The Obama Watch

Subpoena the President

The drip-drip-drip of the Blagojevich trial slowly drowns his credibility.

By 7.21.10

It was a rocky end to a charmed presidential campaign.

On December 9, 2008, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested and charged with trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat. It was an act of patronage so galling, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald insisted, "[T]he conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave." It was a deep pothole for the president-elect, then riding high on the goodwill of the American people. Although Obama wasn't directly implicated in the corruption, the intrigue of the case threatened to ensnare top advisors Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett, both of whom were more directly involved.

Obama immediately absolved himself of any responsibility. He insisted he "was not aware of what was happening" with Blago. In a statement released later that month, the White House claimed, "The president-elect had no contact or communication with Gov. Blagojevich or members of his staff about the Senate seat."

Two officials under oath in Blagojevich's trial have now contradicted those statements. Unless there's been a bizarre conspiracy of perjury, Obama was lying.

In April, Rod Blagojevich's lawyers revealed that an unnamed union official had connected Obama to the conspiracy. According to FBI tapes, an unnamed union president (Politico believes him to be former SEIU president Andy Stern) testified that one of his deputies was asked by Obama to reach out to Blagojevich and float the idea of appointing Valerie Jarrett to fill the vacant Senate seat. (Jarrett hadn't yet decided to accompany the president to Washington as an advisor.) An interview with the liaison himself confirmed this.

Then Blago's former chief of staff, John Harris, identified another intermediary between Obama and Blagojevich. John Wyma, a lobbyist and friend of Rahm Emanuel's, had been dispatched by the president-elect to tell Blago that Obama "would be thankful and appreciative" if Jarrett was made the next senator from Illinois. Wyma talked to Harris who then phoned Blagojevich, resulting in an expletive-laden temper tantrum from the loony ex-governor. "They're not willing to give me anything but appreciation, f--k them," Blago ranted.

None of this directly implicates the president in the attempted sale of his Senate lectern. But it does make him a liar. According to his statement on the Blagojevich mess released in December 2008, "In various conversations with transition staff and others, the president-elect expressed his preference that Valerie Jarrett work with him in the White House. He also stated that he would neither stand in her way if she wanted to pursue the Senate seat nor actively seek to have her or any other particular candidate appointed to the vacancy." But until Jarrett decided to head for the White House, Obama was sending signal flares up on her behalf in front of the Illinois governor's mansion.

Then things got murkier. Harris testified that not only had Obama maneuvered on Jarrett's behalf, he knew all along that Blagojevich wanted a quid pro quo. "The president understands that the governor would be willing to make the appointment of Valerie Jarrett as long as he gets what he's asked for.…The governor gets the Cabinet appointment he's asked for," Harris later testified. Far from being "not aware of what was happening," as he claimed in his statement, Obama knew exactly what the governor was up to.

To be fair, there's little evidence that Team Obama ever assented to Blago's attempted quid pro quo and even less that Obama himself approved it. Blagojevich was spitting with fury in those recorded phone conversations for a reason. The president-elect was refusing to play ball.

But it does show that Obama was immersed far deeper in the Blagojevich cesspool than he initially claimed. The president knew exactly who he wanted to fill his Senate seat and was fully aware of Blagojevich's intentions.

It begs the question: What else does Obama know? It's time to subpoena the president to the Blagojevich trial and ascertain just how high up this corruption went. Obama is the one missing link in this entire detective story. Blago's lawyers asked the judge to subpoena the president after the union official exposed his lie, but the judge refused. Nevertheless, Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett were later subpoenaed.

Even if Obama isn't charged with anything more than lying, he's still guilty of diving into Chicago's worst political swamps. Obama was all-in for Blagojevich early on, when Blago first ran for governor in 2002. According to Rahm Emanuel, a small group of advisors burned the midnight oil to get Blago elected: Clinton strategist David Wilhelm, an unnamed second aide, Emanuel himself, and Barack Obama. Rahm told the New Yorker that he and Obama "participated in a small group that met weekly when Rod was running for governor. We basically laid out the general election, Barack and I and these two." (After Blago was arrested, Emanuel claimed that he'd misspoken. Funny how that happens.)

As late as 2006, Blagojevich still had an ally in Obama, even as his approval numbers plunged to the lowest of any governor in America and the Illinois press was openly speculating that he was a sociopath.

Now Blagojevich has soured on his former friends. It's been reported that he was furious that he'd taken the fall while Obama and Emanuel were allowed to walk into the White House with their hands washed clean. As information drips out of his trial that undermines the president's credibility, he may get his revenge yet.

An outrageously-coiffed, sociopathic former governor trying to bring down the president of the United States at his own trial. Only in Chicago.

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Matt Purple is an editor at