Obama aide reportedly discussed his Senate seat

Secter writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice as White House chief of staff, talked with Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich’s administration about who would replace Obama in the U.S. Senate and cited a list of people who would be acceptable, sources said.

The information uncovered by the Chicago Tribune does not suggest that Emanuel tried to cut a deal involving Obama’s Senate seat, which he resigned last month. But it does help fill gaps surrounding a question that Obama has not answered: Did anyone on his staff have contact with Blagojevich about the Democratic governor’s choice for the Senate seat?

Blagojevich and John Harris, the governor’s former chief of staff, face federal charges in an alleged shakedown involving the vacant seat, which Illinois law grants the governor sole authority to fill. Harris resigned Friday, but Blagojevich has defied calls from Obama and others for him to do the same.


The Illinois attorney general petitioned the state Supreme Court on Friday to remove Blagojevich, saying he could not conduct state business.

On Thursday, Obama said he had never spoken to Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy and was “confident that no representatives” of his had engaged in any deal-making over it with the governor or his team. Obama also pledged that in the “next few days” he would explain what contacts his staff may have had with the governor’s office about the seat.

Emanuel, an Illinois congressman who has long been close to both Blagojevich and Obama, has refused to answer questions about any involvement he may have had with the Blagojevich camp over the Senate pick. A spokeswoman for Emanuel also declined to comment Friday.

One source confirmed that communications between Emanuel and the Blagojevich administration had been captured on court-approved wiretaps.

Another source said that contact between the Obama camp and the governor’s administration regarding the Senate seat had begun Nov. 1 -- the Saturday before the election -- when Emanuel called Harris’ cellphone. The conversation took place around the time that news reports had surfaced about Emanuel possibly becoming chief of staff if Obama won the White House.

Emanuel delivered a list of candidates who would be “acceptable” to Obama, the source said. On the list were Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, Illinois Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth, state Comptroller Dan Hynes and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the source said. All are Democrats.


Sometime after the election, Emanuel called Harris again to add the name of Democratic state Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, the source said.

Blagojevich and Harris are charged with plotting to trade Obama’s vacated seat for lucrative jobs or campaign cash for the governor. Among other things, a government affidavit filed with the charges alleges that Blagojevich had kicked around the idea of using the Senate seat to leverage an appointment to an ambassadorship or Cabinet post in the Obama administration.

At one point, the governor said that if he could not make a profitable enough deal, he would appoint himself to replace Obama, according to a 76-page affidavit from the U.S. attorney’s office.

In one recording, Blagojevich reportedly voiced frustration at his inability to have his offers considered. Alluding to Obama’s presumed favorite for the Senate seat, the governor said: “For nothing? [Expletive] him.”

Federal authorities have not suggested that Obama or his team knew about Blagojevich’s alleged schemes. In fact, U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald went out of his way Tuesday to indicate that Obama was not accused of having had anything to do with it.

“I should make clear, the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever,” Fitzgerald said at a news conference. “We make no allegations that he’s aware of anything, and that’s as simply as I can put it. . . . There’s no reference in the complaint to any conversations involving the president-elect or indicating that the president-elect was aware of it. And that’s all I can say.”

And on Friday, the Associated Press reported that Emanuel was not a target of the investigation. The AP attributed the information to two anonymous sources, including one person close to Emanuel.

Schakowsky told the Tribune that she had spoken to Emanuel on Thursday and that he seemed unfazed by the controversy. She also spoke of a conversation she had with Emanuel shortly after he was named chief of staff. She said she called Emanuel “to get some intelligence” on whether Obama might approve of her selection as senator.

“He indicated that the president-elect would be fine with certain people and I was one of them,” Schakowsky said, adding that he did not share the identities of others on the list.

Schakowsky said it was natural for Obama to take an interest in the selection process for his Senate seat. “It makes perfect sense for the president-elect or his people to have some interaction about filling the seat he was vacating,” she said.

Emanuel is working full time on Obama’s transition but has yet to resign his House seat. Illinois law has a different process for filling vacant House seats than Senate seats: When Emanuel resigns, his replacement will be selected in a special election.

One alleged scheme outlined in the charges against Blagojevich involves the special election for Emanuel’s seat. The federal affidavit says Blagojevich and others were recorded talking about an unidentified “president-elect advisor” concerned about the election for Emanuel’s congressional seat who might help the governor land a job at a nonprofit organization.


Tribune reporter David Heinzmann contributed to this report.