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Obama Staff Report Reveals No Inappropriate Communication With Blagojevich

December 23, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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President-elect Barack Obama released a report Tuesday showing no inappropriate communications between members of his staff and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is accused to trying to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat. NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett provides an update.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the report on the presidential transition team’s contacts with Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich about filling the vacant Obama Senate seat.

Late this afternoon, the president-elect’s staff released a five-page report that said there was, quote, “no indication of inappropriate discussions with the governor or anyone from his office about a deal or a quid pro quo arrangement in return for any specific appointment to fill the vacancy.”

The report said that incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had one or two conversations with Blagojevich and another four or so with his former chief of staff, John Harris. They were described as having spoken about who might fill the seat, but making no mention of any personal benefits for the governor.

The report’s release was delayed for a week at the request of Patrick Fitzgerald, the United States attorney in Illinois who brought corruption charges against Blagojevich.

Well, here to tell us more is NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of public TV’s WTTW in Chicago.

Elizabeth, first of all, I guess one piece of news that jumps out here is that U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald did sit down — his investigators sat down and interviewed the president-elect and Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett last week.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour correspondent: That was, I think, the surprising news of the report, Judy. I mean, we now know why the report was delayed. They said they’d had it done by December 15th, and they kept saying but they couldn’t release it until today.

It apparently was because they wanted to go ahead and conduct those interviews with President-elect Obama and with Valerie Jarrett and with Rahm Emanuel, all of whom did bring their own attorneys to those interviews. And we don’t know for sure whether or not they listened to the tapes in those interviews. I would imagine they probably did. But that was a surprise.

Jarrett's Senate ambitions

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, I did see one report that indicated they did, but we're going to work on that separately. Elizabeth, what is the new information or is there anything new? There have been -- the -- I mean, I'm sorry, the transition has been saying that there were -- yes, there were conversations, but no inappropriate contact. Did this bear that out or not?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: I think it did. I mean, you have to remember this report, of course, was done by the transition, but it detailed pretty carefully what kind of contacts were made. Only Rahm Emanuel, they said, contacted Governor Blagojevich. That was once or twice; that was sort of interesting. They couldn't figure out whether or not it was once or twice. And those contacts were made before he accepted the position of chief of staff.

He also had four contacts with John Harris, the governor's chief of staff, also before Rahm Emanuel accepted the position of chief of staff. But they stressed that there were no inappropriate offers of quid pro quo or anything else that would reflect badly on Rahm Emanuel or on President-elect Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what does the report say they talked about?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, they did talk about some candidates who might be appropriate to replace [President]-elect Obama.

Initially, it was Valerie Jarrett who did very much want to run for the Senate. And a top official in the Obama organization last night told me that Valerie Jarrett really wanted to run for the Senate. And Rahm Emanuel took her request to Governor Blagojevich.

And this person said that, really, Rahm Emanuel wanted to make sure that Valerie Jarrett, who he knows is very, very close to President-elect Obama, didn't sort of one-up him in the White House.

But then, Valerie Jarrett talked to Barack Obama, who said, apparently in pretty no uncertain terms, that he wanted her in the White House. He said, you know, do you really want to think about running for the Senate? You're going to have to campaign all over the state. You're going to have to raise, you know, millions of dollars. And he would much rather have her in the Senate.

He said, if she really wanted to do, he would support her, but the idea was that he wanted her with him.

Clearing up contradictions

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is one seeming contradiction here that I wondered if you could help us clear up or understand and that is that Rahm Emanuel was having these conversations with -- a couple conversations with the governor, one or two, and then four conversations with his chief of staff about replacing the senator in the Senate seat.

But then later, Senator Obama, the president-elect, is quoted as telling his friend -- and without getting too complicated here -- Dr. Eric Whitaker, that no one spoke for him. This is after somebody from the governor's office approached Dr. Whittaker.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, that's true. There is sort of a tension there, because they've said both things. They've said that there was a list that President-elect Obama was interested in, in some of the names, like Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr., Jan Schakowsky, those people's names, which had been given sort of an -- some sort of an approval, a stamp of approval by the president-elect, was who they figured Rahm Emanuel would talk to Governor Blagojevich about.

But that early contact was -- Eric Whitaker is a very, very close friend of Barack Obama. He's one of his -- another basketball-playing buddy. And he was approached early on by the deputy governor and said, "Who do we contact in the Obama transition team about the position of senator for your replacement?"

And that was when Barack Obama said, you know, "Nobody. I really don't want to have much input in that."

So I think it's the timing. I think that was early. And I think, you know, like a week or so later, they got together with this list of names that Rahm Emanuel took to Governor Blagojevich.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elizabeth, it also seemed to me, in reading over this report, that the transition team is going out of its way also to say that there was never any quid pro quo raised by the Blagojevich side, either.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, you know, it is interesting. We have from the complaint, from the U.S. attorney's complaint, all these snippets of conversations from Governor Blagojevich saying, you know, this Senate seat is worth gold, and I'm going to, you know, do what I can to hang onto it, what I can to, in essence, sell it.

But nobody on the other side of that conversation has confirmed that. All the Senate candidates that I talked to who were possibilities who said they had talked to Governor Blagojevich, nobody gave any indication that any kind of a quid pro quo was being offered.

And now you have no one in the Obama camp saying that they'd heard of anything about a quid pro quo being offered. So, really, we're going to have to wait to hear these tapes, if and when they are released.

What's ahead in Blagojevich case

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Elizabeth, I did hear a report today that the U.S. Attorney's Office has not yet absolutely declared that those tapes, those transcripts won't be made available. But until they are, does this answer most of the questions, some of the questions? I mean, how much of this would you say, as a reporter, is put to rest as a result of this report issued today by the transition?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, I think the majority of the questions around what kind of contact and what kind of behavior the Obama transition team had with Governor Blagojevich, I think those questions are pretty much put to rest. There does not seem to have been any identifiable inappropriate behavior or discussions of a quid pro quo for that Senate seat.

What the U.S. attorney said was they may let the committee that's investigating impeachment in the Illinois Legislature -- he still hasn't decided whether or not they will be able to hear those tapes. He's supposed to decide that tomorrow.

So he denied them every other request they made to interview witnesses and said that would inhibit his investigation, his criminal investigation of the governor. But he did say, "I'll tell you tomorrow whether or not you can hear the tapes." I would certainly be surprised if he says tomorrow that they can have the tapes, but we'll have to wait and see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Elizabeth Brackett, another day in this interesting development. All right. Thank you very much.