The stinging criminal complaint against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris raises lots of questions for President-elect Barack Obama – a few of which he answered on Thursday, at his first news conference since Blagojevich was charged in the cash-for-Senate-seat affair.
Here are seven worth asking:
1 – “Did you communicate directly or indirectly with Blagojevich about picking your replacement in the U.S. Senate?”
Obama issued a categorical statement Tuesday that he personally hadn’t spoken with Blagojevich about the seat — but seemed to correct himself in a way that suggested others around Obama might have.
“I had no contact with the governor or his office and, so we were not – I was not aware of what was happening," Obama said.
Yet, according to prosecutors’ characterizations of Blagojevich’s wiretapped telephone conversations, the Illinois governor seemed to believe he had a channel of communications with Obama’s team.
For instance, Blagojevich was recorded speaking to a union official who Blagojevich “understood … was an emissary” to discuss the interest of Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett in the seat, according to the criminal complaint unveiled Tuesday.
But at some point, Blagojevich seemed to become aware that Obama’s team had no interest in his favored option – he would pick Jarrett in exchange for being named secretary of health and human services, prosecutor allege. How did he know that?
Asked at the press conference if he or his people had interacted with Blagojevich or his office about filling the vacant Illinois Senate seat, Obama said he, personally, had not.
But he left the door open to the possibility that his aides may have and promised that he would reveal the results of an investigation of any such interactions “in the next few days.”
He said: “what I want to do is gather all the facts about any staff contacts that may have taken place between the transition office and the governor’s office.”
He asserted, though, that no one on his staff engaged Blagojevich in his alleged efforts to trade the Senate seat for personal benefit.
2 – “Why didn’t you or someone on your team correct your close adviser David Axelrod when he said you had spoken to Blagojevich about picking your replacement?”
Last month, Axelrod unambiguously described a conversation between Obama and Blagojevich about filling the seat.
“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," Axelrod told an interviewer from Chicago’s Fox affiliate.
But then, Axelrod retracted the comment – after the president-elect asserted Tuesday that he hadn’t spoken to Blagojevich. Axelrod issued a statement saying he "was mistaken when I told an interviewer last month that the President-elect has spoken directly to Governor Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy. They did not then, or at any time, discuss the subject."
3. “When did you learn the investigation involved Blagojevich’s alleged efforts to ‘sell’ your Senate seat, or of the governor’s impending arrest?”
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said it was not until Tuesday that Obama learned the details of the complaint against Blagojevich – the same day it was released to the public – and wouldn’t say exactly when or how Obama was notified.
But at least some people got an early heads-up: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. told reporters that he was notified Monday night by federal prosecutors that the investigation was coming to a head, that an arrest was imminent and that Jackson was not a target.
4 – “Did you or anyone close to you contact the FBI or U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald about Blagojevich’s alleged efforts to sell your Senate seat to the highest bidder?”
Blagojevich seems to believe that Obama’s team was aware of – and had rejected – his offers, telling Harris in a wiretapped Nov. 11 conversation that Obama was “not willing to give (Blagojevich) anything except appreciation” for picking Jarrett.
If Blagojevich contacted anyone on Obama’s team even hinting at a possible pay-for-play arrangement, it seems they would have been obligated to report that to law enforcement.
One report out of Chicago suggested the possible tipster was Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s pick for chief of staff and a potential conduit for any communications from Blagojevich’s office to Obama. But Emanuel’s office has denied that story.
5 – “Did federal investigators interview you or anyone close to you in the investigation?”
Fitzgerald said Tuesday he was “not going to speak for what the President-elect was aware of,” but it’s difficult to imagine his investigators did not reach out to Obama or his team during the course of the investigations into Blagojevich and businessman Tony Rezko, given how closely the subject matter involved Obama.
Rezko, a former Obama fundraiser who in June was convicted of 16 corruption-related counts, had alleged that prosecutors pushed him for dirt on both Blagojevich and Obama.
This one was answered directly at the press conference. Asked if federal investigators had contacted him or his people in the course of the investigation, Obama said that neither he nor his people had been interviewed.
6 – “When did you and Blagojevich last speak and about what?”
Obama and Blagojevich both attended the National Governors Association meeting last week in Philadelphia and were photographed shaking hands at the event.
Before the meeting, Blagojevich was quoted saying he had asked Obama’s transition team for federal stimulus aid of $3 billion over the next three years to help fill Illinois’ estimated $2 billion deficit.
If Obama had spoken on the phone with him since Election Day, it’s conceivable that the conversation would have been recorded by the FBI, which in late October won a court order authorizing the wiretapping.
7 – “Do you regret supporting Blagojevich?”
Obama endorsed Blagojevich in his two gubernatorial runs and was among his key advisors during his first bid, in 2002.
During the governor’s reelection campaign in 2006 – with press reports swirling about a grand jury investigation into Blagojevich’s alleged jobs-for-contributions scheme – Obama praised the governor as a leader “who has delivered consistently on behalf of the people of Illinois.”
It doesn’t seem like he shared the same high regard for Obama, at least not lately, considering that during a Nov. 10 conference call with advisers he called his old political ally and the president-elect an obscene name.