Fineman: Blago Mess Not Good for Team Obama

Political pros know that the best time of the year in which to bury a scandal is Christmas week. People are busy. Reporters are on vacation. Almost no one is watching the news.

So perhaps you can excuse me for being a little suspicious about a recent announcement from Barack Obama's office. It said that he would release an internal report about his team's contacts with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich—the man the Feds allege is a one-man influence-peddling crime spree—in "the week of Dec. 22."

I'm betting on Boxing Day, Friday, Dec. 26. Or maybe at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

The original release was supposed to be this week. But it was pushed back, the Obama camp said, at the request of the official investigating Blago: Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the 21st-century Eliot Ness. Fitz's office confirmed that he had made the request, though there is no way of knowing how adamant he was about it. The reasoning seems clear enough: Fitz does not want any information about the Obama's team's contacts to be made public because it might give Blago's bad guys—who allegedly tried to solicit bribes—clues about how to cover their tracks. But surely, if they acted wrongfully, they have gotten their stories straight by now.

So the timing of the report is more complicated than that. At least it seems that way from the manner in which Obama's own camp has been acting. They have been cautious and quiet in the extreme.

The key to understanding what is going on almost certainly is Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago congressman and former Clinton administration insider whom Obama tapped to be his chief of staff. Emanuel wasn't just another hire: he was the first person the president-elect chose. He is the foundation of the whole Obama administration edifice.

It was widely speculated that Emanuel's voice is on FBI surveillance tapes of Blago and his circle. The recording machines were rolling before and after Election Day, when, not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk, in Chicago and elsewhere, about whom Blago would pick to replace Obama in the Senate. There might also have been taped talk, after Obama picked Emanuel, about who would replace him in the House. (Blago had nothing to do with the House seat legally; there will, by law, be a special election. But the matter would have been of interest to every pol in Illinois.) If any Blago flunky was hinting at payoffs—which Fitz alleges they were doing—Emanuel might have heard about them, directly or indirectly. And that knowledge might be reflected on the tapes, or in testimony Fitz may or may not have accumulated.

Neither Fitz nor anyone I have heard about or spoken to suggests that Emanuel did anything illegal or even untoward. It's not even clear if he heard anything incriminating about anybody.

Emanuel, understandably, is taking no chances. He has kept utterly quiet. He has pledged total cooperation with Fitzgerald and, apparently, is giving it.

Obama has said, publicly and repeatedly, that he is sure that no one on his staff did anything wrong. Emanuel, according to reports, has hired a lawyer to help him deal with the Feds—a prudent move—though Obama's staff won't confirm that or even identify the attorney.

A source in the Obama inner circle told me Tuesday that Emanuel is on legally safe ground "100 percent." Emanuel's famously foul-mouthed style may be heard, but that will do nothing more than "authenticate the tapes," said the source, who declined to be quoted because he was commenting about an ongoing legal matter.

A prominent Washington criminal lawyer (who declined to be quoted because he did not know the particulars of the case) was sympathetic—and stressed that hiring a lawyer and moving cautiously was wise. "You always hear the cliché that this or that person made matters worse by going silent," he said. "It's usually just the opposite, at least legally. The fact is, Emanuel at the time was probably getting a hundred calls and e-mails a day. He may not remember what he had said, and even if he did, innocent words or answers can look or sound bad. The last think you want to do now is say something else that would complicate things. Emanuel was dealing with this crazy big-haired guy who was running around saying who knows what."

Still, however justifiable the silence and caution, Emanuel (and, by extension, Obama) could pay a price for both as the Chicago mess simmers on. Emanuel already has blown up at members of the Chicago press corps—a newspaper reporter and a cameraman. Obama's transition team, eager to show its openness and focus on naming cabinet nominees, has been forced to spend day after day dealing with the Blago story. There's too much focus on Emanuel, whose naturally abrasive personality clashes with his boss's cool demeanor.

And Republicans are now piling on Emanuel—and are likely to continue to do so. At this point, there seems little doubt that Emanuel will survive, and will take his place on Jan. 20 as chief of staff in the Oval Office. But he is already a bigger story than is good for either him or his boss—and delay, however legally justified, just makes it bigger. We'll know more next week—at least those of us who are paying attention.