CHICAGO – Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich called Oprah Winfrey a kingmaker who could influence voters as he mulled naming the talk show host to President Barack Obama's former Senate seat, according to an FBI tape played Monday at his corruption trial.
"She made Obama, she's up there so high nobody could assail this pick," Blagojevich is heard telling his chief of staff, John Harris, who is now a prosecution witness.
Blagojevich had mentioned in TV interviews last year that Winfrey's name had come up in discussions about the seat. Winfrey said last year that she was "amused" by the revelation and that she was unaware at the time that she was under consideration.
On the tape played Monday, Harris says picking Winfrey would be a mistake and he is "not sure what she stands for." Blagojevich brushes such concerns aside, saying she was obviously a Democrat and her support in the 2008 election had "made Obama."
But a few minutes later, Blagojevich is heard complaining that he needs more potential candidates. At one point, the governor considers trying to appoint Obama family friend Valerie Jarrett, even though she has withdrawn her name from consideration and taken a post as a White House adviser. And he erupts when Harris brings up former press secretary Cheryle Jackson.
"There's no (expletive) way," he screams. He calls her an "(expletive) incompetent."
The secretly made FBI tapes show that as time passed, Blagojevich warms to the idea of picking Democratic U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., someone he had been heard on tape earlier in the trial as saying was "a bad guy, a really bad guy."
But Harris testified that Blagojevich told him that a "third party" with ties to Jackson had visited the governor and dangled the possibility of a $1.5 million campaign contribution. Harris did not address that person's identity in testimony Monday.
Blagojevich 53, has pleaded not guilty to scheming to get a high-paying job or a massive campaign contribution in return for appointing someone to the Obama Senate seat. He also has pleaded not guilty to plotting to use the powers of the governor's office to launch a racketeering scheme.
His brother, Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged scheme to sell or trade the Senate seat and illegally pressuring a campaign contributor.
Judge James Zagel on Monday denied a defense motion to see documents containing Obama's statements to investigators. Blagojevich's attorneys had filed a motion last week asking to see the FBI's summaries of the interviews, saying they needed them to conduct a meaningful cross-examination of Harris.
Zagel said Monday that there was nothing "even remotely relevant" to Harris' testimony.
As the trial began its fourth full week, Harris finished his testimony for prosecutors and Blagojevich's defense began cross-examination.
But before prosecutors finished with him, Harris told jurors that the day before Blagojevich was arrested the governor met with Jackson Jr. in the governor's office. Jackson had come to plead his case for appointment to the Senate.
Harris, who was on hand for the meeting, testified that the two men "buried the hatchet" and exchanged reminiscences about when they served on Capitol Hill together.
"I'm glad somebody is thinking about me and how they can help me," Harris quoted Blagojevich as saying as the meeting broke up. He did not explain further.
The following morning, on Dec. 9, 2008, FBI agents arrested both Blagojevich and Harris. The next month Blagojevich was impeached and thrown out of office. Before he left, he appointed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the Senate seat.
(This version corrects name to Cheryle from Cheryl.)