TOPICS > Politics

Blagojevich Trial, Minnesota Recount Case Begin

January 26, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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A lawsuit challenging the results of the Minnesota Senate race went to court Tuesday and the state impeachment trial of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich began. Amy Walter of the Hotline updates the stories as well as the latest on the naming of a replacement for a New York Senate seat.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a governor on trial. As the Illinois State Senate began the impeachment trial of Rod Blagojevich, the governor himself took his case to the American public. Today he made the rounds on the morning television talk shows in New York.

Here he is on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

GOV. ROD BLAGOJEVICH, D.-Ill.: Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? How is it that you can make a couple of allegations, take some conversations completely out of context, the whole story is not told and then force somebody to admit to something he didn’t do, and then deny that person who’s a sitting governor a chance to have due process, to bring witnesses, and to defend himself?

This impeachment trial gives me an opportunity to be able to disprove those allegations, show my innocence. And I can do it sooner rather than later, if the Senate allows me to bring witnesses in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the Blagojevich story, as well as the latest on the Minnesota and New York senate seats, we’re joined by Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

So, Amy, how is it, first of all, that he is boycotting his own trial in the Illinois Senate?

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: Right, he has said that he doesn’t think — he thinks the whole thing is rigged and that there’s no reason then for him to go and present his case since the outcome is pretty much decided.

And, quite frankly, when you see that the House voted to impeach him on a vote of 114-1 — the one person being his sister-in-law — it doesn’t look very good for him there.

But the case, really, is this. The reality is this is not a criminal case that you bring before the Senate. It is a political case that the governor and his — that the folks who are working against him, his opponents are saying that they have to make, right? So this is not a traditional criminal case.

And the reality is, since a political case, the governor doesn’t have any political capital as that vote in the House showed. And, furthermore, you know, the issue is really tilted toward the governor. This whole process is actually tilted toward a defendant, because you need a two-thirds vote in the Senate in order to convict him, to impeach him, and that means you really only need to find 20, 21 votes.

That shouldn’t be that hard for a sitting governor who has any political capital at all to do some horse-trading or find a way to find some votes here and there and stop it. But the reality is he has zero votes. Nobody’s with him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So little support, you’re saying, in Illinois.

AMY WALTER: Exactly. Exactly.

Unprecedented case in Ill. senate

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where he's saying he can't call witnesses for himself, what's the truth of that? Because I'm hearing senators and state senators in Illinois today saying, yes, the process does allow him to call people to speak for him.

AMY WALTER: Right, there's a whole process. And, again, because it's not a criminal case, because this is new -- I mean, when we were first reporting on this, talking to state senators there, they were still trying to figure out how this whole process works, because they've never done anything like this before.

But, yes, there can be witnesses called, senators in Illinois saying that Governor Blagojevich missed the deadline in which to present his list of witnesses. There are certain witnesses that he can't call because of the criminal trial. So there are some rules on who you can and who you can't.

And again, because it is so political, there are ways in which you can thwart what would be acceptable in a criminal case or you can accept things that wouldn't be acceptable in a criminal case, but that's not how this process was created.

Blagojevich launches PR campaign

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, I saw that one of his attorneys very publicly quit working for him over the weekend, saying something about the governor wouldn't listen to him.

AMY WALTER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This P.R. move, doing all these interview shows today, smart move for him or not?

AMY WALTER: Well, you know, you have a guy who in some ways -- maybe he got emboldened by the fact that he "won," quote, unquote, with the Burris decision. You know, here he was, he presented Roland Burris...

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is Roland Burris.

AMY WALTER: ... Roland Burris, to be his appointee for the United States Senate seat of Barack Obama. Many people said, "This is not going to happen, right?" He took on Senator Reid even, then President-elect Obama, saying that he agreed with the Senate's decision not to seat Burris. In the end, Burris is seated.

So he may have taken some hope in that, thinking that he can then continue to make his case. But what you're seeing right now is he's going out -- and I think if -- you note that the Senate case, it looks like -- and he's even admitting that the Senate is probably going to vote against him.

For the public, it's the last thing they're going to remember. Here's a guy who went out on the circuit talking about how he considered Oprah as a potential Senate candidate. Is that the last thing in their minds? I don't know if it's a good idea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which was one of the names he through out...

AMY WALTER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... with some other just extraordinary things he said today. But if the Senate -- just to be clear -- if the Senate votes him out...

AMY WALTER: He's gone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... he's gone. I mean, he...

AMY WALTER: Right. And Lieutenant Gov. Pat Quinn becomes the new governor. And there may be a criminal case that he still will have to defend himself, again, a criminal court, not...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's up to the U.S. attorney.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we're waiting to see what happens there.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

Minnesota race heads to court

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's turn to one of these other interesting Senate situations -- governor-Senate situations in Illinois, but now to the Senate, and that is Minnesota, where today judges have taken up Republican Norm Coleman's lawsuit over who won the race.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Take us quickly through that process. When do we finally have an answer? The election was almost three months ago.

AMY WALTER: Well, this is the interesting part, right? You have a bunch of court cases that have already been decided upon. We've had a recount. I mean, this process has taken quite some time.

Norm Coleman saying -- his attorneys today saying there are 5,000 rejected absentee ballots that were incorrectly rejected. We should go through those ballots, go through those, and then find the final count.

The problem for Coleman is, number one, he has to convince the judges that there should be admission of those ballots. And then, if they are counted, that they still have to be enough, right, he has to make up enough votes to overcome Franken's lead. So those are the two issues for him.

I think the really interesting thing, though, when you think about this -- you've pointed this out -- that this is still going. Senator Feingold today said he's planning on introducing a constitutional amendment that would get rid of Democrats in Wisconsin...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrat from Wisconsin.

AMY WALTER: ... Democrat from Wisconsin -- to get rid of this whole process of governors appointing senators. And so we've seen not just with Blagojevich, but Paterson in New York, Governor David Peterson in New York, his appointment has had controversy around it.

And yet the only vacant seat left in the Senate is the one where there was a regular election. So he would get rid of the process, by the way, and it would be replaced by a special election.

So regardless of how you hold these things, a regular election, an appointment, it's not a perfect process. And so I think that by having a special election instead of picking someone, a governor picking or appointing doesn't necessarily take some of the controversy out of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the bottom line in Minnesota is we don't know...

AMY WALTER: We don't know. I mean, it could be weeks; it could be months. Neither side is saying how long the case will take.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the state doesn't have its second senator.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

Fallout from New York Senate seat

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly, Amy, on New York, the choice of Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate. Fallout from that for either the governor or for her?

AMY WALTER: Right, I think we have three pieces of fallout here. One is for her. Will she get primaried in a Democratic primary in 2010? Remember, what makes her such a great candidate in a general election is she's a moderate centrist. That doesn't do her very well among liberals in her party.

Although I will note that she spent the weekend going and talking to folks in the city, in Harlem and in Queens, sitting down with leaders there.

The second is Paterson. Was he damaged by this? The first polls that we have, taken both right before and since, show that he might have taken a hit, that he looks more vulnerable in a primary against Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. He looks more vulnerable if Rudy Giuliani decides to run against him.

So we still are waiting to see the final repercussions, but certainly this story is not over. Even though the pick has been made, the drama continues, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who would have thought we'd still be talking about all this, this far after the election? Amy Walter, thank you very much.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.