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Smartest guys not always right in Blagojevich retrial

Updated: August 3, 2011 6:31PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel are the smartest guys in the room.

And woe to those who forget that fact for they shall be sternly reminded.

The Blagojevich retrial put both men in the same room when Emanuel took the witness stand in Zagel’s court.

For a long time now, Emanuel has batted away reporters’ questions about specifically what conversations he had back in 2008 about filling Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat. Not to mention what conversations he had with Blagojevich about the congressional seat Emanuel was vacating to become the president’s chief of staff.

In 2009, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Natasha Korecki first reported that a conversation might exist between Blagojevich and Emanuel about who might take Emanuel’s place in Congress.

As late as January of this year at a Sun-Times editorial board meeting, Emanuel was asked if there was anything to the story that he wanted Blagojevich to appoint ally Forrest Claypool to keep his seat warm until Emanuel could return to it. (Something that was unconstitutional, though Emanuel didn’t appear to know it.)

Emanuel’s answer last January was, “No. Look. The White House has done a report. There has never been any sense of any kind of issues like this . . .”

The Blagojevich defense team begged to differ. And it wanted Zagel to allow them to play an undercover recording of a conversation between Emanuel and Blagojevich. That conversation, taped by the feds four days after Obama’s 2008 victory, was a “just between you and me” little talk about Emanuel handpicking his congressional successor.

Emanuel was asking Blagojevich to appoint Claypool “for like one term or two max,” suggesting Claypool could then go off to the Cabinet, allowing Emanuel to reclaim his seat. (Claypool has said he knew nothing of this.)

“I will not forget this . . . I appreciate it,” Emanuel assured Blagojevich, according to a transcript of the call. “That’s all I am going to say. I don’t want to go, you and I shouldn’t go farther.”

If I didn’t know better, I would think that sounds an awful lot like another tape the prosecution played in which Blagojevich warns his brother to talk like the “whole world is listening.” And seems to connect to yet another call between Blagojevich and consultant Fred Yang in which Yang warned, Emanuel “wants you to break the Constitution of the United States.” And Blagojevich responds, “Right, that’s a favor worth doing.”

Though Zagel allowed the prosecution to play the Yang tape, he wouldn’t allow the defense to play the Emanuel tape.

At two press availabilities last week, Emanuel stonewalled reporters: “I’m going to be really clear, I’ve answered all the questions I need to answer to that.”

No, he has not.

Then again, Zagel wasn’t going to make him either. Emanuel, to be clear, isn’t on trial here or charged with any crime. Neither are some witnesses who have fortuitous grants of immunity. Nor are other witnesses who claim to have been extorted by Blagojevich but never reported it to the feds.

Plenty of us who watched this trial — unsympathetic as we may be to our former governor — came away uncomfortable with the imbalance of Zagel’s sustaining virtually all of the prosecution’s objections. While overruling almost all of the defense’s objections.

The defense, which has hardly been flawless, asked for a mistrial Friday. Zagel denied the motion, saying he has been more than fair.

Sometimes the smartest guys in the room should — occasionally — consider the possibility they might be wrong.

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