More Wild Tales as Rod Blagojevich Takes the Stand in His Retrial

The former Illinois governor did not testify in his first trial but chose to do so this time, often rambling and straining to claim benign interpretations of damning wiretaps


Reuters/Frank Polich

CHICAGO -- Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who is offering an enthralling and self-immolating primer on American government, on Thursday introduced a nifty term to the political lexicon: "negative leverage."

Blagojevich was detailing, ad nauseam, how in late 2008 he was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, then President-elect Barack Obama and other members of "the Washington establishment" by leading them to believe he would pick U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Obama.

"F- you, Harry Reid" was among the more genteel comments he had about D.C. power brokers while talking to others, according to FBI wiretaps played or read aloud at his ongoing retrial on corruption charges, held in a Chicago courtroom Thursday. With the FBI listening in, Blagojevich had also spoken separately with Reid and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) of New Jersey, who was then heading the Democrats' senate campaign committee, and knew they had no desire for Jackson, seeing several weaknesses and no assurance he could win a full term when the Obama seat was up in 2010.

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But the governor's real game, Blagojevich claimed, was getting them to believe he was actually serious, which he was not (he and Jackson hated one another). "I'm so f- repugnant to them," he had said of the Democratic Beltway elite in a phone chat with an aide.

After scaring the bigshots, he testified, he would get them to convince Michael Madigan, the leader of the Illinois House and the state's most powerful politician (he and Madigan hated one another), to ram through major legislation in return for Blago selecting Madigan's daughter, the state's attorney general, to the Obama vacancy.

As part of his gambit, he even went further than most media-obsessed politicians tend to go in using the press: leaking a complete fabrication to a Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist. Under questioning Thursday, he conceded the item, about him and Jackson having met to discuss the vacancy, was a lie, or what he called a "misdirection play."

It was all a part of exercising "negative leverage" with the bogus threat of naming Jackson. He'd scare those bigshots and then get Rahm Emanuel (he and Emanuel did not hate one another), who had just been named Obama's future chief of staff, to call Madigan and cut the deal to benefit his daughter.

None of it worked and Blagojevich wound up arrested, impeached, indicted and last year convicted of one count of lying to the FBI. The retrial focuses on weightier counts of corruption after he avoided conviction on those as a result of a single doubting juror. Thursday the retrial reached a climax of sorts with the start of the government's cross-examination of Blagojevich, who did not testify in his first trial but chose to do so this time, often rambling and straining to claim benign interpretations of damning wiretaps.

Some students of government will see much of the evidence as "politics as usual" and argue that the only thing different here is that the FBI was listening. His is a world of unceasing transactions, where every deed generates one or more I.O.Us, and where legislation, memberships on state commissions, you name it, all has a de facto price tag, usually campaign contributions.

When it came to the Obama vacancy, Blago plotted various goodies he could get in return from the new administration. Perhaps a cabinet post, preferably head of Health and Human Services. Or an overseas ambassadorship. Maybe being our man at the United Nations. He spoke of Emanuel helping him set up a nonprofit on health care with a cushy $750,000 salary.

My favorite: the notion of selecting himself to be the senator and then setting up his wife to exploit her connections to him as a big-ticket Washington lobbyist.

In talking about his mulling appointing himself to Obama's senate seat, Blagojevich even said that it would have enabled him to go to Afghanistan and "hunt down" Osama bin Laden.

The government has waited several years for the chance to fire away and it came out like a ravenous beast who spies a fat sirloin.

"Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted, liar, correct?" was the well-rehearsed opening question from Reid Schar, a prosecutor.

It went downhill from there for the defendant and will pick up Monday.

Until then, both sides will prepare for another day, maybe two, of inquisition in which Blago's unceasing scheming will be laid bare again.

"Talk as if the whole world is listening" was his deeply-ironic, occasional counsel to top aides when he knew they would be entering ethically murky territory on his behalf. He didn't heed the mantra until it was too late and he suspected somebody was listening to his calls.

And as peculiar and idiosyncratic a character as he is, one might still wonder what we'd hear if the calls of all our elected officials were similarly recorded for posterity by local law enforcement.

As Blago said about his chance to fill the Senate vacancy, we might find it "f- golden."

Image credit: Reuters