The corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is already shaping up to be a political circus, promising to lay bare the underbelly of Chicago politics.
But while the stakes are clear for Blagojevich – he could be the fourth Illinois governor in 40 years to retire to a federal prison – some of the most powerful Washington insiders are braced for potential political damage from the trial, which begins Thursday.
President Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. all have at least some skin in the game, according to documents produced by prosecutors, defense lawyers and the White House counsel. Blagojevich has been charged with engaging in state-level kickback schemes, but Washington is much more focused on allegations he tried to sell Obama’s old Senate seat.
None of these Washington insiders have been accused of wrongdoing. But their names are sure to come up in testimony.
“It’s like a soap opera,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). “Everyone will be watching it.”
Here’s a cheat sheet on those who may face some political exposure.
President Barack Obama
District Court Judge James B. Zagel has quashed an effort by Blagojevich’s lawyers to issue a subpoena to the sitting president.
The Blagojevich defense team contends the president can clear up inconsistencies in a portion of the case offered by prosecutors that deals with interactions a labor union official is reported to have had with Obama, Jarrett and Blagojevich over the course of several days in early November 2008.
Defense lawyers say Obama sent a labor union official to make the case for Jarrett with Blagojevich. Yet Blagojevich himself offered the most exonerating assessment of Obama’s role, according to the prosecutors’ account.
“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. F[—-] them,’” reads the juiciest passage in the original complaint against Blagojevich.
But there are at least a couple of angles that could arm Obama’s political opponents if they are explored in depth at the trial: Convicted Chicago political fixer Tony Rezko – a onetime Obama supporter – could testify, thrusting his name back into the headlines.
In addition, any holes in the White House story, as told in a memo developed by incoming White House Counsel Greg Craig in December 2008, could tarnish the image the president has sought to build as a proponent of transparency.
Craig, who has since left the administration, wrote that the president-elect himself did not speak with Blagojevich directly and was opposed to advocating for any particular candidate.
Jarrett hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing, but she appears to be a bit closer to the fire than anyone else in the administration – as she was both interested in Obama’s Senate seat and knew Blagojevich’s wanted to be named to Obama’s cabinet.
Defense attorneys say that a union official – SEIU Illinois Council President Tom Balanoff, according to reports – told Jarrett that, at the president’s request, he was going to press the case for Blagojevich to appoint her.
Blagojevich and the labor official met on Nov. 6, 2008. Prosecutors say Blagojevich offered to appoint Jarrett – identified as Senate Candidate B – in exchange for the governor being named secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Balanoff later told Jarrett that Blagojevich had raised the possibility of an HHS appointment but “did not suggest that the governor … was linking a position for himself in the Obama cabinet to the selection of the president-elect’s successor in the Senate,” according to Craig’s memo.
The interactions Balanoff had with Obama, Jarrett and Blagojevich could reveal more about how involved the White House was in the talks about the Senate seat.
If anyone had reason to be wary of Blagojevich, it was Emanuel.
He succeeded Blagojevich as the 5th District’s representative in the House in 2003, and prosecutors accuse Blagojevich of the “attempted extortion” of “Congressman A” – Emanuel -- in relation to raising campaign funds in exchange for funding a school project.
Prosecutors say Blagojevich said words to the effect of “where is my fundraiser and tell [Congressman A] to have his brother have a fundraiser” when asked about the status of the school money. There’s no indication that Emanuel discussed any deal-making for the seat in either the Craig memo or prosecutors’ filings.
In the White House version of the story, Emanuel, in a conversation with Blagojevich sometime between Nov. 6, 2008, and Nov. 8, 2008, recommended Jarrett for the Senate appointment before learning that Obama didn’t want him to advocate for any specific candidate. Emanuel later forwarded the names of other candidates the White House viewed as acceptable.
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr.
Since he was first identified in the original Blagojevich complaint as “Senate Candidate 5,” Jackson has been the federal official with the most to gain or lose from the whole story being told. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing. But prosecutors say Blagojevich believed he could get as much as $1.5 million in campaign contributions from supporters of Jackson in exchange for appointing the South Side congressman to the open Senate seat.
Blagojevich scuttled a plan to have his brother approach a fundraiser when he discovered that his conversations were being recorded, according to prosecutors.
Jackson, first elected to the House in 1995, publicly campaigned for the appointment. He met with Blagojevich on Dec. 8, 2008, the day before Blagojevich was arrested. Blagojevich’s defense lawyers have subpoenaed Jackson, presumably so that he can offer testimony that he was not offered a bribe.
“I presented my record, my qualifications and my vision. Despite what he may have been looking for, that’s all I had to offer. And, that’s what we discussed,” Jackson said in December 2008.
Durbin and Reid
Blagojevich’s lawyers have issued subpoenas to the top two Democrats in the Senate – Harry Reid of Nevada and Dick Durbin of Illinois.
It’s not clear that they will be forced to testify, but it’s possible that their candid interactions with Blagojevich’s camp about the electability of certain candidates could be revealed at the trial – and those details could prove embarrassing for the Democratic leaders.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2009 that Reid called Blagojevich’s office to try to block the appointment of three candidates – Jackson, Rep. Danny K. Davis and then-state Senate President Emil Jones, all of whom are black – in favor of either state Attorney General Lisa Madigan or current Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs Tammy Duckworth, because he didn’t believe any of the first three were viable in a general election.
Proffering jobs for political favors is a red hot issue for the White House right now, as the president was forced to concede last week that former President Bill Clinton tried to get Rep. Joe Sestak to drop out of the Pennsylvania primary against Arlen Specter in exchange for an unpaid advisory job.
Sestak, not surprisingly, declined and went on to win the primary. But the episode also raised new question in a similar case – whether a job was offered to Colorado Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff to stay out of a primary against Sen. Michael Bennet.
The Denver Post, citing unnamed sources, wrote last September that Romanoff had been offered specific jobs, including one at U.S. AID, by White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina. If the Blagojevich trial ends up producing suggestions that incoming White House officials were willing to entertain any notion of using their appointment powers for political ends, that would be bad news for Sestak and Romanoff.
For now, political experts are getting ready to sit back and watch the show.
“This is going to be better than the Al Capone and Black Sox trials,” said Mike Conklin, a DePaul University professor and former Chicago Tribune reporter.