President Elect Obama has been running to put his cabinet together and with mostly positive reviews. At the same time he is working to set up his agenda to try to ram things through Congress as soon as he takes office in a month. His Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has already said that the new Administration will use the cover of the economic crisis to put through the most controversial of Obama’s programs. One thing that may derail the momentum is if anyone in his staff is involved in the Blogo scandal, even to the extent of just not reporting it. But if President-elect Obama has shown one important skill during the campaign it was his ability to shake off scandal. On the other hand we are talking about U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the man who “got” Scooter Libby:
Will the Blagojevich scandal damage the incoming Obama administration? Given Rod Blagojevich’s profane railings against Barack Obama, revealed on federal wiretaps, few observers believe — although none know for sure — that the Obama camp engaged in any pay-for-play dealings with the governor, and therefore few see any legal problems for Team Obama resulting from the criminal investigation.
But that’s not the only way the incoming administration might be caught up in the Blagojevich affair. The probe is being conducted, after all, by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the man who prosecuted one of the most intensely investigated and politically-charged perjury-and-false-statements cases in Washington history. In that case, the Plame affair, no one was charged with any underlying crime, yet several Bush administration officials went through repeated sessions before a grand jury, plus interviews with investigators, with their statements subjected to extraordinarily close scrutiny. You don’t think the Blagojevich matter could cause trouble for Obama? Then you haven’t looked closely enough at the Plame affair.
In that case, Fitzgerald and his team of prosecutors were tasked with finding who leaked the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame after Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, criticized the administration over the war in Iraq. But Fitzgerald knew who the leaker was at the time the investigation began. With that no longer in question, he embarked on a long perjury investigation that eventually resulted in the indictment and conviction of former Cheney chief of staff Lewis Libby. Besides Libby, others in the Bush circle, particularly Karl Rove, found themselves testifying repeatedly and, if some reports are to be believed, coming perilously close to indictment.
Could the Blagojevich case lead to something like that happening to people close to Obama? Even though it might seem hard to find two more dissimilar cases, the answer is yes.
We don’t know the extent of the investigation into Blagojevich’s allegedly corrupt dealings. Have witnesses been brought before a grand jury? We don’t know. If so, who are they? We don’t know. What witnesses have been interviewed by FBI agents working for Fitzgerald? We don’t know. Do Fitzgerald and his investigators have any doubts about the truthfulness of those who have talked? We don’t know.
But we do know that something big is going on. “There is a lot of investigation that still needs to be done,” Rob Grant, who is the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Chicago, told reporters at the news conference announcing the Blagojevich charges last week. “There are critical interviews that we have to do and cooperation we need to get from different people.” At the same press conference, Fitzgerald himself added, “We have a tremendous amount of information gained from the wiretap and bugs that occurred over the last month and a half or so….One of the things we want to do with this investigation is to track out the different schemes and conspiracies to find out which ones were carried out or not and who might be involved in that or not. And that’s something we haven’t done yet. Now that we’ve gone overt, we’ll be interviewing people and figuring that out.”
One of the things Fitzgerald and his fellow prosecutors and FBI agents will be doing is trying to determine who is telling the whole truth and who is not. “There’s always a danger that people will make a mistake, get it wrong. There’s human frailty. They may also lie,” says Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney who was a vocal critic of Fitzgerald’s handling of the Plame affair. “Fitzgerald will try to do perjury traps, because that is what he does.”
Fitzgerald and his team have a lot of wiretap material. That has likely given them a lot of information to ask witnesses about. Some of those witnesses may be members of the Obama transition team. For example, the Chicago Tribune recently reported that “communications between [incoming White House chief of staff Rahm] Emanuel and the Blagojevich administration were captured on court-approved wiretaps.” Emanuel might be asked many questions, under penalty of perjury or false-statement charges. Prosecutors will compare his answers to what they have on tape. Perhaps they’ll invite him in for another session of questioning. Then they’ll compare his answers in the second session to his answers in the first. Perhaps they’ll repeat that a few times. As anyone in the Bush administration could advise Emanuel, it doesn’t matter if he did anything wrong or not. He just better have his answers in order.
There’s no way to say now what will happen. In the meantime, Barack Obama is saying nothing. The president-elect says his transition team has completed its internal investigation into Blagojevich contacts and has found that “there was nothing that my office did that was in any way inappropriate or related to the charges that have been brought.” But Obama says Fitzgerald has asked him to postpone releasing the investigation’s results until December 22. Fitzgerald’s office later issued a one-sentence statement confirming the request, so that it can “conduct certain interviews.”
Until then, don’t ask Obama anything even related to the matter. “Let me just cut you off, because I don’t want you to waste your question,” Obama told Tribune reporter John McCormick Tuesday, after McCormick attempted to ask whether Emanuel’s reportedly extensive communications with the Blagojevich administration on the Senate-seat question contradicted Obama’s earlier claims to be taking a hands-off approach to the issue. “I don’t want to get into the details at this point,” Obama answered.
McCormick got the message. As Obama, standing by education-secretary-designate and basketball buddy Arne Duncan, continued to avoid answering the question, McCormick moved on to a more acceptable topic. “Do you or Duncan have a better jump shot?” he asked.
Obama smiled. At least for now. But he knows, or should know, that Fitzgerald and his prosecutors won’t be nearly as accommodating as the press.