Rod Blagojevich asked a judge Monday to order prosecutors to hand over written summaries of any FBI interviews with President Barack Obama about the ousted Illinois governor's corruption case, raising the prospect that Blagojevich could try to make the president a prominent feature of his defense at his upcoming retrial.
Judges are traditionally averse to drawing sitting presidents into trials, however. And Judge James Zagel, who will preside over Blagojevich's retrial starting later this month, has repeatedly said Obama has no direct bearing on the allegations, which include that Blagojevich sought to sell or trade an appointment to Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Obama has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the case by anyone, including the defense. But Blagojevich's attorneys have argued before that Obama could help demonstrate that their client never did anything criminal but merely engaged in legal, political wheeling and dealing.
"I haven't seen any argument Obama has anything to bring to the table in this trial," said David Morrison, a deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform who has followed the case closely. "I think Blagojevich has been desperate to drag Obama into this for years now, and this motion is just the latest gambit."
Blagojevich, 54, faces 20 charges, including allegations that he tried to exchange an appointment to Obama's seat for a top job or campaign cash. Jurors at his first trial deadlocked on all but one count, convicting him on a lone count of lying to the FBI.
Monday's request came in a motion filed with the U.S. District Court in Chicago, saying written accounts of any Obama interviews could "go directly to the heart of testimony of several government witnesses," particularly union leader and Obama ally Tom Balanoff.
U.S. Attorney's office spokesman Randall Samborn declined any comment on the motion.
Zagel had rejected a similar motion before Blagojevich's first trial. Unlike the motion last year, Monday's filing does not ask for permission to call Obama as a witness -- an idea Zagel also shot down.
The new motion zeros in on Balanoff, a key government witness. He testified at the first trial that Obama called him on the eve of the 2008 election, telling Balanoff he preferred that family friend Valerie Jarrett work in the White House but that she wanted to be senator.
"I thanked him and I said I was going to reach out to Gov. Blagojevich and speak on Valerie's behalf," Balanoff testified.
Defense attorneys claim Balanoff's testimony about the call appeared to contradict some other accounts and that notes of any FBI interviews with Obama could clarify the issue.
Balanoff's testimony is potentially damaging to Blagojevich. On the witness stand last year, Balanoff also told jurors he was startled when, in discussing Jarrett's interest in the seat with Blagojevich, the then-governor broached the possibility of becoming secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration.
He took Blagojevich's reference as an offer to trade one for the other.
"I understood him to be offering that, `Hey, if I got this appointment (as a Cabinet secretary), then I could see my way to appoint Valerie Jarrett," Balanoff said.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky, Balanoff conceded that Blagojevich never said explicitly he wanted to trade the appointment to the seat for a top job.
Zagel has repeatedly denied defense moves that could put a spotlight on Obama. In a sidebar last year, for example, Sorosky told Zagel he wanted to ask Balanoff if the FBI focused its questions on Obama rather than Blagojevich when agents interviewed Balanoff.
"I think we have a right to bring that out," Sorosky told the judge.
"No, you don't," Zagel shot back.
That sidebar conversation last year was out of earshot of the jury, spectators and journalists in court, but official trial transcripts released later included it.
Monday's motion leaves open the option of the defense again asking for permission to subpoena Obama. Some legal observers say judges are reluctant to put presidents on the stand, in part, because the spectacle could throw proceedings into disarray.
"It would be a circus," said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago-based attorney who frequently represents clients in federal court. "The whole focus of the trial would switch."