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Parsing Obama's Words

From CBS News' Director of Political Coverage Steve Chaggaris:

President-elect Barack Obama was adamant at his news conference Thursday that neither he nor his staff had anything to do with Gov. Rod Blagojevich's alleged "selling" of Mr. Obama's vacant Illinois U.S. Senate seat.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
"I'm confident that no representatives of mine would have any part of any deals related to this seat," Mr. Obama said before announcing that he "asked my team to gather the facts of any contacts with the governor's office about this vacancy so that we can share them with you over the next few days."

Defense lawyer and former U.S. House of Representatives General Counsel Stan Brand thinks this confidence might be going a little too far, too early, especially if it turns out that someone from his staff did have conversations with Blagojevich or his office.

"It's a misstep," Brand told CBS News.

His comments potentially leave open the possibility of criticism if Mr. Obama, in his own office's gathering of facts, or U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, in his investigation of the Blagojevich matter, uncover contact between the president-elect's office and the Illinois governor's.

"It could raise a question of credibility," Brand pointed out, even though a deeper parsing of Mr. Obama's words reveals that he is evidently making a deliberate distinction between actual deal-making (Mr. Obama did say his staff did not "have any part of any deals") and just possible conversations his staff may have had.

But given the politically cautious way Mr. Obama had spoken about controversial issues throughout his presidential run, Brand said this seems like "a crack in the flawless and seamless way he's conducted himself so far."

On the other hand, Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that while Mr. Obama's distinction between deal-making and regular conversations may be missed or even misunderstood, "unless someone did something illegal, I don't think there will be any major political fallout" from his explanation.

One more important point: while Brand suggested a possible political issue for Mr. Obama, he did emphasize there's no legal issue here.

"If someone from his office had a conversation, there's nothing illegal about a conversation," said Brand.

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