U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday refused to rule out a pardon for I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, adding that he stands by his decision to commute part of the former White House aide's sentence.
"As to the future, I rule nothing in and nothing out," said Bush, who spoke to reporters a day after he spared Libby from serving a 30-month prison sentence for his role in a case involving the leak of a CIA operative's identity in 2003.
"I made a judgment, a considered judgment. I stand by it," Bush said after visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
As the president spoke, a small group of people protested against the decision, shouting anti-Bush slogans in front of the White House gates.
Bush commuted part of Libby's sentence on Monday, five hours after a federal appeals court panel ruled that Libby could not delay beginning his prison term.
In announcing the decision, Bush said he felt the sentence was "excessive" and that Libby's family and professional reputation have already suffered enough.
Earlier Tuesday, White House spokesman Tony Snow explained why the administration wouldn't rule out an eventual pardon.
'As for the future, I rule nothing in or out.' —U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking about the prospect of a pardon for I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby
"The reason I'm not going to say I'm not going to close a door on a pardon … Scooter Libby may petition for one," said Snow."There is always a possibility or there's an avenue open for anybody to petition for consideration of a pardon."
Libby still has to pay a $250,000 fine, serve two years of probation and face the likely end of his legal career.
"This is hardly a slap on the wrist in terms of penalty. This is a very severe penalty," Snow said.
Not a favour for anyone: Snow
Bush spent severalweeks consulting senior officials in his administration as well as and legal experts before making his decision, said Snow. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, Libby's former boss,likely expressed an opinion during the process, said Snow.
The decision was not a symbolic or political act, but was "consistent with the dictates of justice," said Snow.
"The president does not look upon this as granting a favour for anyone."
Libby is the highest-ranking White House official convicted in a government scandal since the Iran-Contra affair two decades ago.
He was convicted in March of lying about what he told reporters regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose identity was leaked in 2003 after her husband, Joseph Wilson, criticized the Bush administration's Iraq war policies.
Libby was not charged with the leak itself— no one has been charged with leaking Plame's name. He was charged with lying to authorities investigating the leak and obstructing justice.
The U.S. constitution gives the president the power of clemency to be used when deemed warranted. Bush said he believes clemency is appropriate in Libby's case.
Judge declines comment
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who sentenced Libby to prison, declined Tuesday to discuss the case or his views on sentencing.
"To now say anything about sentencing on the heels of yesterday's events will inevitably be construed as comments on the president's commutation decision, which would be inappropriate," the judge said in an e-mail.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald disputed Bush's opinion of the sentence, saying Monday that Libby was sentenced under the same laws as other convicted criminals.
Democrats quickly condemned the move. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Bush's word can't be believed and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said history would judge the U.S. president "harshly."
Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said Bush's decision shows that "cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice," while Barack Obama, also a senator and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the decision represents "the kind of politics we must change" to restore faith in government.
Wilson, Plame's husband, said Congress should investigate whether Bush obstructed justice.
Republicans defended Bush, with Republican presidential candidate and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani calling it a "reasonable" and "correct" decision.
Former senator Fred Thompson said Bush should have gone further and pardoned Libby, whom he called a "good American."