The Illinois State Senate begins its impeachment trial Monday for accused political fixer Gov. Rod Blagojevich, but the man on the hot seat isn’t planning to be on hand to defend himself. In his first in-depth television interiew with TODAY’s Amy Robach, Blagojevich called the proceedings little more than a kangaroo court designed to lop off his political head.
“I’m standing for a much bigger principle,” Blagojevich told Robach. “I’m telling them, `If you want to throw me out of office then I’d be willing to sacrifice myself for the principle that everyone is entitled to a fair trial in America.”
Blagojevich, 52, the two-term Illinois governor who once harbored presidential aspirations, has seen his political career fall in to ruins and his very freedom in peril after a December 9, 2008 arrest on federal corruption charges. He stands accused of trying to sell President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder and also peddle influence in exchange for campaign donations.
In his exclusive interview with Robach, Blagojevich expressed both defiance at the charges brought against him, but also resignation that his political fate is sealed. Most shockingly, he compared his plight to those of political leaders Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King.
Telling Robach he was just readying to rise at 6 a.m. December 9 when the FBI phoned telling him agents were waiting outside his home to arrest him, he first thought a friend was playing a practical joke on him – but it ended up being what he regards to his family “our Pearl Harbor Day.”
While his first thoughts turned to his wife Patricia, and the couple’s daughters, Amy 12, and Annie, 5, Blagojevich told Robach he then “thought about Mandela, Dr. King, Ghandi and trying to put some perspective in all of this.
“It’s inconceivable that something like this could happen and why.”
Impeachment inevitableBut for the FBI, the case is clearer. After weeks of listening in on Blagojevich’s conversations in wire taps on his home phone and at his campaign offices, the agency gathered evidence that alleges the governor was spearheading a pay-to-play scheme to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder. And among other backroom dealings, the allegations include a claim that Blagojevich sought campaign kickbacks in exchange for $8 million in funding for Children’s Memorial Hospital of Chicago.
Blagojevich will have his day in court on federal charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery later this year, but he likely won’t be governor of Illinois when that day rolls around. Blagojevich complains he won’t be allowed to mount a defense for his governorship – saying the Illinois State Senate must accept the allegations in a State House panel report “as fact, and you can’t contest that, no matter who your witnesses might be and how great your evidence might be.”
He acknowledges his removal from office is a foregone conclusion. “I think the thing is rigged and it is fixed and there’s no chance whatsoever to have a fair hearing,” Blagojevich told Robach. “I think what you’ll see is a roll call that will be pre-designed and we’ll see whether or not I even get one vote.”
“You can conceivably bring in 15 angels and 20 saints led by Mother Teresa to come in to testify to my good character, to my integrity and all the rest. It wouldn’t matter because that report, under their rules, has to be accepted as fact, and if you accept that report as fact then they would have to throw you out.”
Blagojevich may well be subject to even more humiliation in the process. Tapes of his private conversations are likely to be played at the impeachment trial, and many include conversations laced with expletives and coarse language. Blagojevich told Robach he fears those conversations will be taken out of context.
“I think the whole story will tell the story of a governor who’s on the side of the people, who takes on powerful interests, expresses frustration and uses some language that frankly had I known that somebody was listening, I wouldn’t have used,” he said.
“I’ll point out when some of that language was used, there were no women on the phone. But you have to take it in its entirety.”
'Rush to judgment'
Clearly, Blagojevich still smarts from the wiretaps that have led to his arrest and impending removal from office. Accompanied by Robach, Blagojevich returned to his campaign offices for the first time since his arrest for the TODAY interview - and pointed to the ceiling where he believed the bugs were placed to tap into his phone calls.
Blagojevich said those state senators who will vote whether to send him packing may well be some of the same people heard on his taped calls.
“I think they’re afraid of some of the things that could very well impact on them,” Blagojevich told Robach. “Let me say there are some of those that are sitting in on judgment of me on Monday in the State Senate that were on telephone calls with me during that period of time.”
Moreover, Blagojevich says he believes state lawmakers, above all else, want him out of office
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because he’s consistently blocked their efforts to raise state taxes. “Their real goal is a rush to judgment because for six years I’ve blocked them from a massive income tax increase which is coming before June.”
In the interview with Robach, Blagojevich repeatedly pointed to his downfall being the result of politics, not criminal activities on his part. He points to his nomination of former Illinois Attorney General Raymond Burris to fill Obama’s seat as being eventually embraced by the U.S. Senate.
He also congratulated Robach for landing the interview with him, telling her, “You hit the big time.”
A matter of principle
In more reflective moments, Blagojevich told Robach on how his political and legal downfall has affected his wife and children. He said it’s been difficult keeping daughters Amy and Annie out of harm’s way given the press attention. “The reason they can’t be shielded is because you guys like to hang around my house in the morning,” he said.
While older daughter Amy has “some perspective” on what her father is facing, it’s more difficult to explain to young Annie, Blagojevich told Robach.
“(Annie) went to my wife just the other day (and) asked if her daddy would be governor on her birthday, which is April 5, and I think she sort of gave her a broad answer,” he said.
“If I were a betting man I’d say I probably won’t be. I think the fix is in and they’ve got an idea of what they’re going to do and they’re going to try to pretend they’re going to give us a chance to answer the charges. But it’s a kangaroo court. They’ve decided essentially to do a hanging without even a fair trial.”
While Blagojevich’s fate is likely sealed politically, he told Robach he believes he will come out of his criminal court trial with a not-guilty verdict.
“I’m not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing,” he said. “I’ve done nothing wrong and I look forward to my day in court to answer those allegations and prove my innocence and clear my name.”
Many questioned why Blagojevich simply didn’t resign the governorship and concentrate on the criminal charges against him. Instead, he kept working and nominated Burris for the vacant U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich said continuing with gubernatorial business as usual was a matter of principle for him.
“If I did something wrong, I would have quit,” he told Robach. “If I did something wrong I would have a responsibility to the people of Illinois who hired me twice to meet my responsibilities and accept that I did something wrong and to resign. But I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“And for me to just quit because some cackling politicians want to get me out of the way because there’s a whole bunch of things they don’t want known about them and conversations they may have had with me, it would be a disgrace to my children when I know I’ve done nothing wrong.”