Governor at Arm's Length
The incoming White House counsel finds no problems with how Barack Obama's staff dealt with Rod Blagojevich.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

THE CONCLUSION by President-elect Barack Obama's lawyer that neither the president-elect nor anyone on his transition team engaged in any impropriety relating to the vacant Illinois Senate seat will no doubt be greeted with some skepticism. After all, it was not likely that the report would contradict Mr. Obama's earlier assertions that he had not spoken with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) about the vacancy and that there were no inappropriate staff-level contacts with Mr. Blagojevich's office. Nonetheless, unless there are facts that the Obama team did not unearth or that it chose to conceal -- and there is no indication of either -- the report by incoming White House counsel Gregory B. Craig turns out to hardly have been worth some of the hyperventilating leading up to it.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the report released yesterday may be the degree to which Mr. Obama, even behind the scenes, took a relatively hands-off posture on the subject of his replacement. Rather than try to clear the field for a longtime friend and adviser, Valerie Jarrett, to take the Senate seat, Mr. Obama, according to the report, "expressed his preference that Valerie Jarrett work with him in the White House." When Deputy Gov. Louanner Peters asked Eric Whitaker, a close friend of the president-elect, about who spoke for Mr. Obama on the Senate seat, Mr. Obama told Mr. Whitaker "that he had no interest in dictating the result of the selection process, and he would not do so, either directly or indirectly through staff or others." The incoming White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, suggested Ms. Jarrett for the job before Mr. Obama told him he did not want to recommend any particular candidate; then, through Mr. Emanuel, Mr. Obama passed on the names of several people he considered qualified.

Although the criminal complaint against Mr. Blagojevich quotes him on wiretapped telephone calls imagining various goodies he could procure in return for the Senate appointment -- a Cabinet position, a job in the private sector or with a nonprofit -- the review found no indication that anyone associated with Mr. Obama had any inkling of Mr. Blagojevich's alleged interest in such benefits. The only episode that comes close to suggesting that Mr. Blagojevich wanted something from the incoming administration concerns Ms. Jarrett's conversation with Tom Balanoff, the head of the Illinois chapter of the Service Employees International Union, about her potential interest in the job. In the course of that conversation, Mr. Balanoff told Ms. Jarrett that the governor had raised with him the possibility of being appointed secretary of health and human services. "Mr. Balanoff told Ms. Jarrett that he told the Governor it would never happen," the report said. "Jarrett concurred."

The report has been long in coming; it was completed last week but was held up at the request of U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who interviewed Mr. Obama, Ms. Jarrett and Mr. Emanuel over the past several days. Mr. Blagojevich's legal and political troubles continue. But it appears for now that Mr. Obama and his team can put this distraction behind them.

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