Launching an all-out media blitz as his impeachment trial draws near, Gov. Rod Blagojevich compared himself Friday to an honest, hardworking cowboy and said he was about to be lynched by a band of black-hatted political insiders eager to raise taxes.
After keeping mostly out of the public eye since his arrest on federal corruption charges, Blagojevich reversed course with a series of interviews and public statements portraying himself as the victim of vengeful lawmakers eager to toss him out of office.
“The heart and soul of this has been a struggle of me against the system,” Blagojevich said at a news conference Friday.
Blagojevich denied any wrongdoing but wouldn’t discuss the federal corruption charges filed against him last month. Instead, he focused on his efforts to expand government health care programs without raising taxes.
He has chosen not to mount any defense in the Senate impeachment trial that begins Monday and could remove him from office within days. He may ask the Illinois Supreme Court to block the trial, arguing its rules are hopelessly biased against him.
Blagojevich, a fan of Western movies, drew a long analogy Friday between his situation and that of a cowboy falsely accused of stealing a horse. His story ended with one cowboy suggesting the accused thief be hanged, with the other suggesting he first be tried, then hanged.
“Under these rules, I’m not even getting a fair trial; they’re just hanging me. And when they hang me under these rules that prevent due process, they’re hanging the 12 million people of Illinois who twice have elected a governor,” he said.
The Democratic governor told The Associated Press on Thursday night that he’s willing to sacrifice himself for principle by standing up to lawmakers he believes are violating the Illinois Constitution. “The fight will continue,” he said.
Blagojevich’s fight would have one fewer supporter as his chief defense attorney, Ed Genson, announced Friday that he would pull out of the federal criminal case. In announcing his withdrawal, Genson insinuated the governor didn’t listen to his advice.
“I never require a client to do what I say, but I do require them to at least listen,” Genson said.
Blagojevich said Friday afternoon that he was surprised by Genson’s announcement and had no further comment.
Blagojevich also suffered a legal setback Friday when a federal court ruled that state lawmakers could hear a handful of FBI wiretaps made in the corruption investigation that led to Blagojevich’s arrest.
In a court motion, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said the conversations show Blagojevich conspiring with a lobbyist to collect campaign money in exchange for the governor signing gambling legislation.
Blagojevich’s main fight now is a public relations battle, and he called Friday for Illinois newspapers to publish editorials demanding the Senate change its trial rules. Federal prosecutors have alleged he put pressure on company executives to fire the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune for writing unflattering opinion pieces about him.
It’s not clear what, if anything, Blagojevich hopes to gain from his strategy of boycotting the impeachment trial and defending himself through the media. He has planned appearances Monday on “Good Morning, America” and “The View.”
Several legal experts said refusing to participate in the trial or resign from office makes little sense.
“There’s no benefit at all, except to make himself look ridiculous. In addition, anything he says can be used against him later” in court,” said Leonard Cavise, a law professor at DePaul University.
The FBI arrested Blagojevich on corruption charges, including the allegation he schemed to benefit from his power to name President Barack Obama’s replacement in the U.S. Senate, after years of investigation.
The governor’s office, responding to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, released 43 federal subpoenas Friday, including some seeking records involving Obama advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett.
His arrest triggered impeachment proceedings, and the House voted almost unanimously to send his case to the Senate for trial. A Senate conviction would remove him from office but have no impact on the continuing criminal case.
Blagojevich can stay in office if 20 of the Senate’s 59 members vote for his acquittal. It’s possible he hopes defending himself in interviews will inspire the public to pressure senators to support him.
Or Blagojevich may hope to build sympathy among potential jurors in some future criminal trial.
“All of these things are designed, I guess, to create grassroots support. I think it borders on delusional, to be honest,” said Chicago trial attorney Matt Belcher.
Shortly after his arrest, an independent poll found his job-approval rating had dwindled to just 8 percent. A recent poll for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform found that nearly 8 out of 10 Illinois residents believe the state is on the wrong track.
The combative approach is a return to a favorite Blagojevich tactic.
Since taking office six years ago, he has often portrayed himself as a lone champion of the people, outnumbered by uncaring lawmakers, a lazy bureaucracy and slick lobbyists.
“I took that system on. I challenged that system,” he said Friday. “That’s what this is all about.”
The governor twisted facts or exaggerated to support his version of events.
He has repeatedly said he wouldn’t be allowed to call witnesses in the Senate trial, but that’s not correct. Trial rules prohibit witnesses that federal prosecutors feel would interfere with their criminal case, such as Jarrett or Obama aide Rahm Emanuel, but Blagojevich could have called other people.
He has specifically mentioned wanting to call governors and senators to testify about all the good he’s done. Nothing in Senate rules would have barred those witnesses. Blagojevich never asked to have them testify.
The trial rules also would have allowed him to introduce a report by Obama’s transition team concluding that none of the president’s aides received improper proposals from the Blagojevich administration. The governor also could have introduced any public comments they made.
Amid his defiant remarks, Blagojevich displayed a brief moment of contrition, acknowledging for the first time since his arrest that he wasn’t always perfect.
“Notwithstanding mistakes and errors in judgment from time to time, most of the things I’ve done as governor have been the right things and have been things that helped people,” he said.
Associated Press writers Mike Robinson and Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report.