When reporters have to ask State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley the same question multiple times, it is generally a sign the administration (1) does not want to answer it, or (2) does not know the answer (even if it should). Perhaps one of those two theories explains the following colloquy from yesterday’s press conference:
QUESTION: … without repeating the well-worn talking points … about orderly transition, et cetera, et cetera, free elections, does the Administration believe that Mubarak’s departure at this point would be unhelpful and might actually complicate the reforms?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we believe there should be an orderly transition — hang on, Matt, I’m going to — and who plays what role in that transition is up to the people of Egypt.
QUESTION: I’m not asking what —
MR. CROWLEY: I understand that.
QUESTION: I’m asking you if the Administration — recognizing that you’re not telling the Egyptians what to do, is it the Administration’s view that his hasty departure could actually complicate matters?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, we’re not focused on personalities.
QUESTION: I’m not asking you if you’re focused on personalities.
MR. CROWLEY: And I’m trying to answer your question. There are things that have to be done to get to a free and fair, credible, and competitive election. There’s more than one path to get there. There’s plenty of room in this process for a variety of players. We want to have an inclusive process. The role that President Mubarak plays in this, the role that others play in this, those are decisions to be made inside Egypt.
QUESTION: But I’m not asking what role he should play. I’m not asking that at all. And I’m not suggesting that you’re — that this has anything to do with broad, inclusive dialogue. I’m just asking if the Administration itself thinks that a hasty departure by Mubarak would complicate things.
MR. CROWLEY: I know you’re focused on President Mubarak. I mean —
QUESTION: It’s not – I’m —
MR. CROWLEY: No, no, but let me move beyond President Mubarak for a second.
QUESTION: But I’m not asking to move beyond President Mubarak.
MR. CROWLEY: No, no, but I —
QUESTION: I’m asking you about Mubarak.
MR. CROWLEY: Let me attempt to be responsive to your question.
QUESTION: Well, from what I’ve gotten so far, I’m not sure that’s possible. (Laughter.)
Crowley then answered the question:
MR. CROWLEY: … Look, if President Mubarak stepped down today, under the existing constitution, as I understand it, there would have to be an election within 60 days. A question that that would pose is whether Egypt today is prepared to have a competitive, open election, given the recent past where, quite honestly, elections were less than free and fair. …
QUESTION: Okay. Well, if you say that, why is it so hard for you to say that, yes, you think it would complicate things if he stepped down? Do you think Egypt can be ready — if Mubarak stepped down today, could Egypt be ready for a free and fair and credible election in 60 days time?
MR. CROWLEY: I think that would be a challenging undertaking.
QUESTION: Okay. So why is it that difficult to get that out of you? I mean, you could have said that – the very first answer to my question.
Here’s a third theory — sort of a combination of the first two: on February 2, when Robert Gibbs called for the transition in Egypt to happen now (and said “now” began “yesterday”), perhaps the administration did not realize that an immediate Mubarak resignation would trigger an election in 60 days.
Consider this colloquy from Hillary Clinton’s February 6 briefing with the traveling press:
QUESTION: But, Madam Secretary, it does seem that, given all these kind of administrative hurdles that you’ve been talking about these last few days, that … there is this reality on the ground, if you will, that dictates that [Mubarak] is going to have to play some role.
SECRETARY CLINTON: That has to be up to the Egyptian people. They have a constitution which, as I understand it — and I am no expert on the Egyptian constitution, never gave it a moment’s thought, really, so now I am trying to play catch-up — as I understand the constitution, if the president were to resign, he would be succeeded by the speaker of the house. And presidential elections would have to be held in 60 days.