Faced With The Blagojevich Scandal, Did Barack Obama Tell The Whole Truth?

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Just weeks after President Obama won the 2008 election, the governor of Illinois was charged with trying to sell Obama’s old Senate seat. It was an early challenge for the then president-elect, and he responded in a grand gesture of transparency. He asked Greg Craig, his future White House Counsel, to investigate “any staff contacts or communications” with Governor Rod Blagojevich’s office. Less than two weeks later, Craig released a public report, which purported to remove any lingering doubt about the President’s involvement in the matter. It read in part:

The President-Elect had no contact or communication with Governor Blagojevich or members of his staff about the Senate seat. In various conversations with transition staff and others, the President-Elect expressed his preference that Valerie Jarrett work with him in the White House. He also stated that he would neither stand in her way if she wanted to pursue the Senate seat nor actively seek to have her or any other particular candidate appointed to the vacancy.

This all seemed rather open and shut. Since the press had no information suggesting otherwise, President Obama was allowed to move on from the scandal. But recent testimony in the Blagojevich trial suggests that Craig’s report and Obama’s effort at transparency failed to tell the entire story.

On Tuesday, an Illinois union leader, Thomas Balanoff, testified that he received a phone call the day before the election from President Obama to discuss Valerie Jarrett and the Senate seat. Balanoff would serve as a go-between, connecting the Obama inner circle to the Blagojevich inner circle.

The Chicago Sun-Time’s excellent “Blago Blog” summarizes Balanoff’s testimony:

“Tom, I want to talk to you with regard to the Senate seat,” Obama told him. 
Balanoff said Obama said he had two criteria: someone who was good for the citizens of Illinois and could be elected in 2010. Obama said he wasn’t publicly coming out in support of anyone but he believed Valerie Jarrett would fit the bill. “I would much prefer she (remain in the White House) but she does want to be Senator and she does meet those two criteria,” Balanoff said Obama told him. “I said: ‘thank you, I’m going to reach out to Gov. Blagojevich.”

Three days later, Balanoff testified that he had a meeting with Blagojevich at which he recommended Valerie Jarrett for the Senate seat.

Now, it is true, according to this testimony, that Obama never explicitly recommends Jarrett for the job. But it is also true that Balanoff understood the conversation to be, effectively, a recommendation. This sort of wink-wink communication is, it must be said, standard to Chicago politics, where smart politicians know a certain percentage of their peers are probably wire tapped by federal investigators, and another percentage are on their way to jail.

Balanoff’s testimony, given under oath, raises questions about what else Craig left out of his 2008 report. It is not explained, for instance, why the Craig report mentions a conversation Balanoff had with Jarrett about the seat, but not the one Balanoff had with Obama. Asked about Balanoff’s testimony at Tuesday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he would not comment on “an ongoing trial.”

The Balanoff disclosures stop short of incriminating Obama in Blagojevich’s allegedly criminal scheme. But they shed new doubt both on President Obama’s declared commitment to transparency and the credibility of the staff account of his role in the Blagojevich matter. If the Craig report chose to omit any mention of a conversation with a known go-between for Blagojevich, in which the President is, at least, understood to be recommending Jarrett, then there is no telling what other salient facts were also left out. The trial continues today.