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I can’t say I’d give Barack Obama high marks for his handling of the Rod Blagojevich indictment today. But some reporting is being a little presumptuous about what the President-elect and his team might or might not have known. As Jake Tapper writes:

Then there’s the big question about how Blago was so sure — so angry — that Team Obama would not pay to play.

Who in the Obama Team was talking to the Governor’s office?

When they found out that Blago wanted to quid pro quo Team Obama (Jarrett gets the Senate seat if Blago gets a Cabinet position, or a good-paying job with a union-affiliated organization, or his wife gets a seat on some corporate boards) what did they do?

One needs to remember that the bulk of the criminal complaint against Blagojevich consists of somewhat delusional, masturbatory and half-baked schemes discussed between Blagojevich and his advisers. On the other hand, there are relatively few conversations between Blagojevich and representatives of any of the various Senate candidates, and when such conversations do occur, Blagojevich proceeds at least somewhat more cautiously.

Let’s look at the meat of Fitzgerald’s complaint:

101. On November 10, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH, his wife, JOHN HARRIS, Governor General Counsel, and various Washington-D.C. based advisors, including Advisor B, discussed the open Senate seat during a conference call. (The Washington D.C.-based advisors to ROD BLAGOJEVICH are believed to have participated on this call from Washington D.C.). Various individuals participated at different times during the call. The call lasted for approximately two hours, and what follows are simply summaries of various portions of the two-hour call.

[...]

c. ROD BLAGOJEVICH said that the consultants (Advisor B and another consultant are believed to be on the call at that time) are telling him that he has to “suck it up” for two years and do nothing and give this “motherfucker [the President-elect] his senator. Fuck him. For nothing? Fuck him.” ROD BLAGOJEVICH states that he will put 64 “[Senate Candidate 4]” in the Senate “before I just give fucking [Senate Candidate 1] a fucking Senate seat and I don’t get anything.” (Senate Candidate 4 is a Deputy Governor of the State of Illinois). ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated that he needs to find a way to take the “financial stress” off of his family and that his wife is as qualified or more qualified than another specifically named individual to sit on corporate boards. According to ROD BLAGOJEVICH, “the immediate challenge [is] how do we take some of the financial pressure off of our family.” Later in the phone call, ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated that absent getting something back, ROD BLAGOJEVICH will not pick Senate Candidate 1. HARRIS re-stated ROD BLAGOJEVICH’s thoughts that they should ask the President-elect for something for ROD BLAGOJEVICH’s financial security as well as maintain his political viability. HARRIS said they could work out a three-way deal with SEIU and the President-elect where SEIU could help the President-elect with ROD BLAGOJEVICH’s appointment of Senate Candidate 1 to the vacant Senate seat, ROD BLAGOJEVICH would obtain a position as the National Director of the Change to Win campaign, and SEIU would get something favorable from the President-elect in the future.

At this point, November 10th, Blagojevich is obviously aware of Valerie Jarrett’s (“Candidate 1′s”) prospective interest in the position. However, it would also appear that to this point, Blagojevich had not yet asked for any sort of quid-pro-quo in exchange for her appointment. Hence, the language that Blagojevich “should ask the President-elect for something”.

Blagojevich, certainly, is highly frustrated by the situation. That could represent any number of things — perhaps Blagojevich recognizes that it will be very difficult to wring anything out of Obama, a conclusion that one could reasonably come to without actually having asked anything of him. Obama’s having signaled his support for Jarrett is a nuisance to him; Blagojevich would rather be left to his own devices, free to play the various candidates off of one another.

104. On November 11, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH talked with JOHN HARRIS about the Senate seat. ROD BLAGOJEVICH suggested starting a 501(c)(4) organization (a non-profit organization that may engage in political activity and lobbying) and getting “his (believed to be the President-elect’s) friend Warren Buffett or some of those guys to help us on something like that.” HARRIS asked, “what, for you?” ROD BLAGOJEVICH replied, “yeah.” Later in the conversation, ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated that if he appoints Senate Candidate 4 to the Senate seat and, thereafter, it appears that ROD BLAGOJEVICH might get impeached, he could “count on [Senate Candidate 4], if things got hot, to give [the Senate seat] up and let me parachute over there.” HARRIS said, “you can count on [Senate Candidate 4] to do that.” 104. On November 11, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH talked with JOHN HARRIS about the Senate seat. ROD BLAGOJEVICH suggested starting a 501(c)(4) organization (a non-profit organization that may engage in political activity and lobbying) and getting “his (believed to be the President-elect’s) friend Warren Buffett or some of those guys to help us on something like that.” HARRIS asked, “what, for you?” ROD BLAGOJEVICH replied, “yeah.” Later in the conversation, ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated that if he appoints Senate Candidate 4 to the Senate seat and, thereafter, it appears that ROD BLAGOJEVICH might get impeached, he could “count on [Senate Candidate 4], if things got hot, to give [the Senate seat] up and let me parachute over there.” HARRIS said, “you can count on [Senate Candidate 4] to do that.” Later in the conversation, ROD BLAGOJEVICH said he knows that the President-elect wants Senate Candidate 1 for the Senate seat but “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. Fuck them.”

[...]

ROD BLAGOJEVICH asked, “if I get [Senate Candidate 6] to do something like that, is it worth giving him the Senate seat?” Advisor A responded that it would be hard to put Senate Candidate 6 in the Senate seat. ROD BLAGOJEVICH said that it would be better than putting Senate Candidate 1 in the Senate and not getting anything back. Later in the conversation, ROD BLAGOJEVICH and Advisor A again discussed the possibility of a 501(c)(4) organization, and ROD BLAGOJEVICH again noted that “[Senate Candidate 6]” could “do it.” ROD BLAGOJEVICH and Advisor A discussed who might be close to Senate Candidate 6 to talk with him about the issue, because ROD BLAGOJEVICH did not “want to be the one to ask something like that.” Advisor A agreed to find out who is close to Senate Candidate 6.

The next day, Blagojevich comes up with an idea: perhaps a 501(c)(4) can be set up for him; presumably he could gain money and stature by being the chief executive of such a 501(c)(4). (A 501(c)(4) is a nonprofit interest group; examples include the AARP and the NAACP, although others are more overtly partisan). Perhaps the 501(c)(4) idea is something that can be peddled to Obama without seeming too overtly corrupt, something closer to the ‘favor’ end of the spectrum than the ‘bribe’ end.

Also note that Blagojevich is at least somewhat aware of his need to use discretion. In a subsequent conversation about a different candidate (“Candidate 6″), he suggests that he would be uncomfortable expressing the 501(c)(4) idea directly to the candidate, and seeks an intermediate.

106. On November 12, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH talked with JOHN HARRIS. ROD BLAGOJEVICH noted that CNN is reporting that Senate Candidate 1 does not want the open Senate seat. HARRIS said he thought that is just a tactic.

[...]

109. On November 12, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH spoke with SEIU Official, who was in Washington, D.C. Prior intercepted phone conversations indicate that approximately a week before this call, ROD BLAGOJEVICH met with SEIU Official to discuss the vacant Senate seat, and ROD BLAGOJEVICH understood that SEIU Official was an emissary to discuss Senate Candidate 1’s interest in the Senate seat. During the conversation with SEIU Official on November 12, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH informed SEIU Official that he had heard the President-elect wanted persons other than Senate Candidate 1 to be considered for the Senate seat. SEIU Official stated that he would find out if Senate Candidate 1 wanted SEIU Official to keep pushing her for Senator with ROD BLAGOJEVICH. ROD BLAGOJEVICH said that “one thing I’d be interested in” is a 501(c)(4) organization. ROD BLAGOJEVICH explained the 501(c)(4) idea to SEIU Official and said that the 501(c)(4) could help “our new Senator [Senate Candidate 1].” SEIU Official agreed to “put that flag up and see where it goes.”

The following day, Blagojeivch hears reports that Jarrett is not interested in the Senate seat (Ed — These reports were circulating as early as November 10th). Nevertheless, he arranges a phone call with “SEIU Official”, believed to be Andy Stern, whom he had also spoken to a week earlier. In this conversation, Blagjoveich brings up the idea of the 501(c)(4). However, he does so somewhat obliquely, not expressly discussing the idea in terms of a quid-pro-quo.

112. On November 13, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH talked with JOHN HARRIS. ROD BLAGOJEVICH said he wanted to be able to call “[President-elect Advisor]” and tell President-elect Advisor that “this has nothing to do with anything else we’re working on but the Governor wants to put together a 501(c)(4)” and “can you guys help him. . . raise 10, 15 million.” ROD BLAGOJEVICH said he wanted “[President-elect Advisor] to get the word today,” and that when “he asks me for the Fifth CD thing I want it to be in his head.” (The reference to the “Fifth CD thing” is believed to relate to a seat in the United States House of Representatives from Illinois’ Fifth Congressional District. Prior intercepted phone conversations indicate that ROD BLAGOJEVICH and others were determining whether ROD BLAGOJEVICH has the power to appoint an interim replacement until a special election for the seat can be held.).
113. Also on November 13, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH talked with Advisor A. ROD BLAGOJEVICH said he wants the idea of the 501(c)(4) in President-elect Advisor’s head, but not in connection with the Senate appointment or the congressional seat. Advisor A asked whether the conversation about the 501(c)(4) with President-elect Advisor is connected with anything else. ROD BLAGOJEVICH replied that “it’s unsaid. It’s unsaid.

114. Later on November 13, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH spoke with Advisor A. ROD BLAGOJEVICH asked Advisor A to call Individual A and have Individual A pitch the idea of the 501(c)(4) to “[President-elect Advisor].” Advisor A said that, “while it’s not said this is a play to put in play other things.” ROD BLAGOJEVICH responded, “correct.” Advisor A asked if this is “because we think there’s still some life in [Senate Candidate 1] potentially?” ROD BLAGOJEVICH said, “not so much her, but possibly her. But others.”

Apparently feeling uncertain about whether Stern got his message, the next day Blagojevich brings up the idea of discussing the 501(c)(4) idea directly with an adviser to President Obama (which Stern is not). Blagojevich understands that any such discussions would need to be very discreet (“it’s unsaid, it’s unsaid”; “this has nothing to do with anything else we’re working on”) and involve several degrees of separation between him and the transition team (his adviser would call an intermediary, who would then call the Obama adviser, whose rank or title isn’t known).

The complaint never says whether this conversation actually took place. One day later, however, on November 14th, Jarrett is named to the White House staff, rendering any further discussions moot.

*-*

So what did the President-elect’s team know? Perhaps not a whole lot. We know that Blagojevich had at least two conversations with an SEIU official, probably Andy Stern; Stern is certainly well-connected, but has no formal role with the Obama transition team. In the second of these conversations, Blagojevich broached the idea of setting up a 501(c)(4). He does so somewhat discretely, only loosely tying it to Jarrett, whom at that point may already have become disinterested in the Senate seat. Within 48 hours, Jarrett is named to the White House staff, effectively removing her from consideration for the Senate.

And that’s really all that we know. It’s certainly possible, and maybe somewhat probable, that there were other conversations outside of what is described in the criminal complaint, but at that point we’re just guessing: there is no specific allegation that Blagojevich had any direct discussion with a member of Team Obama.

Stern is whip-smart; in either or both of his conversations with Blagojevich, he may well have picked up an uncomfortable vibe, and that might well have contributed to Jarrett’s apparent decision to withdraw herself from consideration from the Senate seat. However, there is probably some sort of purgatory between a conversation that would make you uncomfortable, and a conversation that you would report to the FBI. Blagojevich was buffoonish in his conversations with his advisers, but far less so in his conversation with outside parties, with whom he understood the need to cover his ass and be discreet.

So to answer Tapper’s questions:

Then there’s the big question about how Blago was so sure — so angry — that Team Obama would not pay to play.

Perhaps because Obama’s the fraking President-elect and you don’t shake down the President-elect. That’s not something you should need to be told. Behind the scenes, Blagojevich dreamed of being omnipotent, but he may have recognized his impotence when it came to Obama; that is something that would have made him angry.

Who in the Obama Team was talking to the Governor’s office?

Andy Stern was talking to Blago. Andy Stern is close to Team Obama, and pretty much everyone else in the “new” Democratic Party, but he isn’t a part of Team Obama. (This is probably no accident. For any number of reasons — for instance, not wanting to upset his colleagues in Illinois by lobbying against their ascendancy to the Senate — it might have been useful to Obama to have some insulation between the transition team and Blagojevich.) It’s not clear from Fitzgerald’s complaint that Blagojevich had conversations with anyone but Stern about Jarrett, although he was certainly contemplating doing so.

When they found out that Blago wanted to quid pro quo Team Obama (Jarrett gets the Senate seat if Blago gets a Cabinet position, or a good-paying job with a union-affiliated organization, or his wife gets a seat on some corporate boards) what did they do?

Tapper is confusing what Blagojevich discussed with his kitchen cabinet with what he discussed with Stern. Some of the more labyrinthine schemes that he and his advisers hatched would have sounded crazy — the only idea that we know he broached with Stern was that of the 501(c)(4), and he did so very discretely.

Blagojevich is an imbecile, but he has at least some street smarts, or he would not have gotten as far as he did. It’s not like Blagojevich picked up the Red Phone, called David Alexrod, and demanded to be Secretary of State. That doesn’t make him any less guilty, but one needs to remember that it’s the FBI that was tapping Blagoveich’s phone, and not the President-elect.

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