Most people have misunderstood the timeline of the Blagojevich Senate scandal. Pretty much everything fits except Barack Obama's statement yesterday that he knew nothing about it.
If we didn't have Obama's denial to contend with, the actions of all the parties, including those purporting to speak for Obama, are consistent with Obama and his staff learning about Blagojevich's corrupt plans on Monday, Nov. 10.
Consider the timeline, as revealed in the complaint and press reports:
1. On the weekend of Nov. 8-9, Obama lets it be known that his choice for Senate is Valerie Jarrett. Aides tell WLS-TV in Chicago and CNN, which announces Obama’s choice on Sunday. Nov. 9.
2. On Monday, Nov. 10, Blagojevich holds an incredible 2-hour conference call with multiple consultants: “ROD BLAGOJEVICH, his wife, JOHN HARRIS, Governor General Counsel, and various Washington-D.C. based advisors, including Advisor B,” discussing his corrupt schemes. He follows this with two calls with Advisor A.
3. That very night, Monday, Nov. 10, at 7:56pm, CNN reported:
Two Democratic sources close to President-elect Barack Obama tell CNN that top adviser Valerie Jarrett will not be appointed to replace him in the U.S. Senate.
"While he (Obama) thinks she would be a good senator, he wants her in the White House," one top Obama advisor told CNN Monday.
Over the weekend, Democratic sources had told CNN as well as Chicago television station WLS-TV that Jarrett was Obama's choice to fill his Senate seat.
So what happened? The likeliest scenario is that one of the many participants in Blagojevich’s Monday phone calls either floated his plans to the Obama transition team to assess their response or tipped off the Obama camp about the reckless ideas that Blagojevich had planned.
In any event, within hours of Blagojevich substantially expanding his circle of confidants, the Obama camp withdrew Jarrett’s name from consideration and attributed that withdrawal to the President's wanting Jarrett in the White House. And the Obama staffers went out of their way to depict this as Obama's choice, rather than Jarrett's, which would have been more common. The report claims Obama's involvement in the decision and suggests a direct effort to undercut the idea that Obama was pressuring Blagojevich to appoint Jarrett.
4. Moreover, by the next day, Tuesday, Nov. 11, Blagojevich already had received his answer from the Obama camp that no quid pro quo would be forthcoming: “ROD 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**k them.’”
5. On Wednesday, Nov. 12, Blagojevich pitched his corrupt bargain idea to an SEIU Official who, according to Ben Smith, is President Andy Stern. [On Dec. 11, the New York Times identified the official as Tom Balanoff, head of Illinois' largest union and Obama's biggest union supporter. The SEIU official] agreed to convey the offer to the relevant actors. Blagojevich understood [the SEIU official] to be contacting Jarrett herself, the co-chairwoman of the Obama transition team:
109. On November 12, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH spoke with SEIU Official, who was in Washington, D.C. Prior intercepted phone conversations indicate that approximately a week before this call, ROD BLAGOJEVICH met with SEIU Official to discuss the vacant Senate seat, and ROD BLAGOJEVICH understood that SEIU Official was an emissary to discuss Senate Candidate 1’s interest in the Senate seat.
During the conversation with SEIU Official on November 12, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH informed SEIU Official that he had heard the President-elect wanted persons other than Senate Candidate 1 to be considered for the Senate seat.
SEIU Official stated that he would find out if Senate Candidate 1 wanted SEIU Official to keep pushing her for Senator with ROD BLAGOJEVICH. ROD BLAGOJEVICH said that “one thing I’d be interested in” is a 501(c)(4) organization.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH explained the 501(c)(4) idea to SEIU Official and said that the 501(c)(4) could help “our new Senator [Senate Candidate 1].” SEIU Official agreed to “put that flag up and see where it goes.”
110. On November 12, 2008, ROD BLAGOJEVICH talked with Advisor B. ROD BLAGOJEVICH told Advisor B that he told SEIU Official, “I said go back to [Senate Candidate 1], and, and say hey, look, if you still want to be a Senator don’t rule this out and then broach the idea of this 501(c)(4) with her.”
6. The complaint doesn’t say whether [the SEIU official] contacted Jarrett or other members of the Obama transition team, but it is likely that he did. [On Dec. 11, the New York Times reported that Balanoff did ferry messages from the Blagojevich camp to the Obama camp.] Whether [the SEIU official] was horrified by Blagojevich’s corrupt idea and wanted to warn Obama or intrigued by the deal and wanted to assess its chances, I can’t think of a good reason why [the SEIU official] wouldn’t have conveyed the idea to the Obama camp.
7. On Thursday, Nov. 13:
ROD BLAGOJEVICH asked Advisor A to call Individual A and have Individual A pitch the idea of the 501(c)(4) to “[President-elect Advisor].” Advisor A said that, “while it’s not said this is a play to put in play other things.” ROD BLAGOJEVICH responded, “correct.” Advisor A asked if this is “because we think there’s still some life in [Senate Candidate 1] potentially?” ROD BLAGOJEVICH said, “not so much her, but possibly her. But others.”
8. If, as seems likely, Individual A then pitched Blagojevich’s corrupt bargain to the “President-elect Advisor” and that advisor is Rahm Emanuel, as has been suggested by others, then Emanuel would then have known of the bribery attempt.
9. By 6:10pm on Friday, Nov. 14, CNN is reporting:
Valerie Jarrett tells CNN contributor Roland Martin that President-elect Barack Obama offered and she accepted a position in the Obama administration – she will be the Senior Adviser to the President and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Liaison.
10. Nov. 14 to early December: After occasionally feeding speculation about who might fill Obama’s seat, the Obama transition team suddenly goes remarkably silent about his preference.
11. On Nov. 23, Obama’s “senior adviser David Axelrod appeared on Fox News Chicago,” answering a question about the Senate seat.
While insisting that the President-elect had not expressed a favorite to replace him, and his inclination was to avoid being a "kingmaker," Axelrod said, "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."
Note the language used. While on Nov. 9, Obama staffers were telling multiple news outlets whom Obama wanted for his Senate seat, by Nov. 23, Axelrod was distancing Obama not only from any individual choice, but he used the pejorative term “kingmaker” to emphasize Obama’s avoidance of any even marginally corrupt influence. It is likely that Axelrod had in mind the corrupt bargain that Obama’s camp had already turned down.
12. On Tuesday, Dec. 9, Obama denies personal knowledge of the corrupt proposal.
"I had no contact with the governor or his office and so we were not, I was not aware of what was happening."
As I’ve said before, as with Bill Clinton, Barack Obama’s words should be read carefully to see what he is saying and not saying. Apparently, Obama started to say that “we were not” “aware of what was happening," but corrected himself by saying that “I was not aware of what was happening."
That language leaves open the possibility that his staff was aware, but he personally was not. But why would Obama’s staff withhold information from him? I assume that Obama is telling the truth about not having spoken to the governor himself, since that might be easily refuted.
From the evening of Nov. 10 until yesterday, Blagojevich, Obama, and his transition team acted in ways that are consistent with a knowledge of Blagojevich’s bribery attempt and a rejection of that attempt. What doesn't fit easily with the timeline is Obama's statement yesterday.
It should be noted that it is not a crime to fail to report a bribery attempt. The federal misprision of felony statute would seem to make it a federal crime to fail to report a federal felony:
Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony cognizable by a court of the United States, conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both. 18 USC s.4.
But case law has conclusively determined that mere non-reporting is not enough. Active concealment or the acceptance of a benefit for concealing is required.
Yet, looking at this timeline of Blagogate, it seems quite possible that someone in the Obama Camp is either lying or at least not revealing what they know. I also find it hard to believe that Obama’s closest advisors were hiding major corruption from him, especially as he was making decisions about where to place Senate candidates such as Jarrett.
Something important is missing from this story. Let's hope that, whatever it is, the absent fact or explanation will allow the narrative to fit Obama's denial more naturally.
Since by all accounts, the Obama camp refused Blagojevich’s bribery attempt, it would be extremely unwise to lie about it. Remember, it’s not the crime that trips you up; it’s the cover-up.
UPDATE: My parsing of Obama's statement above gets some strong support from this LA Times interview, noted by Byron York:
It hasn't gotten a huge amount of coverage, but Obama did an interview with the Los Angeles Times yesterday. He said he had never talked about the Senate seat with Rod Blagojevich. But when he was asked whether his staff had, he clammed up. From the interview:
Q: Have you ever spoken to [Illinois] Gov. [Rod R.] Blagojevich about the Senate seat?
Obama: I have not discussed the Senate seat with the governor at any time. My strong belief is that it needed to be filled by somebody who is going to represent the people of Illinois and fight for them. And beyond that, I was focused on the transition.
Q: And that was before and after the election?
Q: Are you aware of any conversations between Blagojevich or [chief of staff] John Harris and any of your top aides, including Rahm [Emanuel]?
Obama: Let me stop you there because . . . it's an ongoing.... investigation. I think it would be inappropriate for me to, you know, remark on the situation beyond the facts that I know. And that's the fact that I didn't discuss this issue with the governor at all.
So I was correct that Obama was indeed drawing a distinction between what he knew and what his staff might have known.
As I said above, there is something missing here. It wouldn't surprise me if Obama staffers were working with the prosecutors (from the week of Nov. 10th on), a possibility suggested in comments below. But it would surprise me if Obama staffers went to the feds without telling Obama.
2d UPDATE: I see that the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire ("Blagojevich’s Big Conference Call and Valerie Jarrett’s Clean Break") adopts my analysis (without linking me). In particular, they accept my narrative and dating of the break in the case as happening on Nov. 10, not Nov. 12, as was the consensus before I wrote this post.
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