The surprise news that President Donald Trump is expected to pardon Scooter Libby includes a lesser-known, eyebrow-raising detail: the man who authorized the special counsel in that case was none other than James Comey.
The development that Trump would pardon the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney came after explosive excerpts from Comey’s tell-all book surfaced in media reports Thursday afternoon.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway would not confirm on Friday whether Trump will pardon Libby. But when asked by reporters if Comey’s involvement in the case had anything to do with the reported decision, Conway flatly said, “No.”
Libby was convicted in 2007 of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators in the investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame in 2003.
A few months after a news column exposed Plame’s identity as a CIA operative, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the leak at the CIA’s request.
In late December of that year, then-Deputy Attorney General Comey announced from DOJ headquarters that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had recused himself from the investigation out of an “abundance of caution” to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest.
Ashcroft’s recusal effectively left Comey as the acting attorney general. The future FBI chief then named Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the US attorney for Northern District of Illinois, as special counsel to investigate the matter.
During the 2003 news conference, Comey was asked by a reporter if it was possible that he could fire Fitzgerald if he thought it necessary.
“In theory, I could, yeah,” Comey said. “And I’d better have a darn good reason for doing it, because you’d have your hands in the air.”
Flash forward to now: Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself last year, putting Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump’s campaign associates colluded with Russia.
After Trump fired Comey as FBI director last spring, Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller, another former FBI director, as special counsel to take up the investigation.
Trump has criticized Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt” and has openly mulled whether to fire him, something many in his party have cautioned against.