The Note, 12/10/08: My Kind of Town

By Arnab Datta

Dec 10, 2008 8:28am


President-elect Barack Obama wanted to bring some Chicago with him to Washington. But with one stiff wind, Chicago has grabbed Obama and his transition — and blown it off-course for the first time since Election Day.

It isn’t about the direct implications — though having a senior adviser win a pseudonym in a Patrick Fitzgerald legal filing might be enough to keep a scandal around for a while.

What the stunning charges leveled against Gov. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill., mean for the heretofore flawless transition:

1. The underbelly of the Obama political operation, with all its Chicago tints and taints, is now fair game for reporters looking for a story.

2. Obama will not control a news cycle for a while — maybe until Christmas.

3. David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel (and Valerie Jarrett and Andy Stern, and especially Senate Candidate 5) will cringe with every BlackBerry vibration as Blagojevich and his chief of staff are pressed to name names by a no-BS prosecutor.

4. The culture of corruption has put its home on the market and is well into the process of moving to the other side of the aisle.

5. The most open and transparent transition in American history just by necessity got more closed and opaque.

6. Obama’s still-cautious political enemies have what they need to advance the story: a contradiction (and one involving no less an eminence than Axelrod).

It’s that contradiction that might give the story more legs than it might otherwise have, a genuine what-did-the-president-elect-know-and-when-did-he-know-it to keep Team Obama on defense.

None of it represents a staggering blow to Obama’s considerable momentum. But it’s more than enough to keep the transition off-balance and off-message during a critical period: Obama has his first media firestorm to manage, and he’s not even president yet.

In an interview with Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times reporters, Obama says flatly that he never discussed his possible replacement with Blagojevich — but can’t (or won’t) say the same about his staffers. 

“I have not discussed the Senate seat with the governor at any time,” Obama said in the interview

Asked whether any top aides spoke with the governor or his chief of staff, John Harris, Obama responded: “Let me stop you there because, as I said out there, it’s an ongoing investigation,” he said. “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.”

That plus the answer the president-elect gave Tuesday — “I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were — I was not aware of what was happening” — will not be the end of it, not even close.

That’s partly because Axelrod’s now-disavowed statement — “I know he’s talked to the governor” — means a black-and-white contradiction. (Why did it take three weeks for Team Obama to realize Axelrod misspoke?)

As we anticipate the 2016 Democratic presidential primary battle between Blagojevich and Eliot Spitzer, look for Republicans to press — lightly, but firmly — a series of questions (isn’t that always how these things start?):

What are the full range of Team Obama’s contacts with Blagojevich and his top advisers, covering the period that drew Fitzgerald’s focus? Does his commitment to transparency extend to bad news as well as good?

Who in the Obama operation was in touch with the Blagojevich team — communicating at least enough so the governor’s aides knew Obama wasn’t going to play ball? Did they tattle to Fitzgerald? (Was Valerie Jarrett among those in touch — and was plucking her for the White House staff more than a case of fortuitous timing?)

Will the president-elect keep Fitzgerald as US attorney — or name a special prosecutor? Will he take pardons for Blago and others involved off the table?

And why did Obama catch himself and switch from “we” to “I” in his sole statement on the matter? Could it be that “we” know a lot more — or may know a lot more — than “I”?

“It does seem to indicate an unspoken acknowledgment that he doesn’t know the whole story, or at least didn’t at that point,” per ABC’s Jake Tapper. “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.”

Don’t expect much from Obama Wednesday to advance the story, but the daily statement from the transition office is a bit more interesting in light of the latest: “President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden will both be in Chicago hosting private meetings. There are no public events scheduled.”

Did somebody say “Chicago”?: “The conspiracy allegedly dreamed up by Blagojevich was an unwelcome development in Obama’s transition to power, threatening something Obama has avoided throughout his career — the taint of Chicago politics,” Michael D. Shear and Chris Cillizza write in The Washington Post. “Obama was dragged at least tangentially into the scandal by virtue of repeated references to him in the 76-page indictment of Blagojevich. In one section, prosecutors described a deal the governor envisioned involving himself, a union and Obama.”

“Blagojevich and Obama have never been close, and Blagojevich is quoted in the affidavit as frequently speaking of the president-elect with profanity and scorn. But there is an overlap among some of their top political confidants,” Bob Secter and Rick Pearson report in the Chicago Tribune. “Axelrod ran Blagojevich’s successful 1996 campaign for a Northwest Side U.S. House seat, though the two later had a falling-out. When Blagojevich was elected governor in 2002, his replacement in Congress was Rahm Emanuel, now Obama’s designee as chief of staff. Emanuel and Blagojevich have since worked closely on several initiatives.”

There’s no suggestions of Obama culpability, but: “For politicians it’s never good news when a top-notch prosecutor has to go out of his way to distance you from a front-page scandal,” Time’s Massimo Calabresi writes. “And indeed, there are enough connections between the worlds of Blagojevich and Obama that the whole thing has the potential to grow beyond a colorful Chicago tale of corruption to entangle members of the Presidential transition team, to test Obama’s carefully cultivated reformist image and to distract the President-elect just as he is preparing to take office.”

“I think they’re more annoyed than anxious about this,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reported on “Good Morning America” Wednesday. “But they’re not that worried that anything will come up here that will put the president-elect in a bad light — and the irony here, of course, is that Blagojevich is the president-elect’s best character witness.”

When’s the next time Obama will get some focus on a Cabinet appointment? (And poor Al Gore.)

“The ultimate fallout is unclear. As Obama works to set up his new administration and deal with a national economic crisis, suddenly he also is spending time and attention trying to distance himself from Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and charges that the governor was trying to sell the now-vacant Senate post,” per the AP’s Liz Sidoti.

“Obama’s relationship to the case appears tangential, though the charges lump his name in the same stories as Blagojevich at a time when he is trying to focus public attention on his plan to revive the U.S. economy,” Bloomberg’s Catherine Dodge and Michael Tackett write.

“The transition will be called to account for all of its members’ contacts with Blagojevich, and those Obama advisers who are mentioned by pseudonym — including Valerie Jarrett — will face pressure (and the candidate’s promise of transparency) to make a public accounting,” The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reports.

It’s an “immediate test of leadership,” Politico’s Charles Mahtesian and Jonathan Martin write: “Between the criminal charges lodged against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the questions raised by the conduct of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Obama must decide how bluntly — and how personally — to raise his voice against real-life allegations that epitomize what he has called “decades of broken politics in Washington. It’s hard to imagine a timelier moment, or a more compelling convergence of circumstances, for Obama to signal the seriousness of his promise to reform the way Washington goes about its business.”

What Obama has going for him: Lots of those bleeps were aimed at his direction.

“What’s hard to believe is that Blagojevich thought that Obama would appoint him to any slot in his administration,” Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Blagojevich was under a cloud during Obama’s entire presidential campaign, and the Obama team kept him at a distance. The Illinois governor never stumped for Obama — they did not want him — and unlike other Democratic governors, he did not play any significant role in the campaign.”

What else he has going for him (sort of): “In a sequence of events that neatly captures the contradictions of Barack Obama’s rise through Illinois politics, a phone call he made three months ago to urge passage of a state ethics bill indirectly contributed to the downfall of a fellow Democrat he twice supported, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich,” Mike McIntire and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.

“Beyond the irony of its outcome, Mr. Obama’s unusual decision to inject himself into a statewide issue during the height of his presidential campaign was a reminder that despite his historic ascendancy to the White House, he has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics,” they write. “It is a world he has long navigated, to the consternation of his critics, by engaging in a kind of realpolitik, Chicago-style, which allowed him to draw strength from his relationships with important players without becoming compromised by their many weaknesses.”

A punch line with new punch: “ ‘I’m from Chicago,’ Barack Obama used to tell voters wondering whether he was tough enough to win the presidency, drawing laughs for referring to rough-and-tumble — and often corrupt — politics in his hometown,” Christina Bellantoni recalls in the Washington Times. “But the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich on charges of trying to sell Mr. Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder is probably not what the president-elect had in mind.”

Toss in Eliot Spitzer, William Jefferson, and Charlie Rangel, and the Democrats could field a decent basketball team to take on Mark Foley, Larry Craig, and Tom DeLay.

“The arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich on Tuesday marked the latest in a series of scandals involving Democratic politicians — an ironic turn for a party that won control of Congress in 2006 in part by saying it would end a ‘culture of corruption’ under Republican leadership,” Janet Hook reports in the Los Angeles Times. “The corruption charges against Blagojevich come as one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is under investigation by a House ethics panel.”

(Of the Blagojevich allegations: “It straightened my hair,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.)

Other tidbits from Obama’s interview with Tribune Co. reporters: He will take the oath of office as “Barack Hussein Obama.” “I will follow the tradition, not trying to make a statement one way or the other,” he said.

He’ll make good on his promise of a speech in a Muslim capital: “This is something that I talked about doing in the campaign and it’s something that I intend to follow through on. What the time frame is, how we structure that, you know, is something that I will determine with my national security team in the coming weeks and months.”

No time-frame on card check: “I don’t want to anticipate right now what sequences will be on these issues.”

And he’s keeping roots in Chicago: “Let me explain to you, my Kennebunkport is on the South Side of Chicago. We own one piece of property, and that is our home in Chicago. It is 10 minutes away from where Michelle grew up and where her mother still has a house. Our friends are here. Our family is here. And so we are going to try to come back here as often as possible. My expectation would be that, depending on what my schedule looks like, you know, we’re going to try to get back here at least once every six weeks or couple months.”

As for Obama’s successor — who would want the job now, if it’s Blagojevich’s to give?

But it won’t be Blago’s job to give out, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reports: “Right now, the state legislators say they’re going to come into session next week and pass a bill calling for a special election in February. . . . Even if that doesn’t pass, the Illinois secretary of state has the power to certify anybody picked by Gov. Blagojevich. And if that doesn’t happen, the United States senate has the power not to seat anybody picked by the Illinois Governor. Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill made it clear today that the Senate will not seat any Blagojevich appointee.”

He’s sticking around — at least for now (though he’s surely had happier birthdays than his 52nd, on Wednesday): “He didn’t do anything wrong,” attorney Sheldon Sorosky told reporters after Blagojevich appeared in court on Tuesday, per Politico’s Carol E. Lee. “A lot of this is just politics.”

Who’s who in the indictment? Senate Candidate 1 is clearly Valerie Jarrett (now out of the mix for the Senate anyway), and No. 2 looks like Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., tells The Hill that she might be Senate Candidate 3: “That’s the only one I could be,” Schakowsky said, “the one in that offhand mention.”

More from The Hill: “Senate Candidate 4 is a deputy governor, most likely Louanner Peters, whose name was floated as a potential Obama replacement even before the Democrat won the presidency. . . . Senate Candidate 6 is believed by the FBI to be a wealthy man from Illinois, though a top Blagojevich adviser expresses skepticism about the difficulty of appointing him to the Senate.”

Senate Candidate 5 is the one you probably don’t want to be.

So who is it? “Since the ‘long, productive discussion’ statement is believed to be untrue, that person could be Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. Congressman Jackson didn’t talk to the governor about the vacant seat until just recently,” Rich Miller reports on the Capitol Fax Blog out of Illinois. Or: “is SC5 Emil Jones? He has a ton of money in his personal campaign account that would be useless to him as a US Senator.”

Among the intermediaries: “The alleged role of the SEIU official was surprising, given that the union had not figured publicly in the investigation into Blagojevich (D). But on another level, the SEIU’s apparent involvement is an indication of the extent to which it has, under the leadership of its ambitious and controversial president, Andrew L. Stern, become an omnipresent force in Democratic politics,” Alec MacGillis writes in The Washington Post.

“With organized labor holding such high expectations for the Obama administration — notably, hopes for legislation fiercely opposed by business leaders that would make it easier to form unions — officials of other unions were hoping yesterday that the SEIU’s apparent involvement in the Illinois scandal would not undermine their cause in Washington.”

(And the Chicago Tribune held the story: “As the federal probe into Gov. Rod Blagojevich intensified in recent weeks, editors and reporters at the Chicago Tribune balanced a competitive story with a rare request from U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald’s office: To hold off on what they uncovered until a key phase in the investigation could be carried out,” per the Tribune.)

Tracking that other story: “The exact language in the bill is still being tweaked, but an agreement between Congressional Democrats and the White House on a bailout for the big three Detroit automakers has been reached, sources tell ABC News,” Jonathan Karl and Z. Byron Wolf report.

“There is agreement in concept and language is being exchanged back and forth to capture that agreement,” a senior Bush administration official tells ABC News.

Karl and Wolf: “The most important part of the agreement, sources say, is the idea that after the U.S. automakers receive financial rescue they must prove to the government that they are viable. If after a certain time period the U.S. automakers are not found to be viable then ‘the loan shall be called back to the government.’ ”

“The agreement, which is set for a vote in the House today, calls for the government to speed $15 billion in emergency loans to the car companies as soon as next week, and for President Bush to immediately name a car czar to oversee the bailout,” Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post. “The companies would be required by March 31 to cut costs, restructure debt and obtain concessions from labor sufficient to report a ‘positive net present value,’ according to a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because final language was still under discussion.”

Checking in on Minnesota: This won’t help with ballots, but it may with politics. “Federal investigators are looking into allegations that a longtime friend and benefactor tried to steer money to U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, the Pioneer Press has learned. Agents with the FBI have talked to or made efforts to talk to people in Texas familiar with the allegations, according to a source familiar with the situation,” Dave Orrick reports.

RNC Chairman Mike Duncan — fresh off a statement calling Obama’s response “insufficient at best” — is formally in the race for another term as chairman.

“Despite one of the most challenging political climates our party has ever faced, we enjoyed some impressive achievements in the last election cycle,” Duncan writes in a letter to fellow Republicans. “Contrary to all predictions, we shattered fundraising records by attracting more donors than any other time in our history. We made use of the most current and effective technology to spread our message, reach record numbers of voters, and produce a national convention that resulted in our presidential candidate receiving an 11-point bump in the polls.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is doing Letterman Thursday night, ABC’s Bret Hovell reports. And he’s George Stephanopoulos’ exclusive guest Sunday on “This Week.”

The Kicker:

“They’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. F— them.” — Gov. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill., as quoted in the criminal complaint filed against him.

“It is conduct that would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.” — US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

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Ferdous Al-Faruque contributed to this report.

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