It seemed like a typical day: a trip to the gym, back home for a shower, and then a press conference followed by a day in the Chicago transition office. But last Thursday, President-elect Barack Obama was interviewed for two hours by two FBI agents and two federal prosecutors investigating charges that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had tried to sell off the Senate seat Obama vacated after winning the presidency.
Obama's interview — and those with two of his top incoming White House lieutenants, Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett — only became public Tuesday, the day before Christmas Eve, when they were mentioned in passing in the transition's five-page report intended to demonstrate that no ethical or legal lines had been crossed in their dealings with Blagojevich. None of the three have yet spoken to the press about the investigation since the report's release.
While neither Obama nor any member of his transition team appear to be a target of the investigation, it's now nonetheless dominating time, energy and headlines for a third week, and new details have continued to emerge about the FBI interview with the soon-to-be most powerful man in the world, who had already emphatically declared that he “had no contact with the governor's office. I did not speak to the governor about these issues.”
Obama was not under oath, but he was represented in the FBI interview — as well as throughout the internal review — by Bob Bauer, the shrewdly pugnacious Washington super lawyer who represented Obama’s campaign. Each of the four Obama associates referenced in the internal report also retained attorneys, although only Emanuel and Jarrett sat for interviews with U.S. attorneys and FBI agents.
Two days after the governor’s arrest on Dec. 9, incoming White House counsel Greg Craig launched a formal internal inquiry that involved multiple interviews — first with the attorneys representing key figures, then with the figures themselves.
While the report disclosed little about its methodology, a transition aide said that Craig briefed the attorneys on the information he wanted. The attorneys returned to their clients to gather the information. And Craig followed up with personal interviews with Emanuel, Jarrett and senior adviser David Axelrod.
Craig did not speak directly to Eric Whitaker, but only with his attorney, the transition aide said.
Jarrett hired Vince J. Connelly, a partner in the Chicago office of Mayer Brown and former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago.
Emanuel’s attorney, W. Neil Eggleston, served as an associate White House counsel under President Bill Clinton. A Washington defense attorney at Debevois & Plimpton, Eggleston represented former White House Political Director Sara Taylor during the federal probe into the 2006 dismissals of federal prosecutors.
It is unclear who represented Axelrod and Whitaker. The report does not say, and transition sources said they did not know.
Bauer, a private attorney who will continue to represent the Obamas personally as well as on political matters, gained some renown during the campaign for his aggressive advocacy, including his ambush of a press conference call held by Hillary Clinton’s rival campaign.
But he was less loquacious when Politico called him on his cell phone the day the Obama team announced its internal review. Bauer hung up on the reporter, then punched subsequent calls straight through to voice mail.