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Nerves fray as Blagojevich explains 'golden' quote

Calling it "that phrase heard around the world," former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich attempts to address the most infamous of his comments on FBI wiretap recordings in his corruption trial.
Rod Blagojevich, Patti Blagojevich
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, accompained by his wife, Patti, addresses the media after opening arguments in his second corruption trial in Chicago on May 2.M. Spencer Green / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Calling it "that phrase heard around the world," former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich attempted Wednesday to address the most infamous of his comments on FBI wiretap recordings in his corruption trial — but fumbled his way through the explanation.

On a day of frayed nerves in the courtroom, Blagojevich's attorneys played the 2008 recording in which he speaks excitedly about his power to name someone to President Barack Obama's soon-to-be vacated Senate seat, saying, "I've got this thing and it's f------ golden" and "I'm just not giving it up for ... nothing."

Prosecutors had used that excerpt to try to show Blagojevich sought to sell or trade an appointment to Obama's old seat in exchange for a top job or campaign cash. The recording has been widely parodied.

But asked by his attorney to explain the statement, Blagojevich said "I'm afraid to answer this, but I'm not quite sure how to answer it."

"I was saying this opportunity is f-ing golden — that's what I was saying," Blagojevich began. After a pause, he continued, "I knew it was a unique opportunity."

It was a rare instance in which Blagojevich seemed unsure of himself. He had said more confidently earlier in the day that the opportunity was more to benefit Illinois residents — possibly by helping woo more federal money to the state — than a benefit for himself.

Patience seemed to be running thin on all sides Wednesday, Blagojevich's fourth day on the stand.

Judge James Zagel angrily chastised the ousted governor for "smuggling" testimony into the trial that had previously been ruled inadmissible.

Zagel said Blagojevich has kept bringing up issues or opinions that he has ruled shouldn't be mentioned in front of the jury. He warned Blagojevich sharply not to do it again.

"This is not fair, this is a repeated example of a defendant who wants to say something by smuggling (it) in," Zagel said.

Zagel, who sent the jury out of the room before admonishing Blagojevich, implied that the former governor's motives were less than pure.

"I make a ruling, and then the ruling is disregarded, and then I have to say, 'Don't do it,'" Zagel said. "And when you do that more than once or twice, it is inevitable that I'm going to believe that there is some purpose other than the pursuit of truth."

Blagojevich appeared taken aback by Zagel's comments. Looking sheepish, he tried to raise his hand in an effort to say something, but the judge ignored him.

Zagel also accused defense attorneys of stalling for time by asking the same questions repeatedly, and he raised the possibility of allowing prosecutors to begin their cross-examination before the direct questioning is done. Zagel didn't say why he thought they might be playing for time.

Blagojevich also began to display frustration as prosecutors continued objecting.

"I'd like to answer this. I haven't even answered," he said before the judge stopped him.

Without jurors present, Blagojevich had earlier told Zagel that he wanted to testify that he believed he wasn't crossing any lines by asking Obama to appoint him to an ambassadorship or Cabinet post in exchange for appointing the president-elect's choice for the seat.

"That I land in a legal place was always on my mind," Blagojevich said. "If someone said it was illegal, we dropped the idea and moved on."

Zagel looked skeptical as he listened. In the end, he said Blagojevich couldn't make any such argument.

"The fact that he thinks it is legal is not relevant here," Zagel said.

Prosecutors had fought to keep Blagojevich from talking about the legal issue, and it's unclear how radically it will affect Blagojevich's testimony going forward or his defense strategy.

What set Zagel off was Blagojevich referring obliquely to FBI tapes that had been edited, and hinting that federal agents may have omitted parts that would have cleared him.

"I said something there," Blagojevich, looking at a transcript of one recording. "It's not there now."

Later, Zagel also sustained prosecutors' repeated objections when Blagojevich several times told jurors about how he often spoke with his governor's office attorney about the Senate seat — implying that he was meticulous about not breaking the law.

Blagojevich started the day seemingly happy to be on the stand, but he seemed to tire as the day wore on. Asked by his own attorneys what he meant by a comment on a recording, he seemed at a loss, and one juror chuckled as a befuddled Blagojevich got lost in the transcripts.

"I don't know what I'm saying here. Who am I talking about?" he said once. "Can you help me?"

Blagojevich, 54, denies all wrongdoing. He faces 20 criminal counts, including attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud. In his first trial last year, a hung jury agreed on just one count — convicting Blagojevich of lying to the FBI.