Rahm Emanuel Discussed Obama Shortlist With Blagojevich Staff

Report says Obama and top aides were interviewed by U.S. attorney's office.

December 23, 2008, 5:35 PM

Dec. 23, 2008— -- Incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had a series of conversations with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his top aide about possible replacements for President-elect Barack Obama in the Senate -- but he never discussed any possible deals with them, according to a report prepared by the Obama transition office  and released today.

While clearing Emanuel and all other Obama aides of wrongdoing, the report also discloses  that Obama, Emanuel and the president-elect's friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett were interviewed by the U.S. Attorney's office last week, though it gives no details of those conversations.

The report also recounts two previously undisclosed conversations in which people outside the Obama operation talked to insiders about the Senate seat. In one of those conversations, a top union official in Illinois called 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.

Emanuel had "one or two" telephone conversations with Blagojevich after Obama's election victory, according to the report. Emanuel recommended Jarrett as a possible successor -- not realizing that Obama "had ruled out communicating a preference for any one candidate," according to the report written by Obama attorney Greg Craig.

Emanuel then had "about four" telephone conversations with Blagojevich's then-chief of staff, John Harris, during which a list of possible candidates that Obama "considered to be highly qualified" was discussed.

Those candidates included Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes; state Director of Veterans Affairs Tammy Duckworth; Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.; and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.; and -- in later conversations -- state Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Cheryle Jackson, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

"Mr. Harris did not make any effort to extract a personal benefit for the governor in any of these conversations," the report states. "There was no discussion of a Cabinet position, of [a] 501c(4) [post], of a private sector position or of any other personal benefit to the governor in exchange for the Senate appointment."

The report -- released more than a week after it was prepared at Obama's direction -- seeks to make clear that the president-elect's aides were not involved in the pay-for-play schemes that the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago alleged that Blagojevich and Harris were engaged in regarding the Senate seat.

"My inquiry determined that there was nothing at all inappropriate about those conversations," Craig said in a conference call with reporters today. "The important thing to state here is there was only one person associated with the transition that had any such contact with the governor or staff, and those contacts were totally appropriate and acceptable."

Craig added: "There was no reason for Rahm to suspect there was any effort going on, at least with him, and he knew of no effort with anyone else to negotiate some quid pro quo in exchange for the Senate appointment."

Obama and his top aides didn't know about the alleged scheming until Blagojevich's arrest, Craig said.

"They found out about what the governor was doing at the same time the rest of the American public found out about it. And no one suspected that there was any effort to crack the [Obama] circle," he said.

The report does, however, suggest more interest and involvement on Obama's part in the filling of his Senate seat than the president-elect and his top aides had previously conceded.

And in the previously unknown discussion with a union official, the report states that Tom Balanoff, the head of the Illinois chapter of Service Employees International Union, called Jarrett three days after the election and "told her that the governor had raised with him the question of whether the governor might be considered as a possible candidate to head up the Department of Health and Human Services in the new administration."

At the time, Jarrett was widely mentioned as a possible Senate replacement for Obama. She would take herself out of the running for the seat Dec. 12 and was subsequently given a senior adviser role in the Obama White House.

The report continues: "Mr. Balanoff told Ms. Jarrett that he told the governor that it would never happen. Jarrett concurred. ... At no time did Balanoff say anything to her about offering Blagojevich a union position."

Also, in the days after the election, Deputy Gov. Louanner Peters contacted an Obama friend, Eric Whitaker, to find out who "had the authority to speak for the president-elect" on the subject of his replacement, Bauer's report stated.

Obama told Whitaker that "no one was authorized to speak for him on the matter," which Whitaker then relayed to Peters, the report said.

The report stated that Obama -- as he has previously said -- "had no contact or communication with Gov. Blagojevich or members of his staff about the Senate seat."

It allows that Obama did discuss Schakowsky, Jackson, Hynes and Duckworth in conversations with Emanuel and top political adviser David Axelrod -- with the understanding that Emanuel "would relay these names to the governor's office as additions to the pool of qualified candidates who might already be under consideration."

The report also finds that Jarrett, Axelrod and Whitaker did not discuss the Senate seat with the governor, Harris or other members of Blagojevich's team.

On the whole, the list of contacts and brief description of the conversations appears to support Obama's repeated contention that neither he nor any of his staff members had any "inappropriate discussions" with Blagojevich or his top aides.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has also made clear that despite mentions of at least one Obama adviser [Emanuel, presumably] in the criminal complaint he filed three weeks ago, his office is making "no allegations" about the president-elect or his team.

The report represents the most complete accounting to date of the Obama team's contacts with Blagojevich and his top aides.

But the report -- made public after more than a week of delays at the request of Fitzgerald's office -- does not fill in all the gaps in the public record. Obama's team did not have access to transcripts of wiretapped conversations between members of Blagojevich's team and other parties, leaving it to Obama's staff members' own recollections to describe the substance of their talks.

Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant released this response to the report: "While Obama certainly deserves some credit for releasing his team's contacts with Gov. Blagojevich, it remains unfortunate he acted only after political pressure was exerted. Hopefully, President-elect Obama's promises of transparency related to this matter will extend to all communications, including written."

Blagojevich has maintained his innocence and is vowing to fight the charges. He has resisted calls from Obama and others to resign his seat, and he still has the power to appoint Obama's replacement, though his attorney has said he is unlikely to do so because the Senate would almost certainly not seat his selection.

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