President Obama may be elsewhere, dealing with issues like the BP oil spill and America’s financial recovery, but his presence is still very much felt at the federal trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
US District Judge James Zagel spared Mr. Obama from the trial in downtown Chicago, ruling out an early defense request that he testify. But the president is often the subject of daily testimony by Chicago political operators.
This week, jurors have been listening to testimony and taped conversations that prosecutors say show Mr. Blagojevich was trying to profit from his power to appoint a senator. Obama vacated one of Illinois’s US Senate seats after he was elected president.
Blagojevich’s defense says that Obama, through different emissaries, was a participant in the backdoor, and often crass, negotiations about giving the seat to Obama friend and current White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Chicago lawyer Andrew Stoltmann says that Obama, like many figures connected to the state’s political theater, is doing his best to distance himself from the trial because it “exposes the seedy underbelly of Illinois politics.”
“I can guarantee you that Barack Obama doesn’t want to be anywhere near that mix. I don’t think it helps him. I think it makes Obama look like the old-style politician he doesn’t want to be,” Mr. Stoltmann says.
Obama’s involvement was highlighted this week through the testimony of Tom Balanoff, the Midwest head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who was considered a political friend to both Obama and Blagojevich.
Mr. Balanoff testified that Obama made two calls to his mobile phone the night before the 2008 presidential election. According to Balanoff, Obama mentioned Ms. Jarrett as an interested candidate but said he was not supporting anyone in particular. After the election, Balanoff met with Blagojevich to recommend Jarrett for the seat.
According to the prosecution, Blagojevich also met with Andy Stern, then the national head of the SEIU, who reiterated Jarrett’s qualifications.
Audiotapes of conversations between Blagojevich and aides reveal that the two SEIU officials directed Blagojevich to call Obama adviser David Axelrod to confirm Obama’s wishes.
Blagojevich and John Harris, his former chief of staff, are heard on the tapes speculating why Obama was sending emissaries and not reaching out to them directly.
“It puzzles me why they wouldn’t be a little bit more, uh, overt about it,” Mr. Harris says.
“I’ll tell you why – because they don’t want anybody to say that [Obama’s] saying it,” Blagojevich replies. “They don’t want a trick bag.... They want to be very careful and protect him.”
In the same conversation, Blagojevich is heard saying: “It’s pretty obvious … Obama doesn’t want it getting out that he’s pushing somebody.”
As indicated in the tapes, Blagojevich considered himself a viable candidate for a number of positions in Washington, including US secretary of Health and Human Services, because he perceived Obama as invested in the naming of his successor.
When it became clear he would not be invited to Washington for a job, Blagojevich is heard angrily denouncing Obama, fantasizing that he could have beaten Obama in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and complaining that the president’s newfound popularity made him a “demigod.”
Albert Alschuler, a law professor at Northwestern University School of Law who specializes in criminal justice, says the presence of Obama's name in the trial “adds to the drama of the occasion” but “does not suggest anything damaging” to the president. Just because Obama had an opinion about his successor did not necessarily show any impropriety on his part, Mr. Alschuler says.
“It’s certainly appropriate to have an opinion on the subject. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with supporting a particular candidate,” he says.
What is striking about the trial so far, Alschuler says, is how effective the live testimony from former Blagojevich aides is in connecting the dots with the political wrangling heard on tape.
“I wasn’t expecting them to tie Blagojevich so tightly as they have to quid pro quo exchanges on the tapes,” he says. “The tapes themselves seem to be strong evidence.”
Blagojevich is charged with 24 counts that include bribery and racketeering.