He came to office riding a promise of “transparency” in government, and barely five weeks in, Barack Obama is already facing his first big test.
Obama pledged Thursday to divulge any contacts between his transition team and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, charged with trying to sell Obama’s former Senate seat for personal gain.
Obama’s personal counsel Bob Bauer is expected to have a prominent role in gathering the details.
But already one of Obama’s first pledges – to release the information “in the next few days” – may be running into reality, as it appeared the release would slip past this weekend.
Not only that, but Obama’s pledge specifically did not include one other crucial element still not known in the case, whether anyone from the transition team tipped off the FBI to Blagojevich’s effort to peddle the seat, or cooperated with investigators.
In trying to meet the first rule of Washington scandal-management – get the facts out on your own terms, and fast – Obama may have promised something he’ll later regret, one expert warned.
“What they’re doing is either setting themselves up for inconsistencies, or creating a cache of evidence that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It never helps when you dig up the dirt in your own yard and you find stuff,” said Stan Brand, a top Washington defense lawyer.
Obama should have deflected questions about contacts between his team and Blagojevich’s by saying he didn’t want to interfere with U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation, Brand said. “Whatever evidence is there is there, believe me, Fitzgerald will find it,” said Brand, who represented then-White House aide George Stephanopolous in the Whitewater investigation.
In addition, a proper internal investigation could be a huge undertaking – not the work of a few days, Brand said, asserting “it’s a great project for some lawyer. It’s a lot of billable hours.”
Obama’s team, meanwhile, rejected the notion they were conducting an in internal “investigation.”
“An investigation is to get to the bottom of something that went wrong,” said an Obama aide, who instead categorized the Obama fact-finding enterprise as an “internal review.”
“What we’re doing is just showing some transparency here,” the aide said.
Either way, this is the last thing Obama’s transition team needs right now. Already they’re trying to build a Cabinet, hire 8,000 staffers, plan an inaugural and get their boss ready for the biggest job in the world.
Now those closest to Barack Obama have a new highly sensitive task, a tight self-imposed deadline and none of the vast resources of the White House to make it happen.
Eric Dezenhall, who heads up a crisis management firm in Washington, said Obama was moving at the right pace in terms of responding to the scandal, despite what the media and many Republicans have said.
“People are always criticizing public figures for not reacting fast enough. The problem is that a lot of times you really don’t know until a bit into the process, you can’t run around issuing categorical denials before you know everything,” Dezenhall said. “It’s better to frustrate the media and get the facts, rather than dish out some PR lie that is going to be served up to you on a platter the next day.”
He said if he were advising Obama, he would tell him to rely on the good will and “moral authority” that he’s built up among the public.
But even divulging the contacts will be only the first test for Obama on Blagojevich. Republicans and their allies are pressing him to keep Fitzgerald in his job until he finishes the Blagojevich investigation.
“Any ongoing corruption case should be left in place and the sitting attorney should be left in position to finish the case. Particularly in Illinois,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told Politico’s The Arena. “Also, the Obama long questionnaire for possible job seekers should include their communications and or business dealings with the government of Illinois while Blagojevich was in state government.”
And he called for Obama to go beyond merely divulging the contacts: “All communications by Obama campaign and potential appointees, by phone, in person or by e-mail, with Blagojevich or his go-betweens should be made public,” Norquist said.
But the Federal Freedom of Information Act doesn’t require Obama’s transition team to release any documents. Asked to voluntarily release copies of any written correspondence between Obama aides and Blagojevich, the Obama aide said that – if there were any such correspondence – the Obama team would determine whether to release it after the review was concluded.
Obama adviser David Axelrod said at Harvard Institute of Politics conference Thursday night that Obama's team wasn't involved in talks with Blagojevich about Obama's seat, slightly expanding on Obama's own comments today.
“We were not involved in that discussion or any discussion of that nature," Axelrod said. "The important thing from my standpoint as a resident of Illinois is that we now move from there and have a process that people can have some confidence in selecting a U.S. senator and move forward and put this episode behind us."
Carrie Budoff Brown and Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.