They Came, They Saw, They Exonerated

The Obama team’s report on the Blagojevich affair says just what they said it would.

The Obama campaign’s strategy for dealing with the Blagojevich affair has evolved. It started with dithering, then moved on to momentary cooperation followed by delay. Now, at long last, we have the final strategy: “See ya!”

On Monday, Barack Obama himself lit out for Hawaii, where he has been walking around shirtless. Chief of Staff-to-be Rahm Emanuel, who is the focus of the report, has disappeared on what one transition official called “a long-planned family vacation in Africa.”

The media are thus left to work themselves into a furious lather over the release of a report that, it turns out, says exactly what Obama said it would: That Obama’s team did have contact with the office of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich but did nothing wrong. (It is an internal investigation. What did you expect?) The situation is a twist on the old Zen koan: If a tree doesn’t fall in the forest, but everyone is listening, does it make a sound, anyway?

The report begins with the conclusion: that Obama’s previous statements that he had “never spoken to the governor on this subject [or] about these issues” were accurate. As for the question of “deal or no deal?”: no deal.

Other deets: Obama suggested various candidates for the job—including adviser Valerie Jarrett—but didn’t push anyone in particular. (In fact, he “expressed his preference that Valerie Jarrett work with him in the White House.”) Emanuel talked to Blago at least once and several times to the governor’s chief of staff, John Harris, about potential picks. But never as a quid pro quo. And Jarrett herself never spoke to anyone except a union leader who mentioned to her that Blago wondered whether he might get to be secretary of Health and Human Services—a proposition Jarrett laughed at.

The report also answers some trickier questions: Why did Obama adviser David Axelrod initially say Obama had spoken with Blagojevich about the seat? Well, it turns out he thought Obama had, when in reality it was Emanuel who talked to Harris. The report also explains how Blago got the impression—famously caught on tape—that Obama wanted Valerie Jarrett (Candidate No. 1, in the complaint) to replace him: Emanuel had said so “before learning—in further conversations with the President-Elect—that the President-Elect had ruled out communicating a preference for any one candidate.”

There’s one important question it does not answer, which is what exactly Obama meant on the day the scandal broke, when he said, vaguely, that “I was not aware of what was happening.” Surely he was aware that Emanuel had spoken with Blagojevich and his people. And no doubt he knew that some of his own recommendations had made it onto the governor’s desk. Presumably he meant he was unaware of Blagojevich’s attempts at horse-trading. If so, then why didn’t he say so?

Maybe Obama’s vagueness was understandable. It wasn’t at all clear who knew what when. Axelrod wasn’t sure who had spoken with whom. Emanuel couldn’t even remember whether he’d talked to Blagojevich once or twice. And who’s to say who else might have contacted the governor without first asking the president-elect? Caution, therefore, behooved him while being overly specific could have hurt him. What if, say, Emanuel had been aware that Blagojevich was asking for something more than “appreciation,” even if Emanuel wasn’t offering it?

The story isn’t over. Obama’s report was conducted without access to the reams of tapes recorded by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and the FBI. If those tapes contradict anything in the report, expect further brouhaha—and a feature-length documentary by the RNC. But that seems unlikely. Obama may be slightly tarnished by the very fact of an ongoing investigation, even if he’s not implicated. But so far, he’s answered the toughest questions. The remaining ones, at least judging from a conference call today with reporters, are on the fringes—why did Blago’s deputy contact Obama’s friend Eric Whitaker? were they trying to break into his circle?—and say more about Blagojevich than Obama.

Of course, if the Obama team is so innocent, why did it wait a week to release the report? The official reason is that Fitzgerald requested a “brief delay” in releasing it so that it wouldn’t interfere with the federal investigation. (And by the way, Obama isn’t the only one Fitzgerald has asked not to interfere. Today he wrote a letter asking the state’s impeachment panel not to investigate criminal charges against the governor, lest they muck up the investigation.) But even if you don’t believe that, consider the options open to Obama’s team: 1) Spend a week fending off further questions about Blagojevich, which increasingly appears to be a nonstory, or 2) spend a week answering questions about Obama’s six-pack abs. Can you really blame them?