Scott McClellan has none of the artistry of Ari Fleischer, the poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, or even the bumbling, addled humor of the President himself. He just goes out there and puts his prefigured "response to this kind of question, in whatever form and however oft repeated" into play until they move on. Sometimes, as we've seen in GuardGate, he'll throw you as many evasions as you've got followups for. Not to make yet another Nixon parallel, but he reminds me an awful lot of the late Ron Ziegler, who had a rather harsher tongue and better tenacity with the details, but the same blithe way in which he'd throw out complete rubbish and demand it be taken as a serious answer. Who can forget "the other statements are now inoperative?" Classic.
So Scott's had as bad a 2004 as anyone in the White House, and today's gaggle was a chance for McClellan to wildly attempt spin and innuendo on not one but two commissions bugging the President for time and/or documents. The media start with the Iraqi intelligence hearing:
Q Totally different topic. The Senate Intelligence Committee apparently yesterday voted to subpoena the White House for documents if you don't voluntarily turn them over in the next three weeks. Are you planning to do that?
MR. McCLELLAN: One, I'm not aware of any formal request that has been made. And even though the Senate Intelligence Committee does not have jurisdiction over the White House because of a separation of powers issue here, which we discussed earlier in regards to the 9/11 Commission, we have cooperated with their investigation. We provided access to relevant documents and access to White House staff, as well. And we believe we have met the needs of the committee's works. And we understand there may be additional requests and we will be glad to discuss those with the committee.
Curiously, Pat Roberts of the committee took pains to release this statement, a clever bit of non-denial denial about this article in the NYT that purports of a vote to subpoena within 3 weeks if the administration doesn't comply. Unfortunately for the reporter, either he heard decision and wrote vote, or he was told vote and it really wasn't one. Which led to this correction that hangs the reporter out to dry. But note that Roberts relies on the fact that the meeting was closed door, and the disinforming quality of the initial report regarding a vote, to avoid commenting on whether the panel did indeed agree that they need some documents soon or they will issue a subpoena to get it.
Which is what makes McClellan's comments so absurd. He does a fairly nice job of referring to the discussion as not being a formal request, which it isn't. But not leaving well enough alone, he lets everyone know that the White House doesn't HAVE to cooperate, but they are--which leaves open the question of why a GOP-run committee would discuss the need to consider upping the ante in order to get documents. There is a bit more understanding at the White House regarding what the committee seeks, than just that "there may be some additional requests." And that point dismissed with the preset answer, a followup request for any kind of clarity gets...the preset answer:
Q Is that a no or yes?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, we'll be glad to discuss that with the committee. I'm not aware of any formal request.
Then in reference to the 9/11 Commission, McClellan's response is this:
When Dr. Rice met with the commission, there was a request for her to meet with all the commission, and she gladly accepted. There was weeks, weeks of notice on that meeting, yet only five members of the commission showed up for that meeting. There was another NSC official that met with the commission and only four members showed up. So I think you need to look at their past conduct in the context of this issue that has been brought up.
What was the question?
Tell us why the President only wants to give the 9/11 Commission an hour to question him
I think McClellan is primarily trying to explain why having the president there for just an hour, and with just two of the commission members present, is normal--why, they're just so busy! (Perhaps because they only just got a 60 day extension today, and that after significant duress at the politicking hands of Denny Hastert). But what he's also saying is that these guys don't even show up half the time; why should the President give up his? So now it's not that the Commission is busy; it's the President who's too busy for three or four commissioners. See where he pouts about giving weeks, WEEKS of notice, and then only five people show up for Condi Rice? Ungrateful commissioning bastards! It came to me as I read that paragraph, as apparently it did to someone in the room who later asked the very question, Could we not assume the members of the Commission would mark their calendars for the day the President showed up?
Further questioning suggests that other Commission members are a little jealous of not getting to meet the President and ask questions, even for an hour, and McClellan's response is right on time:
Look at their past conduct when people make those comments.
Q Pardon me?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think you should look at their past conduct when people make those comments. I just pointed out to you some facts. And I would ask you, why are you not reporting the fact that we have provided unprecedented cooperation to this commission?
What do you say when you're stonewalling, and someone asks you why you're stonewalling? Lather, rinse repeat:
MR. McCLELLAN: What's been agreed to is that the chairman and vice chairman will meet with the President in private session. But, I mean, look at their past conduct. They've had ample opportunity -- and that's the whole point here, when I say that we have great confidence in the chairman and vice chairman to share all that information with the other commissioners so that they can get their -- so that they can get their work done.
Q -- saying the commission is not committed to its task?
MR. McCLELLAN: You would have to ask those individuals that question.
Q Are you suggesting some members of the commission are not committed to the task?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not suggesting anything. I'm just -- I'm reporting facts that I don't think are necessarily being reported in this discussion.
Q Scott, can you articulate the reason for only wanting to speak to the chairman and vice chairman?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I just talked to you about how this is an extraordinary move by a sitting President of the United States to do this, and how we are confident that the chairman and vice chairman will be able to share all this information with the rest of the commissioners. There is an important principle involved in this discussion, and that is the separation of powers issues. This is a legislative body.
Nevertheless, the President agreed to the request to meet with the chairman and the vice chairman. And he looks forward to meeting with them because he believes their work is very important. And he wants to help them complete their work in a timely manner. I would say that we are also working in a very timely manner to make sure that the commission has the information they need. We are bending over backwards to make sure that they are able to do a thorough job and complete their work in a timely manner. And that's the way we have worked from day one.