Launching an all-out media blitz as his impeachment trial draws near, Gov. Rod Blagojevich compared himself Friday to an honest, hardworking cowboy about to be lynched by a band of black-hatted political insiders eager to raise taxes.
After keeping mostly out of the public eye since his arrest on federal corruption charges, Blagojevich reversed course with a series of interviews and public statements.
“The heart and soul of this has been a struggle of me against the system,” Blagojevich said at a news conference Friday.
Hours after he portrayed himself as a victim of vengeful lawmakers, his lead attorney said Friday that he planned to resign from the impeached governor's criminal case.
"I have practiced law for 44 years. I never require a client to do what I say, but I do require clients to listen to what I say," Ed Genson told reporters. "I intend to withdraw as counsel in this case."
Blagojevich denied any wrongdoing but wouldn’t discuss the federal corruption charges filed against him last month. Instead, he focused on his efforts to expand government health care programs without raising taxes.
He has chosen not to mount any defense in the Senate impeachment trial that begins Monday and could remove him from office within days. He may ask the Illinois Supreme Court to block the trial, arguing its rules are hopelessly biased against him.
'They're just hanging me'
Blagojevich, a fan of Western movies, drew a long analogy Friday between his situation and that of a cowboy accused of stealing a horse. His story ended with one cowboy suggesting the accused thief be hanged, with the other suggesting he first be tried, then hanged.
“Under these rules, I’m not even getting a fair trial; they’re just hanging me. And when they hang me under these rules that prevent due process, they’re hanging the 12 million people of Illinois who twice have elected a governor,” he said.
The Democratic governor told The Associated Press on Thursday night that he’s willing to sacrifice himself for principle by standing up to lawmakers he believes are violating the Illinois Constitution. “The fight will continue,” he said.
Yet Blagojevich’s main fight right now is a public relations battle, such as calling Friday for Illinois newspapers to publish editorials demanding the Senate change its trial rules.
It’s not clear what, if anything, Blagojevich hopes to gain from his strategy of boycotting the impeachment trial and defending himself through the media.
Several legal experts said they could see some benefit to participating in the trial or resigning office. But refusing to do either makes little sense, they said.
“There’s no benefit at all, except to make himself look ridiculous. In addition, anything he says can be used against him later” in court,” said Leonard Cavise, a law professor at DePaul University.
Federal subpoenas of Blagojevich's administration include requests for records involving senior advisers to President Barack Obama.
Among 43 subpoenas released by the Blagojevich administration Friday, one on Dec. 8 seeks any data relating to Obama advisers David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and 32 other people and organizations.
That was the day before the FBI arrested Blagojevich on charges that he tried to auction off Obama's Senate seat for campaign cash or a job. Wiretapped conversations show Blagojevich thought Jarrett was interested in the seat.
Obama's staff released a report in December clearing his advisers of wrongdoing in communicating with the two-term Democrat about the seat. But Axelrod, a Chicago political strategist now in the White House, was not mentioned.
The other subpoenas seek everything from hiring records to the first lady's appointment calendar.
Blagojevich also suffered a legal setback Friday when a federal court ruled that state lawmakers could hear a handful of FBI wiretaps made in the investigation that led to his arrest.
In a court motion, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said the conversations show Blagojevich conspiring with a lobbyist to collect campaign money in exchange for the governor signing gambling legislation.
Blagojevich's arrest triggered impeachment proceedings, and the House voted almost unanimously to send his case to the Senate for trial. A Senate conviction would remove him from office but have no impact on the continuing criminal case.
The only way Blagojevich can stay in office is to find 20 of the Senate’s 59 members willing to vote for his acquittal. It’s possible he hopes defending himself in interviews will inspire the public to pressure senators to support him.
Or Blagojevich may hope to build sympathy among potential jurors in some future criminal trial.
No love from public
But there’s little evidence of goodwill left among the public.
Shortly after his arrest, an independent poll found his job-approval rating had dwindled to just 8 percent. More recently, a poll for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform found that nearly 8 out of 10 Illinois residents believe the state is on the wrong track.
The combative approach is a return to a favorite Blagojevich tactic.
Since taking office six years ago, he has often portrayed himself as a lone champion of the people, outnumbered by uncaring lawmakers, a lazy bureaucracy and slick lobbyists.
“I took that system on. I challenged that system,” he said Friday. “That’s what this is all about.”
The governor twisted facts or exaggerated to support his version of events.
He has repeatedly said he wouldn’t be allowed to call witnesses in the Senate trial, but that’s not correct. Trial rules prohibit witnesses that federal prosecutors feel would interfere with their criminal case, but Blagojevich could have called other people.
He has specifically mentioned wanting to call governors and senators to testify about all the good he’s done. Nothing in Senate rules would have barred those witnesses. Blagojevich never asked to have them testify.