President-Elect Barack Obama's inquiry into "inappropriate contacts" between his staff and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich over his vacated U.S. Senate seat has the appearance of a closed loop -- the conclusion came before the inquiry.
The conclusion was: there were no inappropriate contacts.
The inquiry found: Imagine, no inappropriate contacts.
The inquiry began on Dec. 11 and ended Dec. 15. That's right, it took all of four days.
The Obama transition staff never explained what "inappropriate contacts" meant until releasing its report Tuesday, despite numerous press questions.
"Inappropriate" in Obama transition-speak can be defined two ways: "unethical" or "discussing an explicit quid pro quo"
When the Obama report says nothing inappropriate occurred, that's what it means.
It's also worth understanding how "lawyered-up" this process was.
Greg Craig, the incoming White House Counsel, conducted his inquiry by taking questions to each transition staff member's lawyer. The lawyers then went to the staff members and collected the answers. The lawyers then gave the answers to Craig.
In some cases -- team Obama won't say how many -- Craig would go back to either the staff member's attorney or the staff member directly for clarification. But it appears Craig's direct questioning of staff was very limited.
Additionally, there was no independent effort to verify any of the information provided by the staff member or the staff member's attorney. If, for example, a staff member's attorney said there was no e-mail or text messaging with Blagojevich or his staff, Craig took that at face value. No one knows if there was any e-mailing or texting, by the way.
Also, the lawyers' own words mattered to Craig. He told reporters on Tuesday's conference call that Valerie Jarrett described Blagojevich's suggestion he might be appointed secretary of health and human services as "ridiculous" when that subject was broached by the Illinois head of the Service Employees International Union.
How does Craig know Jarrett said the word "ridiculous"? He knows that because that's what Jarrett's lawyer told him. Jarrett didn't say it to Craig. Her attorney did.
This is not to say any of the answers are untrue. But it is to say that two layers of protection are available to staff here when it comes to minimizing the potential political damage to the president-elect.
Consider this: Obama's incoming attorney is given a conclusion and then sets about to perform his inquiry. The attorney, Craig, has one client -- Obama. Craig then talks to other lawyers for staff who work for the client and with the leader of the inquiry, Craig.
Craig takes answers from the lawyer for each staff member and does nothing to independently verify the information or challenge with conflicting data. It's very close to an ask-and-answer dynamic. Craig asked questions and gathered the answers. In no way does this constitute an independent or fact-finding inquiry. It is a set of questions posed by an Obama employee, Craig, to lawyers representing Craig's co-workers, staff members.
Obviously, the U.S. attorney in this case, Patrick Fitzgerald, has a separate agenda and would have conducted a different investigation. But Fitzgerald has long said there was nothing criminal involved in any of the Obama transition contacts with Blagojevich or his staff.
But the Craig report is designed to cope with a political problem. That problem is related to the Obama team's proximity to Blagojevich. This report was designed to minimize that proximity.
It has succeeded. The conclusions follow two paths of self-interest: Obama benefits from "being cleared" as to what he or others did -- and that's obviously a plus.
The report also highlights the benefits that can be derived by other staff members to share with Craig only what they can recollect and have their lawyer protectively reveal those memories to the U.S. attorney only.