BlagoGate: Obama’s Burden

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At a news conference just now, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald made very clear that he had uncovered no evidence of misbehavior on the part of Barack Obama. “I should be clear that the complaint makes no allegations whatsoever about the president-elect or his conduct,” he said. But he also made clear that his investigation was hardly complete. He still needed “to find out what happened.” And he said, as a policy, that the U.S. Attorney office is not in the business of “giving clean bills of health.”

That’s the reason that the fall of Gov. Rod Blagojevich is going to continue to haunt Obama, not to mention Chicago’s Democratic establishment where he built his roots.  The President of the United States has a higher burden than just about any elected official anywhere. His staff will be called on by the press to account for all their conversations with Blagojevich and his aides. Obama will have to explain what he knew about these discussions. The bit players in the complaint, like the unnamed Senate Candidate 1 and Senate Candidate 5, will have to come forward and explain their involvement. If the investigation continues into next year, which seems likely, there may even be calls for the appointment of something like an independent counsel at the Justice Department to avoid any hint of political interference. Obama’s staff and political allies may be forced to get attorneys of their own.

To be clear, the bugging and wire tapping of Blagojevich suggests that Obama was not playing in the corruption scheme. The complaint states, “Blagojevich said he knew that the President-elect wanted Senate Candidate 1 for the open seat but ‘they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. [Expletive] them.’ ” But that is not the operating factor here. U.S. Attorney investigations often end with indictments far from where they start. (See the cases of Valerie Plame and Jack Abramoff.) And Fitzgerald is going to continue to follow the facts, which means many more questions for people close to Obama. So regardless of Obama’s innocence, this will continue to be a burden for the president-elect and those around him. Politics, like life, is not fair.

UPDATE: ABC’s Jake Tapper illustrates how this game is played. At a press avail this afternoon, Obama said, “I had no contact with the governor or his office and so we were not, I was not aware of what was happening.” But just a few weeks ago, David Axelrod, Obama’s top adviser, said this on Fox News, about Obama, the governor and the search for a Senate replacement: “I know he’s talked to the governor and there are a whole range of names many of which have surfaced, and I think he has a fondness for a lot of them.” Obama is avoiding further comment on the criminal complaint because, he said, this is an “ongoing investigation.” But the investigation will likely last for months. It’s not clear how long the Obama team can leave contradictions like this on the public record, without clarifying. (Tapper now updates his post, adding word that an Obama transition aide says Axelrod misspoke.)