Though Barack Obama isn't accused of anything, the charges against his home-state governor — concerning Obama's own Senate seat no less — are an unwelcome distraction. And 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.
The president-elect was blunt and brief in addressing the case on Tuesday: "I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening" concerning any possible dealing about Blagojevich's appointment of a successor.
It's Obama's first big headache since his election last month, and Republicans were anything but eager to let it go away.
Said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the new GOP House whip: "The serious nature of the crimes listed by federal prosecutors raises questions about the interaction with Gov. Blagojevich, President-elect Obama and other high ranking officials who will be working for the future president."
Added Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee: "Americans expect strong leadership, but President-elect Barack Obama's comments on the matter are insufficient at best."
In Chicago, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said prosecutors were making "no allegations" that Obama was aware of any scheming.
And Blagojevich himself, in taped conversations cited by prosecutors, suggested that Obama wouldn't be helpful to him. Even if the governor was to appoint a candidate favored by the Obama team, Blagojevich said, "they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation."
Disdain for Obama
The two Illinois politicians have never been especially close and have largely operated in different Democratic Party camps in the state. Blagojevich's disdain for Obama was clear in court documents; he is quoted as calling the president-elect a vulgar term in one phone conversation recorded by the FBI.
Still, at the very least, the episode amounts to a distraction for Obama at an inopportune time just six weeks before he's sworn into office. It also raises the specter of notorious Chicago politics, an image Obama has tried to distance himself from during his career.
There were signs the continuing investigation could still involve him.
His statement that he didn't have contact with Blagojevich about the Senate seat seems to conflict with that of top adviser David Axelrod, who told Fox News Chicago on Nov. 23: "I know he's talked to the governor, and there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced, and I think he has a fondness for a lot of them."
On Tuesday, Axelrod issued a statement saying: "I was mistaken. ... They did not then or at any time discuss the subject."
It also appears that Obama friend Valerie Jarrett, an incoming senior White House adviser, is the person referred to repeatedly in court documents as "Candidate 1." That individual is described as a female who is "an adviser to the president-elect" and as the person Obama wanted appointed to the Senate seat. Court papers say that "Candidate 1" eventually removed "herself" from consideration for the Senate seat.
In a Nov. 11 phone conversation with an aide, Blagojevich talked at length about "Candidate 1" and said he knew that Obama wanted her for the open seat but "they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation. (Expletive) them."
One day later, Jarrett, a Chicago businesswoman who is one of three co-chairmen of Obama's transition team and was a high-level adviser to his presidential campaign, made it known that she was not interested in the seat. And, on Nov. 15, Obama announced that Jarrett would be a senior White House adviser and assistant for intergovernmental relations.
Obama has maintained a cordial but distant relationship with Blagojevich during the governor's tenure. He supported his fellow Democrat for re-election in 2006, even though the governor backed someone else over Obama in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary race in 2004. Obama has said little about the many misconduct allegations that have piled up against Blagojevich, and he has complimented Blagojevich for running "a sound administration" with "the right priorities."
Separate circles, but ...
Obama's circle of major Illinois political allies and supporters is largely separate from Blagojevich's, with two major exceptions. Both Obama and Blagojevich got extensive money and support from Chicago businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who is awaiting sentencing after being convicted in June on charges of using clout with Blagojevich's administration to help launch a $7 million kickback scheme. And Obama is close to Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, who has been the governor's staunchest legislative ally.
At least one top aide to Obama, Michael Strautmanis, previously worked for Blagojevich. Obama has appointed Strautmanis to serve as White House chief of staff to the presidential assistant for intergovernmental relations and public liaison. The Chicago native was legislative director and counsel to Blagojevich when the governor was a member of Congress and then helped Blagojevich win the governorship in 2002. There is no indication that Strautmanis is involved in the case.
More details on the case could be forthcoming.
Court documents say they don't include all calls dealing with the governor's efforts regarding the Senate seat appointment. And many people in the documents are referred to by aliases; there's little doubt their identities will eventually surface.
In Chicago, Obama largely kept a low profile as word of Blagojevich's arrest spread.
He went to a gym to work out as he does most mornings but canceled a previously scheduled FBI briefing and, instead, headed to his transition office next door to the federal courthouse. He stayed there and mostly out of sight until a midday meeting with former Vice President Al Gore on environmental and energy issues. That was supposed to be the news of the day out of the Obama office but the president-elect found himself peppered with questions about Blagojevich when reporters entered the Gore meeting for a photo op.
"Like the rest of the people of Illinois I am saddened and sobered by the news that came out of the U.S. attorney's office today. But as this is an ongoing investigation involving the governor, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the issue at this time," Obama said — and then he said he wasn't aware of Blagojevich's maneuvering.
Robert Gibbs, an Obama spokesman, said: "We did not know about this recent part of the investigation until today."
In court documents, FBI Special Agent Daniel Cain detailed several phone calls between Blagojevich and his aides that were intercepted on court-authorized wiretaps over the past month. Blagojevich is accused of conspiring to sell or trade the vacant Senate seat for personal benefits for himself and his wife, Patti. Among his alleged desires: a Cabinet post, placement at a private foundation in a significant position, campaign contributions or an ambassadorship.