The Note, 12/24/08: Open Christmas — Report Won’t be Last Word on Obama-Blago Contacts

By Lindsey Ellerson

Dec 24, 2008 8:15am

That wasn’t so painful — unless, of course, it was. (Or will be.) Maybe President-elect Barack Obama’s Christmas gift will be that now, two-plus weeks into a scandal he was never really caught up in, he can have his transition back. (Riding an 82 percent approval rating for his transition, per a new CNN poll, that’s not a bad thing to own.) But that gleaming example of transparency and openness that went out in five e-mailed pages late Tuesday cracked open a few doors Obama didn’t mind being shut. To the image of this cartoon-of-a-governor clumsily and colorfully shopping a Senate seat, we add more plot twists that are more “24″ than “The American President”: – A union official apparently feeling out the Obama team about a willingness to cut a deal. – A president-elect working with aides to play — that’s right — politics around his old Senate seat. – A chief of staff working the phones (though nowhere close to 21 times) to communicate preferences his boss never really admitted to having publicly. – And the capper — the president-elect and two of his closest friends and advisers interviewed by federal prosecutors. So as not to lose the big picture here — there’s nothing in the report that changes Obama’s fundamental contention (the one backed up by Patrick Fitzgerald): that Obama and friends weren’t playing in any pay-to-play deal. (Did anyone expect there to be?) “Bottom line — If this is the full extent of contacts, it would appear that if Blagojevich–or anyone working on his behalf–was trying to get anything out of Obama, they were doing it awfully subtly,” Time’s Karen Tumulty writes. “Obama Report Clears Dealings With Blagojevich,” reads The Washington Post headline. Even aside, though, from the handful of unanswered questions (and don’t expect answers so long as Obama is in Hawaii and Emanuel is in Africa), might this have been an avoidable cost? To the extent that there’s news in the report, it exists in part because Obama and company worked so hard before to convince the public that this president-elect would never be involved in something as parochial and tawdry as playing a role in choosing the next junior senator from Illinois. Of course, he did care after all: “Obama has portrayed himself as taking a hands-off approach to the governor’s decision about who to appoint to his Senate seat. In fact, the report noted that he was very much interested in who would succeed him in the Senate,” Jill Zuckman and John McCormick report in the Chicago Tribune. “This is a level of interest and involvement in his Senate seat that Obama has not admitted to publicly,” per ABC News. The report “did shine a light on some backstage politicking by Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett over the spot,” the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet reports. A toll, already: “The corruption scandal has drained precious energy from Obama’s preparations to take over the White House,” the AP’s Jennifer Loven and Brett J. Blackledge report. “The release of the report was designed to answer questions and clear the incoming administration of any wrongdoing, but also injected the political specter of an incoming president being interviewed by federal authorities in a Chicago corruption investigation shortly before taking the oath of office,” Stephen Dinan and Christina Bellantoni write in the Washington Times. Why this could linger: Remember that this is the last information Obama will put out there on his own — without the involvement of the hard-nosed prosecutor who’s heading up the investigation. “The report’s conclusions are based on the recollections of Obama aides, not on federal wiretap recordings of Mr. Blagojevich, his aides and his advisers, which make up the heart of the federal arrest affidavit,” Jonathan Weisman writes in The Wall Street Journal. Might there be more out there? “The report does not make clear why Blagojevich stated that he thought the Obama staff was ‘not willing to give me anything.’ It states that none of Obama’s staff ever suspected that the governor was seeking anything improper in exchange for the Senate seat,” The Washington Post’s Michael D. Shear reports. Might we hear about it sooner rather than later? “The House Special Investigative Committee still had not heard whether U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald would provide secret recordings of the governor or sign off on a list of witnesses to testify before the panel that could be part of the government’s prosecution of Blagojevich,” the Sun-Times’ Dave McKinney reports. And it may be some union officials who have the most explaining to do. (Do the Obama folks need any more excuses to sideline card-check for a nice long spell?) “A top union official in Illinois called [Valerie] Jarrett to discuss Blagojevich’s desire to join Obama’s Cabinet — a prospect that both the official and Jarrett agreed ‘would never happen,’ according to the report,” per ABC News. “This conversation, outlined for the first time, could be of interest in the criminal case against [Tom] Blagojevich, who was recorded on the same day as the Jarrett-Balanoff meeting in wiretapped phone calls expressing an interest in a job with an arm of the union in exchange for a possible Senate appointment. According to an affidavit, Mr. Blagojevich was also captured on tape that day telling an unnamed adviser that he was willing to ‘trade’ the appointment for the cabinet post,” Jeff Zeleny writes in The New York Times. “Balanoff, I’m told, asked for the meeting,” Lynn Sweet reports. “It was at that meeting that Balanoff told Jarrett he had talked to Blagojevich about picking her for the Senate and then asked — really feeling her out, it seems — if Blagojevich could be secretary of health and human services. No one suggested a link or a quid pro quo. Whatever schemes or dreams Blagojevich had about being in the Obama cabinet should have ended there.” “The questions abound. Was Balanoff taking action in furtherance of a conspiracy to sell the Senate seat? Although the Obama summary says that Balanoff and Jarrett ‘discounted’ the notion of a cabinet spot for Blago, we don’t know if Balanoff was simultaneously working to get Blago a cushy union job. Moreover, why was the SEIU the go-to labor group to begin with? These queries necessitate some answers,” blogs Jennifer Rubin. And another Rahm tidbit: “Just after accepting the top post with Obama, Rahm Emanuel discussed with Blagojevich the possibility of keeping his congressional seat ‘warm’ for him for a couple of years, the Sun-Times has learned,” Natasha Korecki reports. “Emanuel expressed interest in returning one day to his elected position because he was on track to become U.S. House speaker, the Sun-Times previously reported.” For now, it appears, it’s over on the Obama end — until the next time it’s in the news. Writes USA Today’s Jill Lawrence: “John Jackson, a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, says the only way the Blagojevich mess could damage Obama is if the accounts in the report conflict with information Fitzpatrick reveals later. ‘That would be a formula for long-term trouble,’ he says, and ‘they’re much too bright’ to do that.” Anyone notice that muted GOP response? Here’s guessing Adam Nagourney did: “This image of Republican uncertainty is a testimony to the political skills of the incoming president, and a reminder of just how difficult a situation the Republican Party is in,” Nagourney writes for The New York Times. “More than that, though, Republicans and Democrats say, it is evidence of the unusual place the country is in now: buoyed by prospect of an inauguration while at the same time deeply worried about the country’s future. It is going to be complicated making a case against Mr. Obama, many Republicans said, in an environment where people simply want him to succeed and may not have much of an appetite for partisan politics.” Meanwhile — momentum slows in Caroline Kennedy’s Senate bid. “Resistance is emerging among Democratic officials against Caroline Kennedy as she pursues Hillary Rodham Clinton’s seat in the United States Senate, with Gov. David A. Paterson bristling over suggestions that her selection is inevitable, according to his advisers, and other leading Democrats concerned that she is too beholden to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg,” Nicholas Confessore reports in The New York Times. There’s a not-so-subtle message here: “The governor is frustrated and chagrined, the advisers said, because he believes that he extended Ms. Kennedy the chance to demonstrate her qualifications but that her operatives have exploited the opportunity to convey a sense that she is all but appointed already. He views this as an attempt to box him in, the advisers said,” Confessore writes. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver: “If I were the governor, I would look and question whether this is the appointment I would want to make: whether her first obligation might be to the mayor of the City of New York, rather than to the governor who would be appointing her,” Silver said, per the New York Daily News (which dubs Kennedy “Hizzoner’s pet” in a headline). The Daily News’ Michael Saul runs the numbers Kennedy didn’t want to give out: “Caroline Kennedy will feel right at home in the Millionaires’ Club known as the U.S. Senate: The Camelot heiress’ net worth easily tops $100 million, a Daily News review found,” Saul writes. “Public records paint a portrait of an enormously wealthy 51-year-old woman, whose dad, 35th President John F. Kennedy, is featured on the half-dollar coin. Her crown jewel appears to be the 366-acre ocean-side estate on Martha’s Vineyard passed down by her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.” Howard Wolfson’s new job: “Mayor Bloomberg signed on Democratic heavyweight Howard Wolfson to help his reelection bid, suggesting he doesn’t expect to coast to victory,” Kathleen Lucadomo reports in the New York Daily News. “A veteran to New York politics, Wolfson ran Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and helped Sen. Chuck Schumer secure his Senate seat in 1998.” “Around the time of the term limits extension, the mayor’s team reached out to me and suggested I might be interested in coming on,” Wolfson told NY1′s Roma Torre. “I was supportive of the mayor and the more we got talking, the more I thought this was a great idea.” From his e-mail to friends, per Politico’s Ben Smith: “As a New Yorker, I am very excited at the prospect of helping the mayor at this very critical time in our city’s history. . . . It is quite clear to me that the mayor’s strong record provides a compelling case for his reelection — and that he will provide the proven leadership we need to guide the city through the unprecedented fiscal challenges we face.” Not all price tags are bargains these days: “The cumulative value of the stimulus plan should be $1 trillion over two years,” Gov. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., writes in a Washington Post op-ed. “This is a large sum, but if the spending is executed effectively, it should be a significant investment in our country’s physical and human resources that will pay long-term dividends while also creating and saving jobs.” Not there yet, though: “With the incoming administration acknowledging the stimulus plan could cost as much as $775 billion over two years, [Vice-president-elect Joe] Biden seemed intent on reassuring Americans the money would not be wasted,” Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. “In marketing the new proposal, Obama aides seem attuned to public perceptions that large federal outlays are often misspent. Advisors are putting out the message that stimulus money would go to only the most worthwhile projects.” “There will be no earmarks in this economic recovery plan,” Biden said, per ABC’s Sunlen Miller. “I know it’s Christmas. I know it’s the Christmas season. But President-elect Obama and I are absolutely determined that this economic recovery package will not become a Christmas tree. Every dollar will be watched to be sure it’s used in an effective manner.” And the story that lingers: “The recount of Minnesota’s Senate election will continue into next year and may still be underway when the new Congress begins to consider an economic stimulus bill early next month,” John Fritze writes for USA Today. “Minnesota’s race, which pit Republican Sen. Norm Coleman against Democrat Al Franken, was the Senate’s most expensive contest and is the only race still undecided from the Nov. 4 election.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune has Franken up 46 — but lots of ground still to cover. The Wall Street Journal wants President Bush to “improve” (!) his legacy by . . . pardoning Scooter Libby. Per the editorial: “The Bush Administration is mythologized as one in which loyalty is a defining virtue, especially on the part of the President himself. In this dark episode, an honest man became the fall guy in a larger political war over the war. Mr. Libby deserved better — and Mr. Bush owes it to Mr. Libby, and to future occupants of the White House, to give him a full pardon.” The Kicker: “That was my evil twin.” — Howard Wolfson, asked about going to work for a man he regularly derided as an “out-of-touch billionaire.” The Note morning analysis will not post from Wednesday, Dec. 25 through Friday, Jan. 2. We’ll be back Monday Jan. 5 — happy holidays! Bookmark the link below to get The Note’s daily morning analysis: For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s new blog . . . all day every day: Follow The Note blog via Twitter:

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