BY Thomas M. Defrank
DAILY NEWS WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF
WASHINGTON - In the waning days of the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney launched a last-ditch campaign to persuade his boss to pardon Lewis (Scooter) Libby - and was furious when President George W. Bush wouldn't budge.
Sources close to Cheney told the Daily News the former vice president repeatedly pressed Bush to pardon Libby, arguing his ex-chief of staff and longtime alter ego deserved a full exoneration - even though Bush had already kept Libby out of jail by commuting his 30-month prison sentence.
"He tried to make it happen right up until the very end," one Cheney associate said.
In multiple conversations, both in person and over the telephone, Cheney tried to get Bush to change his mind. Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the federal probe of who leaked covert CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to the press.
Several sources confirmed Cheney refused to take no for an answer. "He went to the mat and came back and back and back at Bush," a Cheney defender said. "He was still trying the day before Obama was sworn in."
After repeatedly telling Cheney his mind was made up, Bush became so exasperated with Cheney's persistence he told aides he didn't want to discuss the matter any further.
The unsuccessful full-court press left Cheney bitter. "He's furious with Bush," a Cheney source told The News. "He's really angry about it and decided he's going to say what he believes."
He did just that the day after becoming a private citizen. In an interview with The Weekly Standard, Cheney heaped praise on Libby and denounced his conviction. "He was the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice, and I strongly believe that he deserved a presidential pardon," Cheney said. "Obviously, I disagree with President Bush's decision."
The vehemence of Cheney's last-minute onslaught has struck some Bush loyalists as excessive. "At some point you have to accept the decision of the guy who appointed you," one of them said after learning the details. "I think Cheney was over the top."
A Cheney ally disagreed. "He had every right to push it as hard as he wanted," he argued. "Cheney places great store in loyalty and thinks Scooter got a raw deal."
In July 2007, at Cheney's urging, Bush commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence. But he also said, "I respect the jury's verdict" and noted that his decision "leaves in place a harsh punishment" for the man often described as "Cheney's Cheney." Libby was fined $250,000, and as a convicted felon, he has been disbarred from practicing law and cannot vote.
Rob Saliterman, a spokesman for the former President, said Bush would have no comment. A Cheney spokeswoman could not be reached for comment.
The latest Libby flap has injected fresh strains in a relationship that had become more businesslike than warm in recent years.
Ten days before leaving office, Bush hailed Cheney as "a fabulous vice president."
About the same time, however, an official who has worked closely with both men mused that the relationship "isn't what it was" when Bush tapped Cheney as his running mate in 2000.
"It's been a long, long time since I've heard the President say, 'Run that by the vice president's office.' You used to hear that all the time."