I am a little surprised that the White House's new insistence on a joint private meeting with President Bush and Vice President Cheney hasn't elicited more notice.
In its Wednesday editorial the Times writes ...
Yesterday, Mr. Bush's lawyer told the commission that Ms. Rice would testify. And after months of unacceptable delay, the lawyer said Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney would also talk to the entire commission in private, not under oath. But the panel had to pay a price: it agreed, at the administration's insistence, that after Ms. Rice testifies, it will not call her back or ask any other White House official to testify in public.
So the Times doesn't even mention the jointness issue or any problems it could raise.
Now, amidst all the stonewalling and foot-dragging and character assassination I guess this matter won't <$Ad$>get top-billing. But just what is behind this demand -- to which the Commission has apparently agreed?
All the other arguments adduced for ducking the Commission investigators have had at least some conceivable constitutional basis, however weak: testimony in private, testimony not under oath, privilege for White House aides, etc.
(One might note that there will be no recording kept of this meeting -- just one sore-wristed Commission staffer allowed to take written notes of what is said by the ten Commission members, the president and vice president.)
In any case, clearly there cannot be any matter of constitutional precedent or principle involved in needing the president and vice president speak to the Commission together.
So, again, what's the deal?
Only three scenarios or explanations make sense to me.
The first -- and most generous -- explanation is that this is simply another way to further dilute the Commission's ability to ask questions.
If, say, the meeting lasts three hours, that's three hours to ask questions of both of them rather than three hours to ask questions of each -- as might be the case in separate meetings.
That wouldn't be any great coup for the White House. But it would be one more impediment to throw in front of the Commission's work, which would probably be a source of some joy for the White House.
From here the possible explanations go down hill -- in every respect -- pretty quickly.
Explanation number two would be that this is a fairly elementary -- and, one imagines, pretty effective -- way to keep the two of them from giving contradictory answers to the Commission's questions. It helps them keep their stories straight.
(It's a basic part of any criminal investigation -- which, of course, this isn't -- to interview everyone separately, precisely so that people can't jigger their stories into consistency on the fly.)
The third explanation is that the White House does not trust the president to be alone with the Commission members for any great length of time without getting himself into trouble, either by contradicting what his staff says, or getting some key point wrong, or letting some key fact slip. And Cheney's there to make sure nothing goes wrong.
These last two possibilities do, I grant you, paint the president and his White House in a rather dark light. But I would be curious if anyone can come up with another explanation for this odd demand.