President Bush yesterday said he will not rule out a pardon for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., while political blowback from the left, critical of his decision to commute Libby's 30-month prison sentence, reached a crescendo.
"As to the future, I rule nothing in or nothing out," Mr. Bush said, after visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he awarded three Purple Hearts.
However, Mr. Bush said that some of the punishments that were given to Libby — such as a $250,000 fine and probation — were "adequate."
"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," said Mr. Bush, who admitted it had been "a very difficult decision" to make.
The president's decision sparked denunciations by Democratic politicians, outrage and organizing among the liberal grass roots, and praise mixed with calls for a full pardon from conservatives.
Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted in March on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI and grand jury in an investigation into the disclosure of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Libby is appealing the verdict.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said he would not rule out a presidential pardon because "Scooter Libby may petition for one."
Meanwhile, Democratic congressional leaders, presidential candidates, advocacy groups and bloggers clamored to denounce Mr. Bush's decision.
"I'm outraged," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, in a letter asking supporters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which he chairs, to sign a protest petition.
All the major Democratic 2008 presidential candidates issued scathing criticisms of the president.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, called the commutation a "clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice."
All but one of the leading Republican candidates commented approvingly of the president's decision, but only former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson appeared genuinely enthusiastic.
"I am very happy for Scooter Libby. I know that this is a great relief to him, his wife and children," Mr. Thompson said. "While for a long time, I have urged a pardon for Scooter. I respect the president's decision."
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney offered more subdued praise, with Mr. Romney calling the commutation "reasonable."
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, was silent on the issue, and a spokesman said there would be no statement from the campaign.
The Libby commutation set the liberal left's grass roots on fire.
"Paris Hilton served more jail time than [Libby] will," said an e-mail from the liberal organizing and advocacy group MoveOn.org.
MoveOn started a petition drive aimed at pressuring Congress to push the White House harder for answers on Iraq war intelligence and domestic surveillance programs.
"Cheney won't testify? Subpoena him. He won't come? Hold him in contempt of Congress and send over the police. And if that doesn't work, impeach the guy," the MoveOn e-mail said.
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., Illinois Democrat, said the president had committed "crimes against the Constitution," and urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reconsider her vow not to pursue impeachment.
The blog DailyKos.com advocated pressuring members of the House Judiciary Committee to begin impeachment proceedings.
Outside the White House, a small group of protesters marched, held signs, yelled into a bullhorn and gestured at pedestrians.
Conservative author Richard A. Viguerie, however, decried what he said were "crocodile tears" being shed by Democrats.
"This is an exact replay of President Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974. By a constant drumbeat of attacks on Ford for the Nixon pardon, they knew they would damage him politically in the 1976 presidential race," said Mr. Viguerie, who wrote a book arguing that Mr. Bush has "betrayed" the conservative movement.
"This assault is an early artillery barrage to damage the Republicans and elect a Democratic president and Congress in 2008," Mr. Viguerie said.
Others on the right also pointed out what they called Democratic hypocrisy on the issue of presidential pardons, since President Clinton was widely criticized for issuing 140 pardons and 36 commutations on his last day in office in 2001.
"Wasn't it Bill Clinton who was handing out pardons like lollipops?" Mr. Romney told the Associated Press.
Conservative commentators pointed out that Mr. Schumer in 1999 came out in favor of a presidential pardon for convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, saying that Mr. Pollard, who had served 13 years in prison, met certain criteria: "No danger is posed to society, real contrition is shown, and the sentence is disproportionate to others who have committed similar crimes." Mr. Schumer's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Clinton declined to pardon Mr. Pollard, despite fierce entreaties from the Israeli government.