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Ill. governor goes on defensive as trial starts

Image: empty desk for Gov. Blagojevic
A desk in the Illinois Senate chamber where Gov. Blagojevich and his counsel would sit is empty on Monday, the first day of his impeachment trial in Springfield, Ill.Jeff Roberson / AP
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Gov. Rod Blagojevich's impeachment trial opened on Monday with a vacant chair reserved for the governor, who boycotted the proceedings and instead spent the day on the TV talk-show circuit in New York, complaining he is being railroaded.

As the Illinois Senate assembled for the first impeachment trial of a U.S. governor in more than 20 years, David Ellis, the House-appointed prosecutor, told the chamber that he will show that Blagojevich "repeatedly and utterly abused the powers and privileges of his office."

In one of his first orders of business, Ellis won approval from the Senate to summon as a witness an FBI agent who oversaw the profanity-laden wiretaps that led to Blagojevich's arrest on corruption charges last month.

Vote could take place within daysWith Blagojevich refusing to present a defense, Illinois senators could vote within days on whether to oust the 52-year-old Democrat on a variety of charges, including allegations he tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by President Barack Obama.

State senators maintained the trial will be fair, despite Blagojevich's attacks on the process.

"We all took an oath to do justice according to the law. I know that everyone is taking the matter seriously and that no one will stand in the way of justice," said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, a Republican.

In a series of TV appearances earlier Monday in New York, Blagojevich insisted he had done nothing illegal and said some of his most inflammatory remarks from the wiretaps had been taken out of context.

“I’m standing for a much bigger principle,” Blagojevich told NBC's TODAY show. “I’m telling them, ‘If you want to throw me out of office then I’d be willing to sacrifice myself for the principle that everyone is entitled to a fair trial in America.’”

"I'm here in New York because I can't get a fair hearing in Illinois," Blagojevich said between TV appearances.

Pressed on what context would justify using Obama's Senate seat to land a job for himself, Blagojevich said he didn't try to make an illegal trade.

"If you do an exchange of one for the other, that's wrong," he told ABC's "Nightline," according to a transcript of Monday night's show. "But if you have discussions about the future and down the road and what you might want to do once you're no longer governor in a few years, what's wrong with that? Those are natural discussions people have. ... Those are legitimate, honest discussions."

'Solemn and serious business'
The impeachment trial opened with the presiding judge, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, telling senators: "This is a solemn and serious business we're about to engage in."

When Fitzgerald asked whether the governor was present, there was a long silence. The seats set aside for Blagojevich and his attorney were vacant.

Fitzgerald ordered the proceedings to continue as if Blagojevich had entered a plea of not guilty.

No other Illinois governor has ever been impeached, let alone convicted in a Senate trial. It would take a two-thirds majority — or 40 of the 59 senators — to remove Blagojevich. The Senate also could bar him from ever again holding office in Illinois.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn would replace him.

The outcome of his impeachment trial has no legal impact on the criminal case against Blagojevich. No trial date has been set on those charges.

Practically the entire political establishment has lined up against him. The last of two House votes on impeachment was 117-1, with his sister-in-law the only dissenter.

In his TV appearances, and in interviews over the past few days, the governor portrayed himself as the victim of a miscarriage of justice. He has likened himself to the hero of a Frank Capra movie and a Wild West cowboy in the hands of a lynch mob. He said he took solace from thinking of Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Blagojevich complained, among other things, that the trial is unfair because he was unable to call White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as a witness. Emanuel has said that Blagojevich did nothing wrong when the two talked about Obama's Senate seat.

"I'm talking to Americans to let them know what's happening in the land of Lincoln," Blagojevich said during his media blitz. "If they can do this to a sitting governor, deny me to bring witnesses in to prove my innocence ... they can do it to you."

Oprah for Senate?
Neither the prosecution nor the defense is allowed to summon any witnesses whose testimony might interfere with federal prosecutors' criminal case against Blagojevich. But Blagojevich has not asked to call any witnesses at all, and said he does not plan to participate in any way.

"The suggestion that this is somehow unfair to the governor is the most self-serving, ludicrous statement I have ever heard in my life," state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican, said on "Good Morning America" during Blagojevich's appearance. "It couldn't be fairer for this guy."

The impeachment case against Blagojevich also includes allegations he defied the Legislature, circumvented hiring laws and traded state contracts for campaign contributions.

In one of the most surprising interviews of the day, Blagojevich said he briefly considered naming Oprah Winfrey to the Senate.

Winfrey said she would have turned him down.

"I'm pretty amused by the whole thing," Winfrey told "The Gayle King Show" on Sirius XM Radio. "I think I could be senator, too. I'm just not interested."