Trump’s Idea Of Freeing Blagojevich Draws Bipartisan Fire In Illinois

trump on air force one
President Donald Trump talks to reporters aboard Air Force One after visiting Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. Evan Vucci / Associated Press
trump on air force one
President Donald Trump talks to reporters aboard Air Force One after visiting Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. Evan Vucci / Associated Press

Trump’s Idea Of Freeing Blagojevich Draws Bipartisan Fire In Illinois

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Updated at 4:34 p.m. Aug. 8

President Trump’s latest public flirtation with releasing imprisoned ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich early was met Thursday with bi-partisan disdain, while former First Lady Patti Blagojevich took to Twitter to offer new praise for the president.

Late Wednesday, Trump again raised hopes for Illinois’ disgraced ex-governor, telling reporters that he is seriously considering freeing him from the remainder of his 14-year federal prison term because Blagojevich was treated “unbelievably unfairly.”

“He was given close to 18 years in prison,” Trump said, mistating Blagojevich’s actual sentence. “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. And his name is Rod Blagojevich. And I’m thinking about commuting his sentence.”

Trump, who expressed similar sentiments in May 2018, made his most recent statements to reporters on the flight back to Washington, D.C., after visits to El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, sites of weekend mass shootings.

“He’s been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens — over a phone call which 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 — that have said a lot worse over the telephone,” Trump said.

“His wife I think is fantastic and I’m thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly. I think it’s enough, seven years.”

Patti Blagojevich has spent more than a year trying to appeal directly to Trump on behalf of her husband for mercy. His comments represented the strongest signal yet that her pitch to Trump, often over his cable news channel of choice, Fox News, may soon be paying dividends.

On Thursday, she declined a request from WBEZ to be interviewed but used Twitter to express gratitude toward Trump.

“Our president’s comments on Air Force One last night make us very hopeful that our almost 11 year nightmare might soon be over,” she tweeted. “We are very grateful.”

WBEZ profiled Blagojevich’s dramatic rise and fall in Illinois politics in the six-episode podcast, “Public Official A,” which was released earlier this year.

In a tweet late Wednesday, New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman — an interviewee in “Public Official A” — said that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner had pushed the president to pardon Blagojevich, which would wipe away his conviction, because it might be popular with Democrats.

But the top Democrat in the Illinois Senate ridiculed the idea of setting Blagojevich free early.

“We found the governor guilty, kicked him out as governor and also voted to never let him ever run for office again, and Donald Trump can’t do a damn thing about that,” Illinois Senate President John Cullerton told WBEZ in an interview.

The Chicago Democrat, who took power just before Blagojevich’s 2009 impeachment trial, also questioned Trump’s motivations with his latest trial balloon.

Cullerton suggested Trump’s newfound focus on Blagojevich may simply be meant as a “diversion” from criticism over “incendiary” comments he made about Latino immigrants that were similar to those used by the Texas gunman ahead of the shooting. Cullerton called on Republicans in Washington to pass gun-control measures.

Reaction to Trump’s words was equally harsh from members of his own party here in Illinois.

“I wrestle with many things that this Republican president has done since he’s gone into office. Just add this to the list,” said Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, who was the ranking Republican on the House panel that recommended Blagojevich’s impeachment.

“I don’t know where there should be any sympathies for the former governor,” Durkin said, noting that Blagojevich’s prison sentence has been upheld as the former governor appealed his convictions.

On Thursday, Illinois’ five-member Republican congressional delegation renewed its call to Trump not to commute Blagojevich’s sentence, a stance it first took in May 2018 with the president’s first hints of a commutation.

“It’s important that we take a strong stand against pay-to-play politics, especially in Illinois where four of our last eight governors have gone to federal prison for public corruption,” the joint statement from U.S. Reps. Darin LaHood, John Shimkus, Adam Kinzinger, Rodney Davis and Mike Bost said.

“Commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, who has a clear and documented record of egregious corruption, sets a dangerous precedent and goes against the trust voters place in elected officials,” they said.

And in Chicago, at a press conference at Morgan Park High School, Mayor Lori Lightfoot teed off on Trump.

“The challenge here is the president is a person who doesn’t respect the rule of law. We have no idea what his actual process is for making these very important decisions. And if you look at the track record, he’s pardoned Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio. He’s pardoned Scooter Libby. And now he’s dangling the carrot in front of the Blagojevich family, which, frankly, is pretty cruel given how both the wife and the daughters have been devastated by the incarceration of the former governor,” said Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor.

“Now, having said that, the former governor was convicted in a court of law. There were several appeals that went up. And the decision of the jury and the judge have been upheld by the 7th Circuit [Court of Appeals] several times,” she said. “The governor disgraced his office. He’s one of the few governors in the history of the country that’s been impeached. And he didn’t take seriously the incredible magnitude of the power in which he held. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard any contrition on his part.

“I would like for the president not to be ruling on these very important decisions on a whim. Basically, somebody he knows, something he thinks wasn’t fair, because that really does undermine the rule of law,” she said. “There’s a very specific process by which these decisions have historically been made and he needs to follow that process.”

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics and government for WBEZ, and McKinney narrated the “Public Official A” podcast. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold. WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp contributed to this report.