The Cheese Stands Alone

Vice President Cheney, playing by the rules  --  his.
Vice President Cheney, playing by the rules -- his. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"We'll make statements only today," President Bush announced to reporters yesterday as he sat with the Estonian president in the Oval Office.

No surprise there. Vice President Cheney's recent declaration that he is not part of the executive branch has prompted hard questions, and nobody in the White House has a good answer for why Cheney -- who hovered near Bush's desk while the president spoke -- had turned himself into a fourth branch of government.

The explanatory task fell to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, whose skin reddened around her neck and collar as she pleaded ignorance during the daily briefing: "I'm not a legal scholar. . . . I'm not opining on his argument that his office is making. . . . I don't know why he made the arguments that he did."

"It's a little surreal," remarked Keith Koffler of Congress Daily.

"You're telling me," Perino agreed.

"You can't give an opinion about whether the vice president is part of the executive branch or not?" Koffler pressed. "It's a little bit like somebody saying, 'I don't know if this is my wife or not.' "

Give the flushed and flustered Perino credit for trying. The vice president had put her in an impossible position. Already under fire for his secretive ways, Cheney has refused to comply with an order governing the care of classified documents; his office concluded that the order does not apply because he is not "an entity within the executive branch."

That's quite opposite the argument Cheney made in 2001, when he said that a congressional probe into the workings of his energy task force "would unconstitutionally interfere with the functioning of the executive branch." Cheney has, in effect, declared himself to be neither fish nor fowl but an exotic, extraconstitutional beast who answers to no one.

As if to demonstrate his status as the fourth branch, Cheney left the White House yesterday and made his way to the Capitol, escorted by eight police motorcycles, three police cruisers, two armored limousines, and five SUVs and minivans packed with aides and armed Secret Service agents. Cheney spent all of six minutes on the Senate floor, fulfilling his legislative obligations as president of the Senate.

His task was simple -- swearing in a newly appointed senator, Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming -- and was designed to be foolproof. He had a brief parliamentary script to read, and a laminated card printed with the oath of office. But the executive-branch refugee showed himself to be equally unimpressed with legislative custom. Instead of reading the oath of office and having the new senator merely say "I do" at the end, Cheney ordered Barrasso to "repeat after me."

Barrasso, unprepared to utter the entire oath, got tripped up on the line about "mental reservation or purpose of evasion" -- and asked Cheney to repeat it. The fourth branch of government, his duties thus completed, applauded, left the floor and returned downtown in his motorcade.

It's not entirely surprising that Cheney would attempt to flee the executive branch, given Bush's sub-30-percent standing in polls. But Democrats in Congress were not welcoming their new transfer.

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