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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Politics

James Rosen

Washington

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Obama’s Circle and the Blagojevich Trial

June 29, 2010 - 6:46 PM | by: James Rosen

On the historic night when Barack Obama captured the presidency, the estimated 240,000 people who crowded Chicago’s Grant Park heard a hopeful and far-reaching victory speech focused on delivering America from a daunting period of bloodshed and debt. “For even as we celebrate tonight,” Mr. Obama said that night, “we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime — two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.”

At the same time, however, the president-elect was also focused on the more provincial matter of who would occupy the Senate seat he was soon to vacate. This has emerged from testimony and FBI surveillance recordings heard at the federal corruption trial, now in its fifth week, of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Among other allegations, Blagojevich is charged with trying to cash in on his power to appoint Mr. Obama’s successor. Prosecutors contend the tapes show Blagojevich demanding campaign contributions, a Cabinet or ambassadorial post, or other favors in exchange for his agreement to appoint some favored individual to the seat. Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and has attempted to show at trial that his actions fell within accepted – and legal – codes of political conduct.

On Tuesday, an official with the Service Employees International Union, one of the country’s most powerful labor groups, testified that then-Senator Obama, confident of victory in the 2008 election, called him twice on Election Day eve to discuss his preferences for who should fill his Senate seat. SEIU officer Tom Balanoff, a political ally of Mr. Obama, told jurors the soon-to-be president-elect told Balanoff the next senator should meet two criteria: The individual should be “good for Illinois” and would be able to retain the seat in a subsequent election.

Balanoff further testified that Mr. Obama said that while he, personally, wanted to have adviser Valerie Jarrett join him in the White House, Jarrett had expressed interest in taking the Senate seat.

In a taped conversation on November 12, 2008, one week after Mr. Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park, Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris – now a witness for the prosecution, following his guilty plea in the case – recounted to his boss the contents of his own conversation with Rahm Emanuel, now the White House chief of staff. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Emanuel had served in the House of Representatives, representing the same Chicago district that Blagojevich had served prior to his election as governor.

“I just got a call from Rahm,” Harris began. He quoted Emanuel as saying, “Pass on three things to Rod and I’m available to speak to him if he’d like to.” “Go ahead, quick,” Blagojevich demanded. “He gave us four names that the president would find acceptable [for the Senate seat],” Harris said. “Who are they?” asked the governor. Harris mentioned Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL); Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL); Tammy Duckworth, then director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and now assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, an early supporter of the Obama presidential campaign.

To these suggestions, Blagojevich listened impassively. But then he disclosed some political intelligence of his own. Blagojevich said Bill Knapp, a veteran Democratic political consultant, had told the governor that Emanuel had his own preferred choice for the seat: Jarrett, now a senior White House adviser to President Obama. Transcripts prepared by the FBI and introduced as trial exhibits in the ongoing trial recount the conversation as follows:

BLAGOJEVICH: Knapp tells me Rahm was pushin’ Valerie.

HARRIS: Interesting.

BLAGOJEVICH: ‘Cause he wants more control over the president, doesn’t want somebody close to her — to him in there.

HARRIS: Yeah, get her out of the White House.

BLAGOJEVICH: Right.

HARRIS: Right. So that he doesn’t have to deal with her every day.

“The selling of the Senate seat — I think those are the charges that people in Washington are most anxious about, because it involves some of the people in the White House right now,” said Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. “There is an enormous interest in Rahm Emanuel back in Chicago, because he’s said that he’s interested in being mayor when Mayor Daley decides to step down.”

But Sweet also told Fox News the president’s political opponents will likely be disappointed if they seek to use the Blagojevich trial to tarnish the chief executive’s reputation. “There’s nothing in the charges,” Sweet said, “that go to President Obama himself. So I think it would be a stretch for even the president’s critics to pin the allegations against Blagojevich anywhere close to him.”

Indeed, it bears repeating that no formal charges of wrongdoing have been made against the president or any of his advisers in connection with the Blagojevich case.

However, this being about Blagojevich – a flamboyant character even in the days when his name was not synonymous with corruption allegations – and about politics in the city of Chicago, the allegations swirling about appear infinite. In August 2009, New York Times reporter Peter Baker asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the claim, advanced in Blagojevich’s memoir, that Emanuel had asked the governor to appoint a placeholder for the House seat both men had occupied, so that after two years as White House chief of staff, Emanuel could purportedly reclaim the seat “and pursue his ambition to become Speaker.” “I do not remember any discussion about that,” Gibbs answered.

Moreover, Blagojevich’s defense team has issued numerous subpoenas that carry with them the prospect for still more Blago-drama. Among those the ex-governor’s defense counsel have subpoenaed to testify are Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has agreed to appear if called, and Alexi Giannoulias, the current Democratic candidate for the old Obama Senate seat.

Emanuel and Jarrett have also been subpoenaed. The White House has not moved to quash those subpoenas, perhaps because it remains unclear whether the defense will actually call them to testify. Blagojevich asked a judge in April to issue a subpoena for President Obama, but the court rejected the motion.

If convicted, Blagojevich could conceivably face a prison sentence that exceeds 400 years – though analysts consider that unlikely – and fines of up to $6 million.

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