Blagojevich retrial publicity tour heads to Trump's TV show
TV viewers get a preview of what could happen if Rod Blagojevich takes the stand in his corruption trial when "The Celebrity Apprentice" airs its season premiere on Sunday.
Assigned to wait tables at a diner as part of a team challenge, Blagojevich is caught on camera - and by former "Celebrity Apprentice" winner Joan Rivers, a planted spy - chatting up customers about how innocent he is and letting the food go cold in the kitchen.
Confronted by Donald Trump in the boardroom about it and asked if he neglected his duties, Blagojevich gets a deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes, blinks in rapid-fire motion and says, "Possibly. I don't specifically recall."
For more than a year now, Blagojevich - whose trial is set to begin in June - has been claiming innocence. He insists he did nothing wrong, that despite secretly recorded tape transcripts in which he's alleged to have tried to auction a U.S. Senate appointment to the highest bidder and pressure campaign contributors for cash in exchange for political favors, those tapes in their entirety will prove the truth and set him free. Violating the conventional wisdom against taking part in "The Celebrity Apprentice" in the first place, he seems to view the show as yet another soap box from which he can proclaim his innocence.
When the new season debuts with a two-hour episode at 8 p.m. Sunday on WMAQ Channel 5, Blagojevich says, "I'm competing because I've been wronged maliciously, accused of things I didn't do. I'm fighting back." He goes on to tell those diner customers, "I didn't do those things, by the way," later adding, "Well, someone's lying and it ain't me. And they took a governor out of office who was liked by the people. They pulled me away from the people who hired me," and insisting anew, "The truth is on those tapes."
If, as many suspect, Blagojevich is trying to sway the jury pool with his TV appearances, he may yet find that media manipulation is a double-edged sword, especially in the midst of a cutthroat reality-TV competition like "The Celebrity Apprentice."
Judge James Zagel issued warnings about that when Blagojevich's participation in the show first came up last October, as filming was about to begin in New York City. "There are significant confessional elements to the show," Zagel said, and "it is possible that an individual person might say something that creates problems for that person later at trial."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar was more concerned with Blagojevich tainting the jury pool, saying, "He has a history of repeatedly commenting on the evidence - usually inaccurately."
Blagojevich may find, however, that entering a reality-TV competition may not be the best way to impress potential jurors. "He runs the risk of coming off a complete buffoon," said DePaul University law professor Leonard Cavise. "At his trial, he needs to be seen as a serious public figure. So, yes, the appearance could completely backfire."
On the show, although Blagojevich cheers the "healthy camaraderie" he finds with his teammates, adding that "coming out of politics, it's a whole new experience," he may ultimately find the backstabbing and games of one-upmanship all too familiar.
Judging from the first episode, it seems Blagojevich is unlikely to get the sympathy treatment his wife, Patti, received in appearing on "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me out of Here!" Although Trump tells Blagojevich openly, "I've got to say, you've got a lot of guts," he says it in a way that seems to add, "to do something this stupid." Blagojevich is also not party to asides such as the wrestler Bill Goldberg saying he's honored to be taking part in a competition with others who've been at the top of their fields, like sprinter Michael Johnson and baseball star Darryl Strawberry, only to take pains to set Blagojevich outside that circle.
When the teams are split into men and women, both get to choose the project leader for the other in the first challenge. One woman points out that, if they want the men to fail, it might not be a good idea to place an experienced state executive like Blagojevich in charge, but then Victoria's Secret model Selita Ebanks says, "He did get caught."
Later, Rivers throws him under the bus, saying, "Blagojevich couldn't get it together. If he ran a state, nothing could get done."
That's not exactly the sort of influence Blagojevich wants to exert on the jury pool.
Neither does he really help his own cause - in the trial or in the series itself - when he says smarmy things such as he never cooked as governor because "I was cooking up results for the people," and accepts the job as waiter because "in some ways, this is another form of public service."
And he seems to be offering up excuses when Trump confronts him about why he didn't get more high-roller acquaintances to come into the diner, and Blagojevich replies, "When I come calling for money these days, someone else is listening. And the people on the other end know it."
The series runs through May sweeps right up to the verge of his trial, but Blagojevich could find himself fired - not by the General Assembly this time, but by Donald Trump - long before that.
Blagojevich on 'Celebrity Apprentice'
8-10 p.m. Sunday on WMAQ Channel 5