The traveling press corps plays “Who’s On First, What’s On Second” with an unnamed “senior assministration official” over the question of who cancelled yesterday’s Abdullah-Bush-Maliki meeting, when it was cacelled, and why it was cancelled.
Q Have you gotten any clearer understanding of who made the decision not to make it a trilateral? I mean, did King Abdullah suggest it to Prime Minister Maliki, or did Prime Minister Maliki make the decision unilaterally?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, the one word answer is, no. I can tell you that when the President made the decision — or actually, it wasn’t even a decision a few days ago when the idea arose — of coming here after Riga, it was always a bilateral dinner. I can tell you that. It was always a bilateral dinner, and that was well understood.
I don’t know when the idea — the trilateral idea came up, but it was pretty clear from the dinner, I think, that both of them felt they — you know, there are three bilateral meetings here, which cover all the bases — President-King, King-Maliki, President-Maliki. So everybody gets to have these bilateral conversations and go into all the depth they want, and I guess they just concluded there was no need for a trilat.
Q Did the King of Jordan —
Q — who, that’s my question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can only —
Q Did the President Holden in Jordan believing that he was going to a meeting this evening?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q Did he leave —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t believe so.
Q Did he leave Riga believing that he was going to be meeting —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wasn’t here, I can’t answer that.
Q When was the White House informed that Maliki would not be attending the dinner tonight?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can’t answer. I can only tell you that there was a good — there was a broad feeling that a trilateral was really not necessary.
The comedy continues…
Q Did the White House believe that a trilateral was not necessary?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can’t tell you when precisely decisions were made where I was not present. I can tell you that there was — this pattern of having three bilateral meetings, is one that the President and the rest of us are very satisfied with, and the King was clearly very satisfied with his meeting — his bilateral meeting.
Q The subject was on the schedule, and even as of 11:30 a.m. this morning it was still on the schedule. And we were trying to figure out what the photo opportunities were going to be. Less than an hour later, it’s gone away. And there’s a lot of confusion, and there’s going to be a lot more confusion unless we can get a sort of easy to wrap our arms around answer on why this went away.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I know. I can’t — I was here, and all I can tell you is it was a very clear understanding here that there would be a bilateral dinner. I’m not sure where the trilateral idea came from, but it was not what we decided in the end was really the optimal way to spend the President’s time. He wants to meet with Maliki; he wants to meet with the King; the King wanted to meet with the President; the King wanted to meet with Maliki. This is the best setup for everybody.
Q Who is the “we”? When you say “we decided,” who’s the “we”?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I was not on the plane, so I can’t answer as to any decisions on the plane.
Q Can you clarify?
Q The decision occurred on the plane then?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We can’t give you a process answer. What we can tell you is that it was deemed superfluous and, therefore, they didn’t do it —
Q For who?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: For everybody.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: By all parties concerned.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Everybody.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: By everybody, because you ended up having three trilats —
Q By the King, Maliki, and the President?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Maliki, the President and the King, the three parties involved, it was going to be superfluous. I cannot give you the whys and wherefores, but I can tell you — also, just to knock down because I know there’s been speculation, was this occasioned by the story in the Times? The answer is, it had no relationship to that, period. That has been clearly transmitted and that certainly is not —
Q But you didn’t know when you were trying to figure out the photo opportunity stuff that they canceled —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I understand. Exactly.
Q You were coming here thinking you were going to have this meeting —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And they decided it would be superfluous. As my colleague was saying, you’ve got to figure out what the most effective use of the President’s time is going to be. And it’s —
Q “They” who?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The representatives of the three governments, I’m presuming. I don’t —
Q Decided it where? On the ground here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I’ve told you before, I cannot help you with the process questions because I don’t know the exact timing.
Q In the week ahead, the President’s time — that’s what he’s doing here, to talk about Iraq.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What he’s doing here is he’s having meetings with the King of Jordan and also with the Prime Minister of Iraq. And so you have your full discussion with the King and you have your full discussion with the Prime Minister. The trilat, if anything, was not something that was going to be as productive as the bilats, and so what you end up doing is devoting more time to the bilats.
Q Why wouldn’t it be more productive? And there is the schedule that was put out recently that said the dinner would include the King of Jordan and the Prime Minister of Iraq. And also, you said the focus of the meeting tonight was on regional issues. Is that exactly what the focus was going to be? Is that what it was going —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can only tell you what I knew. I knew from day one this was a bilateral with the King of Jordan. And if you look at the time, with the President’s arrival, time to get over — had you had this trilat, the amount of time the President would have had with the King would have been seriously compromised.
Q But why have it on the schedule —
Q — Dan Bartlett thought there was a meeting. Why are you making excuses for this —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’re not making excuses. We’re giving you an explanation, which is the King is going to be out of town tomorrow, so you’ve got one shot of dealing with the King and having an opportunity to be with the King. You also have serious ongoing developments, which we’re talking about, with regard to Lebanon, which has been much in the news, and also with regard to what’s going on in Israel; it’s important to share thoughts about that.
And so you end up going ahead and you maximize your time with the King, who is your host, and then you also have your time tomorrow with the Prime Minister. Look, you can keep asking — this is all we can give you on it.
Q Who called Maliki and told him he wasn’t going to come?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, this is — nobody — there was no somebody who said, Maliki, don’t come. Again, this is something that was a collaborative agreement, and all agreed it would be the best way. I can’t tell you further than that, because, honestly, I don’t know.
Q Why did the White House week-ahead say that the dinner is going to include Maliki? Why didn’t you correct that if that was wrong? It seems like an oversight that one would not want to overlook.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because we erred.
Q You erred. Why didn’t you correct that earlier in the week?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I honestly don’t know. I mean, you know me, I, frankly, did not spend much time doing the week-ahead.
Q And how do you know that this is not related to the memo. Has Maliki actually said it’s not related to the memo?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because it’s been transmitted through — I believe through Ambassador Khalilzad that that was not a factor.
Q What did you say you erred about? We couldn’t hear back here.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The week ahead on the schedule on who would be in the dinner — because the understanding that I was given was that it was always the President and the King.
Q Did the Ambassador suggest that Muqtada al-Sadr’s boycott had anything to do with cancelling —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q So Maliki thought it was a waste of time?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No one thought it would be a waste of time. It was a question of, in a short period on the ground, what’s the best way for the three of them to spend their time. And they all agreed that the best way is in a series of bilats.