obama has said so himself. "We need a President who sees government not as a tool to enrich well-connected friends and high-priced lobbyists, but as the defender of fairness and opportunity for every American," he said in New Hampshire recently.

Obama has a natural instinct for reform. He's co-sponsored legislation to publicly finance political campaigns. But every time a politician holds a top-dollar fundraiser, it seems like another little piece of idealism gets bought.

While he's stuck in a system driven by dough, Obama should keep talking about how to change it.