If the charges laid out by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald are anywhere close to being true — and Fitzgerald is nothing if not a careful, meticulous, and relentless prosecutor — then the breadth and depth of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s corruption is staggering. He is not only a criminal, but a (foul-mouthed) sociopath. But the question that has Washington atwitter is not simply, or even primarily, about Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris; it is whether the Blagojevich scandal will in any way touch Team Obama.
On the plus side for Obama, Fitzgerald made it clear in his Tuesday press conference that there is no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by the President-elect. Nothing in the Blagojevich indictment suggests that Obama ever discussed a deal with Blagojevich about selling Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. Indeed, Blagojevich is on tape cursing Obama and his team for not willing to “give me anything except appreciation. [Expletive] them.” Obama himself has declared flat out that he has had “no contact” with the governor or his office about this matter.
At the same time, we are only at the beginning of this case, and there are a number of issues that need to be fully explored. For one thing, David Axelrod, Obama’s closest confidant, appeared on Fox News Chicago on November 23 and indicated that while Obama had not expressed a favorite to replace him, “I know [Obama's] talked to the governor and there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced, and I think he has a fondness for a lot of them.”
The locution by Axelrod is noteworthy. He didn’t say, “I think” or “I believe” or “I’m under the impression” that Obama talked to the governor; Axelrod stated, “I know” an Obama-Blagojevich conversation occurred. Axelrod has subsequently said he was mistaken in what he said.
In addition, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has pulled back from statements he made describing how, in 2002, Obama, along with Emanuel and a few others, were very close advisers to Blagojevich as he prepared for his race for governor. To be specific: Emanuel told the New Yorker earlier this year that he and Obama “participated in a small group that met weekly when Rod [Blagojevich] was running for governor. We basically laid out the general election, Barack and I and these two [Blagojevich's campaign co-chair David Wilhelm and another Blagojevich aide].” Wilhelm now says that Emanuel overstated Obama’s role in the campaign and, in what may qualify as a unique event, Emanuel eagerly admitted he was wrong and Wilhelm is right.
To have your two top aides declare within 24 hours of each other that their past statements about Obama and Blagojevich are inoperative is disquieting. So is Obama’s evasiveness when discussing the role of his staff. For example, in a Los Angeles Times interview, Obama, when asked if he had ever spoken to Blagojevich about the Senate seat, said, “I have not discussed the Senate seat with the governor at any time.” But when asked if he was aware of any conversations between Blagojevich or John Harris and any of his top aides, including Rahm Emanuel, Obama said, “Let me stop you there because . . . it’s an ongoing investigation. I think it would be inappropriate for me to, you know, remark on the situation beyond the facts that I know. And that’s the fact that I didn’t discuss this issue with the governor at all.”
And as Jennifer points out, the New York Times this morning reports:
Mr. Emanuel was among the few people in Mr. Obama’s circle who occasionally spoke to Mr. Blagojevich. He declined to answer questions on Wednesday, waving off a reporter who approached him as he walked across Capitol Hill.
A Democrat familiar with Illinois politics and the Obama transition, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there probably were calls between the Blagojevich and Obama camps about the Senate seat. It was not clear if any calls were recorded by federal agents, who had tapped the governor’s phones.
None of this means any wrongdoing took place. I assume, in fact, that none did. But it does mean that a full explanation is needed, sooner rather than later. The reality is that many current or past Obama intimates — including Axelrod, Emanuel, Antonin “Tony” Rezko, and Valerie Jarrett (who apparently was at one point interested in replacing Obama as senator from Illinois) — are from Chicago and several of them were, in the past, close to Blagojevich. At one time so, apparently, was Obama himself. There are plenty of wires that connect the two worlds.
I take Obama at his word when he says he didn’t have conversations with Blagojevich about his vacant seat. But that fact alone doesn’t mean this case will remain contained. We know so little about what is unfolding in these early stages, and this scandal appears to have tentacles. Mr. Fitzgerald is undoubtedly talking to a lot of people, many of whom will now want to unburden themselves to him and his team of prosecutors. All the key players appear to be from Chicago. Leads are being pursued, and political aides can easily get roped into criminal investigations without themselves having committed criminal acts. Conversations that may not have seemed problematic at one time can, in a different light, become so.
The best thing President-elect Obama can do is to be fully forthcoming. He needs to collect all the facts related to contacts anyone in his orbit had with Blagojevich and his aides — and then he needs to reveal them as soon as its humanly possible. For example, what were the circumstances around which Valerie Jarrett’s name came up as a possible Obama replacement, why did she take herself out of the running, and how did Blagojevich learn about it? Did the Illinois governor have lines of communication to Team Obama, as Blagojevich’s wiretapped conversations seem to imply? Was anyone in Obama’s circle contacted about a quid pro quo offer – and if so and they turned it down, thereby infuriating Blagojevich, were those conversations then reported to law enforcement authorities? (Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel and Carrie Budoff Brown pose seven excellent questions Obama should be able to answer.)
For a man like Obama, who ran and won on transparency, who said with him as President we would be entering an era when admitting mistakes is done without hesitation, and who made turning the page on the “old politics” and fixing “broken politics” the core of his campaign, to be fully forthcoming should be a fairly obvious and easy thing to do.
Barack Obama built a political career in the most corrupt political environment in America. He has so far remained largely untainted by scandal (the Rezko land deal is the exception). And when it comes to his private and public character, from everything we know, Obama appears to have far more integrity than the last Democrat to hold the office of the Presidency.
In this very early test, then, Obama can avoid the mistakes that so many politicians before him have committed — succumbing to the temptation to reveal as little as possible, going into a protective shell, employing language that needs to be carefully parsed for clues (for example, shifting from “we” to “I” when indicating that no conversations with Blagojevich or his representatives took place), and all the rest.
I hope he does, for his sake and for the country’s sake. We have enough challenges to face as it is; we don’t need a president or his administration burdened or distracted by scandal.