Obama’s Answer on Blagojevich — and the Questions it Raises

Dec 9, 2008 9:17pm

If anything, the criminal complaint against Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich portrays President-elect Obama and his aides as good guys, since Blago is seen fuming, cursing at Obama for only offering "appreciation" in return for appointing his preferred Senate candidate, Valerie Jarrett.

But this isn’t just a complaint against a guy who happens to, coincidentally, also be a Chicago Democrat. Team Obama is all over the criminal complaint — as seemingly innocent characters, perhaps even potential victims, of the Blago drama. But they’re in there nonetheless, and that is highly unusual.

Incoming White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett has her own pseudonym – Senate Candidate 1. So is some unnamed individual with ties to the Obama team. Blagojevich has many epithets for the President-elect himself. There are lots of questions about what any of them knew.

Then there’s the big question about how Blago was so sure — so angry — that Team Obama would not pay to play.

Who in the Obama Team was talking to the Governor’s office?

When they found out that Blago wanted to quid pro quo Team Obama (Jarrett gets the Senate seat if Blago gets a Cabinet position, or a good-paying job with a union-affiliated organization, or his wife gets a seat on some corporate boards) what did they do?

Did a member of Team Obama drop a dime on him?

As of now, the lack of answers from Team Obama is all we have. Obama sources say the silence is for two reasons: 1) this is a criminal investigation and they want to be careful about what they’re allowed to say, and 2) they want to talk to everyone, make sure they know just who spoke to whom, and then be able to give one definitive answer with no subsequent shoes dropping.

A problem with this is that President-elect Obama appeared before the cameras today for a previously-scheduled photo op with environmental guru Al Gore.

"Did you have any contact with or were you aware at all of what was happening with your Senate seat?" asked a reporter, the Wall Street’s Journal Jonathan Weisman.

"I had no contact with the Governor or his office," Obama said, "and so we were, I was not aware of what was happening."

As we noted, this contradicted a comment made by Obama senior aide David Axelrod, who told Fox News Chicago about Obama, "I know he’s talked to the governor" — about the Senate seat — "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."

Axelrod has since said he was "mistaken when I told an interviewer last month that the President-elect has spoken directly to Governor Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy. They did not then or at any time discuss the subject."

But there are other problems with Obama’s response as well.

Slate’s John Dickerson writes, Obama saying "I was not aware of what was happening" is "so vague as to be nearly meaningless" and "can mean anything you want it to. It can mean you weren’t aware of anything relating to the Senate seat, or that you weren’t aware the governor was trying to sell the Senate seat, or that you weren’t aware the governor was under federal investigation for trying to sell the Senate seat. ..Was Obama purposefully trying to be unclear? It’s hard to say. It’s a little hard to believe that he didn’t know anything that was happening relating to his old seat."

Then there’s that other part of Obama’s statement — the one that he self-corrects, mid-sentence: "We were, I was not aware of what was happening."

He starts off speaking for the Obama Team. "We were." Then he stops himself and goes back and speaks only for himself. "I was."

He was not aware of what was happening. Not sure about anyone else.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this self-correction — giving Mr. Obama the benefit of the doubt, he was trying to be precise and presumably at that point he wasn’t sure of who in his team had talked to whom on Team Blago, if anyone.

But it does seem to indicate an unspoken acknowledgement that he doesn’t know the whole story, or at least didn’t at that point.

Sources close to Obama say that he found out about the arrest of Blagojevich at the same time we all did, this morning. But it would seem highly improbable that no one there knew anything.

On its website, President-elect Obama’s Transition Team is making a big deal about transparency, posting memos and information about meetings with various, largely supportive organizations.

True transparency means a little more than that, one might posit. It means telling voters about matters that aren’t entirely comfortable to share.

If one is just counting as being "transparent" the act of sharing meetings with environmental groups delighted to be counting down the days until Wyoming gets its favorite son back, then the notion might not mean much.

And that would mean that in order to truly be transparent, the American people need to find out as much as possible, as soon as possible, about what role anyone Team Obama played in any of the various shenanigans Gov. Blagojevich is accused of committing — or any others we don’t yet know about.

- jpt

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