President Donald Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday night that he is “very strongly” considering commuting the federal corruption sentence of disgraced and imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Speaking to reporters after making visits to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, following mass-shootings in those cities over the weekend, Trump said he thought the former Democratic governor had been mistreated. Blagojevich had been a fired contestant on Trump’s former NBC show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
“I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly; he was given close to 18 years in prison,” Trump, a Republican, said. “And a lot of people thought it was unfair, like a lot of other things — and it was the same gang, the Comey gang and all these sleazebags that did it.”
The president’s reference to “Comey” involves former FBI Director James Comey whom Trump has repeatedly criticized, contending he sought to politicize the nation’s top law enforcement agency in the 2016 election in which Trump faced Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. After taking office, Trump fired Comey amid an investigation into his campaign’s alleged contacts during the election with Russian emissaries.
Blagojevich, who served as Illinois governor from 2003 until his impeachment and removal from office in 2009, was sentenced to 14 years on federal corruption charges after his December 2011 conviction.
Blagojevich was convicted of attempting to use his office to personally benefit, offering the former U.S. Senate seat of then-President-elect Barack Obama for barter, but also for trying to use his official office to gain a prosperous job or gain campaign funds in exchange for his actions.
Some counts involving the alleged sale of the Senate seat were subsequently removed but his sentence and corruption conviction stood. He also was convicted of attempting to shake down a children’s hospital and the horse racetrack industry for official actions in exchange for campaign donations.
Government agents secretly recorded Blagojevich discussing the Senate seat appointment with his onetime deputy governor, Doug Scofield.
“I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden,” Blagojevich said in the secrety recorded conversation. “I’m not just giving it up for [expletive] nothing.”
His conviction came after winning office on a pledge to bring an end to corruption in Illinois following his predecessor, Republican Gov. George Ryan, who was convicted of campaign finance corruption.
In June of last year, Blagojevich’s attorneys moved to formally seek a pardon and clemency from the White House after Trump previously referenced “a lot of bravado” from Blagojevich and said the former governor “shouldn’t have been put in jail.”
Trump critics have long considered that a Blagojevich pardon or commutation could come as an attempt by the president to shift the national conversation from more controversial matters affecting the country or his administration. His remarks came amid controversy over a Republican response to gun violence over the murders of 31 people in mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend.
On Wednesday night, Trump ventured back into the reporter’s space aboard Air Force One en-route to Joint Base Andrews and said, “I’m thinking about commuting his sentence. He’s been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens. But over a phone — where nothing happens. But over a phone call which, you know, he shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio you would say.”
“I would think that there have been many politicians — I’m not one of them by the way — but have said a lot worse over telephones,” the president said. “And I watched his wife on television saying that the young girl’s father has been in jail for now seven years and they’ve never seen him outside of an orange uniform,” Trump continued, referring to Blagojevich’s wife, Patti and daughters, Amy and Annie. “His wife I think is fantastic and I’m thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly. I think it’s enough, seven years.”
Trump said Blagojevich had served seven years, mistakenly saying he was sentenced to 18 years instead of 14, and said drug dealers have received lesser terms in prison.”
Blagojevich’s wife Patti Blagojevich, had made repeated visits on Fox News, the president’s favorite TV news channel, to seek Trump’s approval for a pardon and commutation in light of Trump’s displeasure over the actions of the Justice Department and its investigation led by former special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election and actions by the Trump campaign.
“I’m very impressed with his family. I’m very impressed with his wife,” Trump told reporters. “I mean, she has lived for this. She has — she’s one hell of a woman. She has lived — she goes on and she makes her case. And it’s, it’s really very sad.”
Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 on 17 counts related to the attempted U.S. 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 original 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.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel, however, resentenced Blagojevich to the same 14-year prison term.
©2019 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.