The White House yesterday ridiculed Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton for complaining about President Bush's decision to keep former vice-presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. out of jail, saying their criticism smacks of hypocrisy.
"I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it," press secretary Tony Snow said.
The White House also suggested that a slew of pardons granted by Mr. Clinton on his final day in office were never properly investigated and said they ought to be.
"This provides a nice chance to go back and look at the Clinton pardons. ... What is interesting is perhaps it was just because he was on his way out, but while there was a small flurry, there was not much investigation of it," Mr. Snow said.
"If you take a look at news reports — people scurrying about, clutching pieces of paper, running around — I think those final hours were probably not times of long chin-pulling reflection," he said.
The day Mr. Bush took office, Mr. Clinton granted 141 pardons and 36 commutations. Among those given full pardons on Jan. 20, 2001, were fugitive financier Marc Rich, who evaded $48 million in taxes and was charged with having illegal oil transactions with Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis.
Mr. Rich fled to Switzerland in 1983 and his socialite wife, Denise became a large donor to the Democratic Party and the Clinton library during Mr. Clinton's time in office.
Mr. Snow, in a feisty mood, was asked how the White House felt about a plan by Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, to hold hearings into Mr. Bush's commutation of Libby's 2½-year sentence for perjury.
"Well, fine, knock himself out," Mr. Snow said. "I mean, perfectly happy. And while he's at it, why doesn't he look at January 20th, 2001?"
Mr. Conyers' House Judiciary Committee gave the White House until Monday to explain the commutation, and he has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday. The panel plans to examine presidential clemency issues, and Mr. Conyers said on Fox News yesterday, "We'll be examining it of all presidents because that's the only way we can determine whether they've been used properly and whether there should be changes considered."
Meanwhile, Rep. Robert Wexler, Florida Democrat and a fierce Bush critic, said he has drafted a resolution censuring the president for what he called "an unconscionable abuse of authority."
"Congress must step forward and express the disgust that Americans rightfully feel toward this contemptible decision," Mr. Wexler said.
But Republicans dismissed the criticism, and Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee, also had fun with the complaints of the Clintons.
"Hillary Clinton criticizing the use of presidential pardons and commutations is like Paris Hilton criticizing someone's driving record. On his last day in office, President Clinton handed out pardons and commutations like candy on Halloween," he said.
Mrs. Clinton has been outspoken about her opposition to the commutation, putting out a statement within minutes of Mr. Bush's announcement Monday.
"This commutation sends the clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice," she said.
The New York senator, who is seeking the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, also said 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."
Mr. Clinton has sought to distinguish his pardons from the commutation granted by Mr. Bush, which leaves in place Libby's felony conviction, as well as a $250,000 fine — which he paid yesterday — and two years of probation.
"I think there are guidelines for what happens when somebody is convicted," Mr. Clinton told a radio interviewer Tuesday. "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."
Libby, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, was sentenced to 30 months in prison after being convicted of lying to investigators looking into the White House leak of CIA employee Valerie Plame's identity. No charges have been brought on the underlying "outing," which was done by Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage to columnist Robert Novak.
Mr. Clinton was impeached by the House for perjury and obstruction of justice over his lying about an affair that he had with a White House intern but was acquitted by the Senate. He made an admission of misconduct and was hit with a $25,000 fine and a five-year suspension of his law license but was never tried for perjury in a criminal court.
While issuing more than 400 pardons during his eight years of office, Mr. Clinton wiped clean the records of his half brother, Roger, who had been convicted of distributing cocaine; John Deutch, a former CIA director who violated security laws; 16 members of the Puerto Rican separatist group FALN, some of whom had been convicted of violent crimes; and Susan MacDougal, a partner of the Clintons in Whitewater who had been convicted of misusing loan proceeds.
In addition, he pardoned Henry Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development, who lied to federal agents about payments to his mistress, and Vonna Jo Gregory, who was convicted of bank fraud and paid Mrs. Clinton's brother, Tony Rodham, to help secure the pardon.
Back then, Mr. Clinton's spokeswoman, Julia Payne, said: "Pardons by their nature are controversial ... but the U.S. Constitution gives the president this right. Former presidents have all made controversial pardons."