This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
From the start, Donald Trump has run his campaign and administration like a political version of Celebrity Apprentice, dredging up disgraced D-listers like Jeff Sessions, Roger Stone, Carl Icahn, Alan Dershowitz, and Rudy Giuliani and returning them to their 1980s and 1990s glory–so long as they maintain unceasing loyalty to their host. Even loathed warmonger John Bolton was rescued from post-Bush-era oblivion and hired as Trump’s third national security adviser after months of sycophantic ranting on FOX News.
Given the endless rehabbing of Republican relics whose defining shared characteristic is a tolerance for corruption, it’s not entirely surprising that Trump pardoned Scooter Libby, the adviser to Dick Cheney who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice after leaking classified information about CIA agent Valerie Plame. Libby was so shamelessly corrupt that even George W. Bush refused to pardon him, despite pressure from Cheney and other GOP players to do so.
But blatant lawlessness is never a deterrent for Trump– indeed, he enjoys waving his presidential wand to clear even the vilest of criminals. In August 2017, in the aftermath of an intensified Mueller probe, the Charlottesville violence, and executive branch shake-ups including the departure of Steve Bannon, Trump abruptly pardoned Arizona Sherriff Joe Arpaio, a brutal xenophobe who was convicted of racial profiling and who held Latinos captive in torturous conditions.
The pardon of Arpaio, a prominent Trump supporter, was meant to send a signal: no crime is too ghastly to forgive under Trump’s law, so long as the criminal remains Trump’s lackey. Trump did not care that the Arpaio pardon was condemned even by Republicans, for it showcased that he had more authority than the party itself. He openly conveyed that his desire to wield this executive privilege had nothing to do with principle and everything to do with power. At a moment when his administration was lambasted for violating the law, Trump reminded the nation that he has the unique capacity to disregard law entirely, and that there is nothing anyone can do to stop him.
But why Scooter Libby, and why now? The selection does not appear to be Trump’s idea. “I don’t know Mr. Libby,” Trump admitted in a statement accompanying the pardon, “but 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.”
It seems likely that the man behind the Libby pardon is Bolton, a fellow Bush administration alumnus who called Libby’s conviction a “miscarriage of justice” in 2009. Regardless, Libby matters less to Trump as a person than as a symbol, a reminder to federal investigators than their efforts can ultimately be rendered futile even if guilt is proven. Pardoning Libby’s particular crime –outing a CIA agent–is a rebuke of the intelligence agencies who outed Trump’s illicit connections to Russian authorities before he took office and to the federal investigators who continue to expose them. It’s also a shot at James Comey, who appointed the counsel who investigated the leak of Plame’s identity.
Given Trump’s disinterest in the minutiae of politics that do not directly concern him, which Libby’s case did not, it seems improbable that these symbolic connections occurred to him on his own–but I believe he understood the dual message of vengeance and impunity that a pardon would convey.
Trump spent the morning raving that Comey is a “proven LEAKER and LIAR” who “virtually everyone in Washington thought should be fired”–an apt description of Scooter Libby. There’s no point in belaboring the hypocrisy at play here, for Trump places no value on ethical consistency–the only consistency that matters is unconditional loyalty to Trump. That is the message he sends, with this pardon, to the numerous shady campaign collaborators who have yet to flip or be caught. The most notable of these miscreants is Paul Manafort, who faces up to 305 years in prison for conspiracy against the United States, lobbying violations, and other crimes.
Unlike his partner Rick Gates, Manafort has shown no willingness to cooperate with investigators, instead regularly deploying his legal team to try to get the charges dropped. It seems doubtful that Manafort, a lifelong mafia associate involved in a multitude of money-laundering schemes, would flip. He may instead bet on Trump becoming the kind of fully entrenched autocrat Manafort had previously worked for as a henchman in repressive regimes around the world–one who can rewrite the law at will.
Should Trump continue to consolidate power, the presidential pardon may again be used as a reward. Now it is brandished as a lure–one can go to prison for breaking the law, the pardon implies, or one can let Trump destroy the very concept of law and hopefully walk free.
Sarah Kendzior is the author of the essay collection The View From Flyover Country.