The categorical denials coming from Barack Obama on the Rod Blagojevich pay-to-play scandal took another hit today from the Chicago Tribune.  Two sources confirm that Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s new chief of staff, had a number of conversations with Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris to discuss acceptable candidates to fill the rest of Obama’s Senate term.  These conversations got captured by federal wiretaps and will likely be reviewed by a grand jury looking to indict people on corruption charges:

Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to be White House chief of staff, had conversations with Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration about who would replace Obama in the U.S. Senate, the Tribune has learned.

The revelation does not suggest Obama’s new gatekeeper was involved in any talk of dealmaking involving the seat. But it does help fill in the gaps surrounding a question that Obama was unable or unwilling to answer this week: Did anyone on his staff have contact with Blagojevich about his choice for the Senate seat? …

One source confirmed that communications between Emanuel and the Blagojevich administration were captured on court-approved wiretaps.

Another source said that contact between the Obama camp and the governor’s administration regarding the Senate seat began the Saturday before the Nov. 4 election, when Emanuel made a call to the cell phone of Harris. The conversation took place around the same time press reports surfaced about Emanuel being approached about taking the high-level White House post should Obama win.

Emanuel delivered a list of candidates who would be “acceptable” to Obama, the source said. On the list were Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, Illinois Veterans Affairs director Tammy Duckworth, state Comptroller Dan Hynes and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Chicago, the source said. All are Democrats.

Sometime after the election, Emanuel called Harris back to add the name of Democratic Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan to the approved list, the source said.

As I wrote this week, no one would be surprised to hear that Emanuel and Obama had enough interest in the latter’s replacement to get in contact with the man who would normally make that appointment, Governor Blagojevich.  After all, the composition of the Senate matters a great deal to Obama, who needs to ensure that his agenda gets the most support possible in the next two years.  Given the corruption in Illinois politics, it might make it even more important to get involved in the process early to avoid getting someone who would embarrass the administration at a later point in time, especially with Patrick Fitzgerald’s years-long probe into Illinois politics still ongoing.

However, Barack Obama and his team chose not to give that honest and common-sense explanation.  Instead, they issued categorical denials that Obama and his staff had contacted Blagojevich or his staff about the succession.  It’s a mystifying claim, and one that will apparently get proven false fairly easily.  Now, instead of just saying that contact existed but that no one had tried making deals, they have thrown away their credibility on a very foolish point — which will lead to the conclusion that Team Obama has something very significant to hide.

Now it comes down to the Watergate question for both Emanuel and Obama: What did they know, and when did they know it?  Did Emanuel’s conversations with Harris or anyone else involve discussions of quid pro quo?  Team Obama will deny it, but they spent all of this week denying any conversations took place, and only the most gullible will believe denials from this point forward.  The wiretaps will go to the grand jury, and we will see whether Emanuel got himself caught in Fitzgerald’s nets.

If he did discuss quid pro quo and didn’t report it to the feds, Emanuel may or may not have committed a crime, but Obama will have no choice but to fire him.  And axing a Chief of Staff before even taking the oath of office does not lend much confidence in either the competence nor the honesty of the new President.

Update: Here’s what Obama said in his December 11th statement:

I had no contact with the governor’s office. I did not speak to the governor about these issues, that I know for certain. What I want to do is to gather all the facts about any staff contacts that may have taken place between the transition office and the governor’s office, and we’ll have those in the next few days and we’ll present them. But what I’m absolutely certain about is that our office had no involvement in any deal-making around my Senate seat. That, I’m absolutely certain of, and that would be a violation of everything this campaign has been about. That’s not how we do business.

So Obama said in one part that he himself hat no contact with the governor’s office or the governor regarding the appointment, which makes sense, because he’s got other issues to handle. He then claims that his office “had no involvement in any deal-making around my Senate seat.” If that’s true, then what was Emanuel discussing with Harris — and how did Blagojevich know that they wouldn’t give him anything but their appreciation? From the complaint, it doesn’t sound like an assumption Blagojevich made. (Hat tip: HA reader David M)