Hours after an appeals court shot down a final appeal to keep I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby out of prison pending the appeal of his conviction, President Bush commuted his sentence.
"I respect the jury's verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive," Bush's statement read. "Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend 30 months in prison."
A federal jury found Libby guilty March 6 on charges that he'd lied to the FBI and a grand jury, and obstructed justice in the investigation into the leak of the identity of Valerie Plame, a former covert CIA operative. The appeal that was rejected Monday -- the final attempt to delay the start of Libby's sentence -- cleared the way for the former aide to start serving a 2½ sentence before the end of the summer.
Libby's attorneys had asked a federal appeals court to keep Libby out of prison until the appeal of his conviction was resolved, arguing that Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald did not have the proper authority to bring the case against Libby, and that the judge in the case did not allow witnesses who were key to the defense to testify during the trial.
ABC News contacted Libby attorney William Jeffress, who said, "We continue to believe the conviction itself was unjust but are grateful for the president's action commuting the prison sentence."
Presidential Intervention Was Expected
There had been wide speculation that the president would pardon the former aide to the vice president, but after Libby's conviction, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino called talk of a pardon "wildly hypothetical."
After a ruling last month denying Libby's first request to stay out of prison on appeal Perino said, "Scooter Libby still has the right to appeal, and therefore the president will continue not to intervene in the judicial process. The president feels terribly for Scooter, his wife and their young children, and all that they're going through."
But after Monday's denial of a last-ditch appeal to keep Libby out of prison failed, the questions over a pardon or commutation intensified.
Bush's move is not a full pardon of Libby's sentence -- originally set by federal Judge Reggie Walton as the 30 months in prison he was on track to serve, plus $250,000 in fines, and two years' probation following the completion of the prison term. The president can issue a full pardon at a later date if he chooses to.
"He will remain on probation. The significant fines imposed by the judge will remain in effect," Bush's statement noted. "The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant and private citizen will be long-lasting.
Of the commutation, Cheney's office released a statement saying, "The vice president supports the president's decision." But after Libby's June 5 sentencing, Cheney had warm words for his former aide.
"I have always considered him to be a man of the highest intellect, judgment and personal integrity -- a man fully committed to protecting the vital security interests of the United States and its citizens."
"Speaking as friends, we hope that our system will return a final result consistent with what we know of this fine man," Cheney said.
Not a Pardon, but Critics Slam Bush's Move
Critics of the move were quick to respond to the news.
"First, President Bush said any person who leaked would no longer work in his administration. Nonetheless, "Scooter" Libby didn't leave office until he was indicted and Karl Rove," a top political adviser, "works in the White House even today," Melanie Sloan, counsel to Valerie Plame and Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, said in a statement.
"Clearly, this is an administration that believes leaking classified information for political ends is justified and that the law is what applies to other people," Sloan's statement concluded.
Prosecutors had argued Libby helped lead a campaign to refute and discredit Wilson after he criticized the Bush administration's case for war against Iraq in a blistering opinion piece in The New York Times.
In the op-ed, Wilson stated bluntly, "Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
The Wilsons have filed a civil suit against Cheney, Rove, Libby and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage for damages resulting from the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's name. She has since resigned from the CIA.
The sentiments in Sloan's statement were echoed by Democrats on Capitol Hill.
"As Independence Day nears, we are reminded that one of the principles our forefathers fought for was equal justice under the law. This commutation completely tramples on that principle," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., added, "Until now, it appeared that the president merely turned a blind eye to a high ranking administration leaking classified information. The president's action today makes it clear that he condones such activity."
Special Counsel Fitzgerald issued a statement on the president's decision as well. "We fully recognize that the Constitution provides that commutation decisions are a matter of presidential prerogative and we do not comment on the exercise of that prerogative. We comment only on the statement in which the President termed the sentence imposed by the judge as 'excessive.' The sentence in this case was imposed pursuant to the laws governing sentencings which occur every day throughout this country. In this case, an experienced federal judge considered extensive argument from the parties and then imposed a sentence consistent with the applicable laws. It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals. That principle guided the judge during both the trial and the sentencing.
Although the President's decision eliminates Mr. Libby's sentence of imprisonment, Mr. Libby remains convicted by a jury of serious felonies, and we will continue to seek to preserve those convictions through the appeals process."
ABC News' Pierre Thomas, Jon Garcia and Karen Travers contributed to this report.