Obama's five rules of scandal response
By: Kenneth P. Vogel and Carrie Budoff Brown
December 24, 2008 10:44 AM EST
Tuesday's report from the transition, detailing contacts between members of Obama's inner circle and embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and concluding that "nothing at all inappropriate" was discussed, won't be the final word on the subject—but it did provide some telling insight into the way the White House's new occupant will operate.
Here are five rules of Obama scandal-management based on his team's handling of its first post-election crisis.
1 - Be transparent, to an extent
Obama's internal review was entirely voluntary and intended to demonstrate that his team had nothing to hide, and was committed to its pledge to run "the most open and transparent transition in history."
But after announcing the review, his team declined to reveal who would conduct it, who would be interviewed or whether the resulting release would include any transition e-mails or records to support its conclusions.
The review itself answered just one of those questions — we now know that White House Counsel Greg Craig led the review, which didn't include any documentation of what materials it went over — but it raised others, among them: Why did Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett communicate with Craig through her lawyer, whom the report does not name; how many conversations did incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have with Blagojevich; and why was Obama himself interviewed by prosecutors?
The report says Emanuel urged Blagojevich to tap Jarrett for the Senate seat during "one or two telephone calls." But in the next paragraph, it refers to "those early conversations with the governor," and in a conference call unveiling the report, Craig said Emanuel "had a couple of conversations with the governor."
"We asked each individual who we thought might have had some contact or some communication that would be meaningful" to reconstruct "any contacts or communications, and that would include checking cell phone records or e-mails, and we inquired about that," Craig said. He added that "we've got the information that is required," and said he didn't know of any written communications.
Also, the report revealed that prosecutors interviewed Obama, and did so after he had publicly declared he had been unaware of Blagojevich’s alleged plot to sell off the Senate seat Obama had vacated after winning the presidency, raising questions about why they took the unusual step of interviewing the president-elect, what they asked him and whether he was under oath.
2 - Don't let the news cycle dictate response
Freed from the rapid fire back-and-forth of the campaign, Obama, a stickler for preparation, resorted to his methodical instincts in trying to create order amidst the swirling scandal.
But in taking his time, he's let the story linger into a third week.
After drawing criticism for a listless initial response the day Blagojevich was arrested and accused of trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by the president-elect, Obama went a step further the next day by calling on the governor to resign. On the third day of the story, he announced the internal review. By the next week he acknowledged frustration over not being able to clear up inaccuracies about the case.
Still, Obama resisted the temptation to spout off and stuck to the original plan: He would allow a written report to speak for him.
When the transition released the five-page review Tuesday, the day before Christmas Eve, Obama was far removed from the action as he relaxed in Hawaii with his family. The physical distance served the same purpose as the report itself, separating Obama from the swirl of scandal
3 - No freelancing
The report suggested Obama wants his advisers to get his permission before even ostensibly private conservations with outsiders.
Longtime Obama family friend Eric Whitaker seemed to follow this rule when he was approached by Blagojevich deputy Louanner Peters asking who could speak for Obama's preferences for the Senate seat.
"Dr. Whitaker said he would find out," according to the report. After Whitaker was told by Obama that "no one was authorized to speak for him on the matter," the report states Whitaker "relayed that information to Deputy Governor Peters" and "had no other contacts with anyone from the governor's office."
On the other side of that ledger was Emanuel, a much newer member of Obama's inner circle, who broke the rule by calling Blagojevich and recommending he tap Jarrett for the seat.
"He did so before learning -- in further conversations with the president-elect -- that the president-elect had ruled out communicating a preference for any one candidate," according to the report. Later, when Emanuel chatted with Blagojevich's then-chief of staff, the report indicates it was "with the authorization of the president-elect."
4 - Aides take hits to protect the boss
Twice in handling the Blagojevich scandal, top Obama lieutenants were singled out for botching the message.
The report makes clear that Emanuel was the only person in Obama's transition who had any contact with Blagojevich about filling the Senate seat and that his contact wasn't authorized by Obama.
And Obama political guru David Axelrod made a public mea culpa after his boss contradicted a statement from an interview he gave last month, before the governor's arrest.
In it, Axelrod unambiguously described a conversation between Obama and Blagojevich about filling the seat, saying, "I know he's talked to the governor and there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced, and I think he has a fondness for a lot of them."
But after Obama declared he hadn't spoken to Blagojevich, Axelrod issued a statement saying, "I was mistaken when I told an interviewer last month that the president-elect has spoken directly to Governor Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy."
5 – Shy away from even justified fights
It seems only logical that Obama would want a say in picking his successor in the Senate, since the next junior senator from Illinois will represent the president-elect’s home and could be an important congressional ally.
But Obama, whose penchant for avoiding tough stands on controversial issues frustrated opponents trying to land a clear shot in the presidential race, also steered clear of the Senate-seat derby, according to the report and Craig’s teleconference.
Craig said Obama “was not engaging on this in any personal way and had no interest in dictating the result of the selection process.”
The report says Obama talked with his top aides about a range of prospective Senators, but never winnowed down the group, dispatching Emanuel to relay a list of acceptable candidates to Blagojevich’s office.
And according to the report, Obama was ambivalent about the Senate aspirations of Jarrett, contradicting the widely reported claim that she was his top choice for the Senate seat. Rather, the report says, Obama’s “preference (was) that Valerie Jarrett work with him in the White House." But it also states he made clear "he would neither stand in her way if she wanted to pursue the Senate seat nor actively seek to have her or any other particular candidate appointed to the vacancy."
To the extent that the report succeeds in its goal of establishing the distance between Obama and Blagojevich, it necessarily raises the question: Why was the president-elect and leader of the Democratic party playing no role in a key appointment to national office being made in his home state, and by a Democratic governor?
© 2008 Capitol News Company, LLC