Blagojevich Defends Himself As Recordings Go Public Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is on the media circuit pressing his innocence after being accused of conspiring to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Against the backdrop of media appearances, an impeachment trial is underway in the state. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell talks about the impeachment proceedings and recently released wiretapped recordings of governor's conversations.
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Blagojevich Defends Himself As Recordings Go Public

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Blagojevich Defends Himself As Recordings Go Public

Blagojevich Defends Himself As Recordings Go Public

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I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin talks about how women can lead and win.

But first, we have more on the saga of Rod Blagojevich. The Illinois governor is undergoing an impeachment trial in his state senate, accused, of course, of trying to sell off Barack Obama's vacant senate seat. Blagojevich is boycotting the trial, preferring to spend the last couple of days doing a string of radio and television interviews.

Meanwhile, back home, a little more than five minutes of the governor's wiretapped phone conversations were publicly aired for the first time yesterday. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell has been keeping us up-to-date on all the doings around Rod Blagojevich's impeachment and so forth, and she's with us now. Welcome back, Mary.

Ms. MARY MITCHELL (Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): Thank you.

MARTIN: Before we get started, I just want to play a portion of one of those calls that were played for the state senate. This is a conversation the governor is having with a lobbyist on how soon a contributor can get his donation in. Here it is.

(Soundbite of wiretapped telephone conversation)

Gov. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): I said, look, there is a concern that there's going to be some skittishness if your bill gets signed because of the timeliness of the commitment. He said, absolutely not. I mean, do you want me to put some into the next quarter? I said, no, that's not my point. My point is this has all got to be in now.

MARTIN: Mary, prosecutors are saying the conversations - a total of four recordings were played for Illinois senators yesterday. These were part of an effort to squeeze contributors - in this case John Johnston, a racetrack owner - for campaign donations. Do you have any sense of how the senators reacted to these taped conversations? Because one could argue that, OK, maybe it smells a little fishy, but there's no if you don't do this, then I'll do that.

Ms. MITCHELL: Well, the state senators who listened to that tape obviously understand that the problem, for a long time in Illinois, has been pay-to-play. And so, the ideas that you would have a governor, even if you were suggesting, even if he doesn't come out directly and say give me the money, but suggesting that there is a link between assigning of legislation or getting funding and a campaign contribution, is just - that's just something that, to me, is almost like a smoking gun.

And when you consider that ethics reform passed by this very administration would have kicked in at the beginning of the year, which means that in order for him to benefit from that funding to the racetrack organization he would've gotten the money - would have to have gotten the money before the beginning of the year, which is what this conversation is basically saying. So, it's not a smoking gun, but it's very, very close to one.

MARTIN: Now, as we mentioned, the governor is boycotting the impeachment trial. He says it's not fair, it's a forgone conclusion. He's doing these interviews instead. I'm asking you to get into his mind, but what do you think is the purpose of this media blitz?

Ms. MITCHELL: Well, he...

MARTIN: Do you think he can - he feels he can pressure these senators to change their minds?

Ms. MITCHELL: No, no, it's not about the senate. He knows he is on his way out. But you have to think that there is a method to his madness. And here's what I think personally. That, one, he's such an egomaniac that he wants to talk his way out of this. If he can convince the American people and the national audience that he's not the bad guy, that those people in Illinois are somehow doing something wrong to him, then at least he gets the - he gets sympathy. And that's what he's looking for. He's looking for sympathy.

And he's also looking for a job, Michel. He is looking for a way to earn money. His wife has been fired from an earning(ph) six-figure job. He's going to be out of an income. He has a criminal trial hanging over his head. Somebody looking at "Good Morning America" or "The View" or "Larry King," or any of those shows, maybe there's somebody who'll say, hey, this guy could be a talk-show host himself. So, he is trying to get exposure because he knows the curtain is going down and he has to have something else.

MARTIN: Just a final question, Mary. How are the folks and your readers reacting to this? What are you hearing?

Ms. MITCHELL: Oh, they are - you have two groups of people. One that thinks, well, there's a conspiracy theory, will believe any conspiracy theory you put out there, and so those people are thinking, well, somehow or another he's being railroaded. And then there's the other group of people who are just embarrassed and just want government to function the way it should be, and want this guy to go away so that Illinois can get back to the business of governing.

MARTIN: Mary Mitchell is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. She joined us from her office in Chicago. Thanks, Mary.

Ms. MITCHELL: Thank you.

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