The Blago trial went to intermission this week after government prosecutors rested their case a month ahead of schedule. The case holds national interest primarily because of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s connections to President Obama, and because of the potential that information damaging to the White House might emerge during testimony.
Here’s the good news and the bad news so far for Obama.
Good news: there has been no evidence that Obama or anyone in his circle ever came close to discussing or offering a quid pro quo to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in exchange for an appointment of Valerie Jarrett to replace Obama in the Senate seat he was vacating.
Obama and those who worked for him appear to have had had little regard for Blago and his myriad attempts to squeeze something, anything, out of them: Secretary of Health and Human Services, Ambassador to India, head of Change to Win, a coalition of labor unions.
Bad news: Obama has clearly not told the whole truth in the past about his involvement in trying to get Jarrett to replace him, and the degree to which he pushed her.
After Obama was elected, his transition staff released a memo two days before Christmas, after he had arrived in Hawaii for vacation. The memo downplayed Obama’s desire for Jarrett to be named by Blago to his seat, and said that his statements on Dec. 11 were true.
“I had no contact with the governor’s office. I did not speak to the governor about these issues. That I know for certain,” Obama said on Dec. 11, 2008.
The Dec. 23 memo from Greg Craig, who went on to become White House Counsel, said that “the President-Elect had no contact or communication with Governor Blagojevich or members of his staff about the Senate seat.”
“In various conversations with transition staff and others, the President-Elect expressed his preference that Valerie Jarrett work with him in the White House,” the Craig memo stated. “He also stated that he would neither stand in her way if she wanted to pursue the Senate seat nor actively seek to have her or any other particular candidate appointed to the vacancy.”
But it seems clear from testimony in the Blago trial that Obama did “actively seek” to have Jarrett put into his Senate seat.
Obama made contact with Blago staff or associates – through his own staff or surrogates – several times in the days leading up to the Nov. 4, 2008 presidential election and in the days following.
On Nov. 2, 2008, Rahm Emanuel, who went on to become White House chief of staff, called Blago chief of staff John Harris to tell him that Obama wanted a “close friend” appointed to the seat. Harris testified June 22, 2010 that he understood this to be a reference to Jarrett.
This contact was not mentioned in the Craig report.
On Nov. 3, the night before the election, Obama himself called Tom Balanoff, head of the Service Employees International Union state chapter, and told him that while he preferred to see Jarrett come to work for him at the White House, she wanted to be a senator and she fit the qualifications. Balanoff told Obama he would take the recommendation to Blago.
This contact also was not mentioned in the Craig report.
Between Nov. 6 and Nov. 8, the Craig report said that Emanuel “had one or two telephone calls with Governor Blagojevich.”
“Mr. Emanuel recommended Valerie Jarrett because he knew she was interested in the seat,” the Craig report stated. But the report also said that Emanuel learned “in further conversations with the President-Elect that [Obama] had ruled out communicating a preference for any one candidate.
Obama, the Craig report said, “believed it appropriate to provide the names of multiple candidates to be considered, along with others, who were qualified to hold the seat and able to retain it in a future election.”
The report also said that “Jarrett decided on November 9, 2008 to withdraw her name from consideration as a possible replacement for him in the Senate and to accept the White House job.”
But this narrative is contradicted by testimony in the trial last month by Harris, who said that John Wyma, a lobbyist who was close to Blago and Emanuel, called him on Nov. 10 with a message from Emanuel. Wyma told Harris that Obama “would be thankful and appreciative” if Jarrett was named to the Senate seat.
If true, this is the most blatant and aggressive push for Jarrett to have come from Obama, and it would have come after the Craig report said Jarrett had withdrawn her name from consideration.
The report also states that Emanuel and Harris spoke four other times between Nov. 5, the day Emanuel accepted the job as White House chief of staff, and Dec. 8, but that no quid pro quo was discussed.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has refused to discuss these discrepancies.
The discrepancies raise obvious questions about why Obama and those who work for him would not tell the whole story, especially if no wrongdoing occurred. The fuller story, combined with other back room politicking by Obama after he was elected, has tarnished Obama’s claim during the election to stand for a different kind of politics.
Obama articulated his claim to have a higher ethic on the same day he denied any involvement with Blago, on Dec. 11, 2008.
“There’s a view of politics that says you go in this for sacrifice and public service, and then there’s a view of politics that says that this is a business, and you’re wheeling and dealing, and what’s in it for me?” Obama said. “We know that in state houses and city councils all across America there are times where people are not thinking about what’s best for the public good but rather making narrow political calculations. And our whole campaign was about changing that view of politics.”