At a press conference yesterday naming his energy and environmental team, President-elect Barack Obama sought to clean up some toxic waste swirling around the ankles of his own transition team by attempting to put to rest a controversy that has nipped at his heels this Christmas season. Namely, did he or any of his aides become involved in Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s “pay-to-play” scheme involving Obama’s successor in the Senate?
At another press conference last Friday, the president-elect promised to conduct a review of all staff contact with the governor’s people. At the time, Obama stated flatly that he had not had any contact at all with Blagojevich about the seat and that his staff had made no deals with the governor:
What I want to do is to gather all the facts about any staff contacts that I might — may have — that may have taken place between the transition office and the governor’s office. And we’ll have those in the next few days, and we’ll present them.
But what I’m absolutely certain about is that our office had no involvement in any deal-making around my Senate seat. That I’m absolutely certain of.
Also yesterday, the Obama transition team released a statement on the promised review of staff contacts with the governor’s office. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the statement noted that the review cleared the transition team of any “inappropriate discussions” with Blagojevich and his people:
At the direction of the president-elect, a review of transition staff contacts with Governor Blagojevich and his office has been conducted and completed and is ready for release. That review affirmed the public statements of the president-elect that he had no contact with the governor or his staff, and that the president-elect’s staff was not involved in inappropriate discussions with the governor or his staff over the selection of his successor as U.S. senator.
Well, that’s a relief. Glad to hear it, although I would perhaps want to see that report before making a final determination. After all, just what would the Obama team consider “inappropriate discussions”? Do they mean illegal?
So where’s the report?
“In the course of those discussions, the U.S. attorney’s office requested the public release of the transition review be deferred until the week of December 22, in order not to impede their investigation of the governor. The transition has agreed to this revised timetable for release,” said Obama transition communications director Dan Pfeiffer.
I know what you’re thinking. The release of the written report, timed to just about coincide with Santa’s descent down his first chimney this year, will get lost in all the Christmas celebrating and no one will pay attention to it. You are correct, but what’s a transition team in trouble to do? And if you’re a federal prosecutor who is vulnerable to losing your job if you displease the new boss and you are asked to make a request that the written report on Obama staff contacts with Blago’s office be delayed a few days, what’s the big deal?
That’s pretty fortunate for the Obama team that Fitzy asked them to delay issuing the report. But we already know that at least two top advisors (Advisors “A” and “B” in the taped transcripts released in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich) had discussions with Blagojevich and his people about the Senate seat. The question isn’t whether there were “inappropriate discussions,” but what exactly was discussed between the parties.
The taped transcripts of phone calls on November 7 offer a clue or two about the issues under discussion between the two camps.
On that date, Blagojevich spoke with “Advisor A” about the seat and told him in a phone conversation that he would appoint “Senate Candidate 1 [widely believed to be Obama's first choice, his longtime friend and confidante Valerie Jarrett] in exchange for the position of secretary of Health and Human Services
in the president-elect’s cabinet.”
Speculation about who “Advisor A” might be has centered on Obama’s chief of staff-designate Rahm Emanuel. The press would love to ask Rahmbo if this is the case but, alas, he has made himself invisible and refuses to come out of his house to play with the media.
But the question must be asked: is this an “inappropriate discussion”? Absolutely not. Horse-trading for a Senate seat might seem like run-of-the-mill, grubby politics — but it is not unexpected. One could hardly expect “Advisor A” to go running to a federal prosecutor based on this conversation. He would have been laughed out of Fitzy’s office.