Emanuel Stands Accused of What, Exactly?

Not surprisingly, David Gregory devoted some of his interview with Rahm Emanuel on Sunday’s Meet the Press to grilling the incoming White House chief of staff about his role in the Senate appointment fiasco in Illinois.

Emanuel apparently had several phone calls with Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff before the Illinois governor was arrested last month, and those conversations were probably recorded by the feds. Understandably, reporters want to know the details of these talks: What kinds of demands was Blagojevich making? And was Emanuel at all receptive? Just as understandably, some on the right have been trying to use this uncertainty to create the appearance of scandal.

But Gregory’s interrogation of Emanuel fairly well established what’s been obvious for a while: When it comes to this supposed scandal, there’s probably no there there.

Asked to describe his conversations with Blagojevich and John Harris, the governor’s chief of staff (who was also arrested), Emanuel replied: “As described in the document we made public, we talked in general about the, the right type of people that could serve as U.S. senator.  And those are the conversations you would have with the chief of staff, and they’re all the appropriate conversations.”

Emanuel also said that he never got the impression in those talks that Blagojevich was looking for anything in return for appointing Barack Obama’s preferred candidate, Valerie Jarrett, and advised Gregory to ask Blagojevich himself any further questions about what the governor was hoping to attain through his appointment powers.

It is somewhat surprising that Emanuel denied even thinking that Blagojevich was interested in a quid pro quo. Given the vivid details provided by the feds, whose 76-page arrest report depicted a governor engaged in an almost crazed pursuit of such an arrangement, it’s hard to believe that in six separate phone calls with Emanuel neither Blagojevich nor his chief of staff ever said anything that could be construed as feeling out Emanuel’s willingness to play ball.

But even if Emanuel is being disingenuous here, it probably doesn’t matter. Since the conversations are all likely on tape and likely to be released in some form in the future, Emanuel wouldn’t make this claim unless he knew he had plausible deniability. So if Blagojevich or Harris had made any specific mentions of a quid pro quo, Emanuel wouldn’t be denying it; instead, he’d already be doing damage control, knowing that tapes or transcripts would soon be available.

More likely, then, Blagojevich or Harris, or both, only hinted at what they were looking for. Even if their hints were overtly unsubtle, Emanuel would be able to deny, however ridiculously, that he just hadn’t picked up on it.  

The idea that Emanuel was ever engaged in some kind of negotiation with Blagojevich has never made much sense. It’s not that backroom dealing isn’t something that Emanuel is uncomfortable with; he’s been one of the most adept inside players in Congress for the last six years. But Emanuel is smart about his dealing. Almost certainly, if Blagojevich or Harris were trying to take his temperature, he realized instinctively that there was nothing to be gained—and everything, potentially, to lose—from going along. The fact that Blagojevich was known to be under federal investigation would only have made Emanuel more sensitive to his posture during those phone calls.

The most compelling piece evidence that Emanuel is in the clear, though, is Blagojevich’s own exasperated lament that Obama’s team was unwilling to give him “anything except appreciation” in exchange for picking Obama’s preferred Senate candidate. Whether this message was conveyed directly by Emanuel or someone else doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that Blagojevich received it—and that it wouldn’t have been sent unless Emanuel wanted it sent.

If and when we learn the details of Emanuel’s contacts with Blagojevich, there may still be some embarrassment for Obama’s chief of staff. Who knows: Maybe he said something vaguely disparaging about some well-known public figure—or something like that. But from a legal standpoint—and more importantly, from an appearance-of-scandal standpoint—this issue looks like more of a nonstarter than ever.

Emanuel Stands Accused of What, Exactly?