The nub of the Obama internal report on Blago-gate is this:
Messrs. Obama and Emanuel, as well as top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, were interviewed by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald on Dec. 18, 19 and 20 — an extraordinary outreach from law enforcement during a presidential transition. The Obama audit of contacts between aides and Mr. Blagojevich’s staff revealed considerably more discussions between the two camps than previously divulged, and it described an apparently concerted effort by the governor to crack the Obama circle. One effort apparently involved the head of the Service Employees International Union in Illinois, Tom Balanoff. He approached a close Obama friend and aide, Valerie Jarrett, and related the governor’s desire to be named Health and Human Services secretary, according to the Obama memo. Mr. Balanoff didn’t say Mr. Blagojevich wanted anything in return, the memo said. Both Mr. Balanoff and Ms. Jarrett dismissed the governor’s suggestion.
. . .
By his recollections, Mr. Emanuel had one or two phone conversations with Mr. Blagojevich between Nov. 6 and Nov. 8, as Mr. Emanuel was deliberating whether to resign his House seat, representing Chicago’s North Side. Soon after, Mr. Emanuel called the Illinois governor again to say he would leave Congress to take a White House post. The conversation included talk about the merits of candidates for the Senate seat, especially those of Ms. Jarrett, whom Mr. Emanuel believed the president-elect favored, according to the memo.
The two men didn’t discuss any potential appointment for Mr. Blagojevich — either to the cabinet, a political nonprofit organization or “any other personal benefit for the governor,” according to the memo. The federal arrest affidavit alleged the governor had talked about such a trade with his aides and advisers.
In subsequent conversations with Mr. Harris — after Ms. Jarrett took herself out of the running to take a White House job — Mr. Emanuel produced a slate of favored candidates with the president-elect’s authorization. The names included Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
In later telephone conversations, Mr. Emanuel added Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson.
What we don’t have from the report — access to the witnesses, verbatim accounts of the calls, and an explanation for Jarrett’s withdrawal from the Senate race — makes it hard to evaluate the credibility and reliability of the summary. Interestingly, there is no mention of the leaked “all you get is appreciation” comment allegedly made in the Harris-Emanuel call. To the contrary the report says, “There was no discussion of a cabinet position, of 501c(4), of a private sector position or of any other personal benefit to the Governor in exchange for the Senate appointment.” An SEIU official and Blago’s chief of staff were supposedly trying to make a deal with the Obama team, but the Obama team had no clue a deal was in the works, we’re told. Perhaps Blago’s team weren’t very good at the pay-to-play game.
What we do know is that Fitzgerald is very interested in these conversations and nailed down the Obama team’s stories early in the case. But he has the tapes as well — which will ultimately tell us who said what to whom.
For now, what we know is that the blanket initial denial by President-elect Obama was in all likelihood technically correct, but rather misleading. At his direction, and with his full knowledge, his closest aides were in fact talking to Blago’s team and conveying the President-elect’s wishes about the open senate seat. Even the New York Times concedes:
The report suggested that Mr. Obama had been more involved in thinking about his Senate successor than his public statements about the topic had indicated.
President-elect Obama might have been better served with a less sweeping effort to distance himself from the Blago team. It’s not illegal to exaggerate separation from a troubled pol, but it’s not exactly a model of “transparency.” And it really isn’t New Politics.