Trump says he's considering commuting sentence of imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich
Jason MeisnerContact ReporterChicago Tribune
More than six years after Gov. Rod Blagojevich walked into a federal prison, he may be on the verge of talking his way out.
For weeks, Blagojevich and his team have orchestrated a calculated publicity campaign labeling his prosecution on sweeping corruption charges unjust and politically motivated. The show has been targeted to an audience of one: President Donald Trump.
On Thursday, Trump indicated for the first time heâs been listening. He told reporters aboard Air Force One he is considering commuting Blagojevichâs 14-year prison sentence, which he described as an overly harsh penalty for what essentially amounted to a âfoolish statement.â
In his comments, w hich were part of a discussion of his plan to pardon conservative pundit Dinesh DâSouza, Trump mentioned only one of the several corrupt acts for which Blagojevich was convicted â" bartering to get something for himself in return for attempting to âsellâ the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama after his election as president. He also misstated the length of Blagojevichâs sentence.
âIâll tell you another one â¦ thereâs another one that Iâm thinking about. Rod Blagojevich,â Trump said, according to a pool report. â18 years in jail for being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know that many other politicians say.â
âAnd if you look at what he said, he said something to the effect like, âWhat do I get?â â¦ Stupid thing to say. But heâs sort of saying ... heâs gonna make a U.S. senator, which is a very big deal,â Trump said. âIf you read his statement, it was a foolish statement. There was a lot of bravado. â¦ Plenty of other politicians have said a lot worse. He shouldnât have been put in jail.â
Trump also referred to Blagojevichâs stint on his reality show, âCelebrity Apprentice,â but downplayed any relationship between them, saying, âI donât know him other than that he was on (the show) for a short period of time.â
The presidentâs comments were blasted Thursday by Robert Grant, the former head of the FBI in Chicago who helped lead the sprawling Operation Board Games investigation that resulted in dozens of convictions and ultimately led to Blagojevichâs downfall.
Grant, who retired from the FBI in 2013, told the Chicago Tribune that any executive clemency would be ânothing but a mean-spirited slapâ at Trumpâs perceived political enemies, including special counsel Robert Mueller, who is currently investigating whether Trumpâs campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election.
âItâs clear (Trump) has never seen any of the evidence,â Grant said in a telephone interview. âHe took his talking points from (wife) Patti Blagojevich. Itâs pure fantasy. This was flat out, old-fashioned corruption, pure and simple.â
Blagojevich, 61, is not due for release from the minimum-security facility outside Denver until May 2024. While the former governorâs lawyers have not formally asked the president for a pardon or commutation, the president has the power to order Blagojevich freed at any point.
Blagojevichâs lead attorney, Leonard Goodman, said in a statement Thursday that he was âgrateful that President Trump understands the unfairnessâ of the situation.
âHe has the power to correct this injustice,â Goodman said.
Trumpâs bombshell comments came two days after The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece by Blagojevich decrying his conviction as a politically motivated attack on everyday campaign fundraising â" arguments that have been roundly rejected by a federal appeals court and ignored by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The piece, published on Memorial Day under the headline âIâm in Prison for Practicing Politics,â began by saying that the ârule of law is under assault in America.â
âIt is being perverted and abused by the people sworn to enforce and uphold it,â Blagojevich wrote. âSome in the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation are abusing their power to criminalize the routine practices of politics and government. â¦ When they canât prove a crime, they create one.â
It was the latest in a media blitz that began in earnest after the U.S. Supreme Court last month rejected what was his last legal option to overturn his case through the courts.
Patti Blagojevich has gone on national cable news â" including Trumpâs favorite Fox News Channel â" in not-so-veiled attempts to link her husbandâs prosecution to former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, a clos e friend of fired FBI chief James Comey.
Fitzgerald also prosecuted former vice presidential adviser Lewis âScooterâ Libby, whom Trump pardoned in April.
Joseph Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the U.S. attorneyâs office in Chicago, had no comment Thursday.
But Randall Samborn, who served as Fitzgeraldâs spokesman throughout the Blagojevich case, said that the former governorâs âPR campaign to revise historyâ seems to have resonated with the president â" but it doesnât change the facts of his case or his guilt.
Samborn, who left the U.S. attorneyâs office in 2015, said he was concerned that Blagojevich and his supporters have seemingly gained traction in their campaign to âportray (Blagojevich) as the victim.â
âWhen he was sentenced, (Blagojevich) said he had nobody to blame but himself,â Samborn said. âYou can try to revise history all you want, but it doesnât change the facts.â
While Trump spoke only of statements ma de by Blagojevich on undercover wiretaps, much of the evidence presented at trial came from witnesses who said Blagojevich was shaking them down for campaign cash in exchange for official acts, Samborn said.
The victims included the then-CEO of Childrenâs Memorial Hospital who said he was pressured to contribute tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for state funding.
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Patti Blagojevich said she and the coupleâs two daughters, Amy and Annie, were âvery encouragedâ by the presidentâs remarks to reporters on Air Force One.
âHeâs given us something that has been hard to come by recently â¦ hope,â she said. âFrom the beginning, weâve eagerly awaited the day when Rod could come back home where he belongs, and we continue to pray our family will be made whole again soon.â
She also asked the media to respect her priv acy and said she was granting no interviews â" even though she appeared again on Fox News Tuesday evening to praise Trumpâs compassion.
Blagojevich was still in office when he was arrested at his home early one morning in December 2008 on charges of misusing his powers as governor in an array of wrongdoing. He was impeached and removed from office in January 2009.
Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 on 17 counts related to the attempted Senate seat sale and the fundraising shakedowns of the hospital executive and a racetrack owner. Less than a year earlier, an initial trial had ended with a jury deadlocked on all but one count of lying to the FBI, forcing the retrial.
In Blagojevich's first appeal in 2015, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago threw out five counts involving the Senate seat on technical grounds. But the court tempered the small victory for Blagojevich by calling the evidence against him overwhelming and making it clear that the ori ginal sentence was not out of bounds.
That set up another sentencing hearing in August 2016 that focused largely on Blagojevich's purported rehabilitation in prison, where he teaches history and counsels inmates and even served as lead singer in a prison band, The Jailhouse Rockers. Both of Blagojevich's daughters gave impassioned pleas for mercy, and Blagojevich himself apologized for his "mistakes" without specifically mentioning the crimes for which he was convicted.
"I recognize it was my actions and my words that led me here," Blagojevich said in a soft voice from a conference room in the federal prison outside Denver. "This can be a beginning to make amends for the past."
U.S. District Judge James Zagel, however, resentenced Blagojevich to the same 14-year prison term.
Blagojevich's former attorney, Lauren Kaeseberg, said Thursday a pardon or commutation has always been a "viableâ last resort. It would provide some measure of fairness in a process that has treated Blagojevich harshly, she said..
âWhere the justice system failed someone, executive clemency is there as a last resort to provide justice or fairness or mercy,â said Kaeseberg, who was on Blagojevichâs trial team and handled his early appeals.
Kaeseberg said it made âno senseâ for taxpayers to have to shell out money to keep Blagojevich in prison.
âSix years is enough,â she said. âIt's time for him to go home to his daughters.â
Meanwhile, Grant, the former FBI boss in Chicago, said Blagojevichâs lengthy sentence was a reflection of both the audaciousness of his schemes as well as a state weary of political corruption.
âThis is a state that has faced five corrupt governors,â Grant said. âBut Donald Trump has no respect for the rule of law. He has no respect for the Department of Justice or jury verdicts. ...He thinks heâs above all that.â
Chicago Tribuneâs Rick Pearson contributed.
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- Rod Blagojevich
- Donald Trump
- U.S. Senate
- U.S. Depar tment of Justice
- Patrick Fitzgerald