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The Rod Blagojevich scandal and Trump’s commutation of his sentence, explained

Why the former Illinois governor is in prison — and why Trump just granted him clemency.

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in 2012, just before he began his prison sentence.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in 2012, just before he began his prison sentence.
Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

President Donald Trump commuted the remainder of the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) on corruption charges, he announced Tuesday — meaning Blagojevich, who has been in prison for nearly eight years, will be freed.

Blagojevich was convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges related to his attempts to essentially sell the Senate seat Barack Obama left open when he won the presidential election in 2008. Blagojevich was also convicted of trying to extort a children’s hospital CEO and a racetrack executive for campaign contributions in exchange for policy changes, and of making false statements to the FBI.

It may seem odd that Trump helped out a corrupt Democrat. But Blagojevich had one major thing going for him: After his ouster from the governorship but before his trials, he appeared as a contestant on the Trump-hosted reality show The Celebrity Apprentice.

Since then, Trump has mused several times that Blagojevich got too harsh a sentence, often giving flat-out false descriptions of the case and the evidence against him. For instance, Trump said last August that Blagojevich has “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.”

This is not at all what happened. Prosecutors laid out wiretap evidence and witness testimony that, in many conversations spanning over a month, Blagojevich had schemed about what he could get in return for naming particular people to the Senate seat.

Among the possibilities he dangled were financial benefits for himself and his family — highly paid nonprofit gigs that he imagined Obama could arrange for him, or corporate board seats for his wife. Plus, he was convicted of other corruption offenses having nothing to do with the Senate seat. (You will note that Trump reprised that same basic “it was just one phone call” argument in his own defense, also misleadingly, during impeachment proceedings.)

But Trump has enjoyed using his pardon (and in this case, commutation) power to forgive somewhat notorious, politically controversial individuals: former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, conservative writer and documentarian Dinesh D’Souza, and former Bush White House aide Scooter Libby. And indeed, alongside the commutation for Blagojevich, Trump announced he was granting clemency to former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik and “junk bond king” Michael Milken.

And these latest moves are playing out amid controversy over the impending sentencings for Trump allies Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. So they could well serve another purpose — further normalizing the granting of pardons and commutations to Trump’s friends, so Trump can eventually reward his associates who have run afoul of the law but remained “loyal” to him.

Because if you give clemency to the corrupt Democratic governor who tried to sell Obama’s Senate seat, who won’t you give clemency to?

What was the Rod Blagojevich scandal?

After Blagojevich served as a Chicago-based prosecutor, state legislator, and Congress member, his political career peaked when he was elected governor of Illinois in 2002 and then won a second term in 2006. But he was quickly overshadowed by another Democratic rising star from his state, Barack Obama, who won a Senate seat in 2004 and then the presidency in 2008.

That latter win meant that Obama would have to resign his Senate seat — and that Gov. Blagojevich would get to appoint his replacement. Media reports claimed that Obama wanted his adviser Valerie Jarrett to get the spot.

But Blagojevich had other ideas. The Senate seat, he told an adviser, “is a fucking valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.” In another conversation, he elaborated: “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for fuckin’ nothing.” He also complained that his consultants were telling him to “suck it up” and give this “motherfucker” — Obama — “his senator.” He added: “For nothing? Fuck him.” (All of these conversations were wiretapped by the FBI.)

So what did Blagojevich want in return for naming Jarrett to the seat? He mused about several ideas:

  • A presidential appointment for him, preferably health and human services secretary
  • Obama could get him named the head of a private foundation (though it had to be for a large salary)
  • Obama could get “Warren Buffett types” to give millions in funding to a new nonprofit that Blagojevich would then run (with a substantial salary)
  • Paid corporate board positions for his wife

Blagojevich had his advisers get in touch with Obama’s to try to convey this information to them. But he didn’t hear back anything encouraging. He then turned to supporters of then-Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who wanted Jackson to get the Senate seat — asking them for $1.5 million in “fundraising” in exchange for the appointment (and since Blagojevich had already decided not to run for a third term, prosecutors argued he wanted the money for his personal use). He even mused about naming himself to fill the vacancy.

But on December 5, the scheme came to a halt when the Chicago Tribune reported that Blagojevich had been recorded as part of a criminal investigation. Blagojevich was arrested days later and charged with various offenses related to trying to sell the Senate seat as well as other alleged incidents of corruption (it turns out this incident was representative of how Blagojevich tended to do business generally).

The news caused a national sensation — in part because of the scandal was close to the newly elected president and in part because those Blagojevich wiretap quotes above were so over the top. Blagojevich refused calls from Obama and others for his resignation and named former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the Senate vacancy. But shortly afterward, in January 2009, the state legislature impeached Blagojevich and removed him from office.

Then Blagojevich went on The Celebrity Apprentice

Later that year, while awaiting trial, the former governor made what could prove to be one of the most important decisions of his life: He became a contestant on Donald Trump’s reality TV show, The Celebrity Apprentice.

Blagojevich made it four weeks but stumbled in a challenge to design a Harry Potter 3D experience for Universal Studios. His team’s display called the famed school for witchcraft and wizardry “Hogwards” rather than “Hogwarts” and referred to “classes” rather than “houses.”

“Your Harry Potter facts were not accurate!” Trump thundered. “Who did the research?”

“I wrote a lot of the text,” Blagojevich admitted. “I was the one who said ‘houses’ and ‘classes’ interchangeably, because I was trying to be more explicit, so people can get a concept of it. But it’s Slithering (sic) and it’s Hufflepuff and it’s Ravencloth (sic)...” Anyway, he was fired, but the point is he got to spend some quality time with the future president.

What Blagojevich ended up convicted for

In 2010, Blagojevich had what turned out to be his first trial. There, he was convicted on one count of making false statements to the FBI (he had told them he didn’t keep track of who gave him campaign donations), but the jury couldn’t reach a verdict on 23 other counts. (A juror told the New York Times that some jurors concluded Blagojevich had just been “doing a lot of talking.”)

But the deadlocked jury meant prosecutors had the opportunity to try Blagojevich again. They did so in 2011 — and this time, they got their man. Blagojevich was convicted on 17 counts. Most of these were wire fraud and conspiracy charges related to Obama’s Senate seat. But let’s not forget the other corruption incidents he was convicted of:

  • The hospital shakedown: After lobbyists for Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago asked Blagojevich to increase the reimbursement rate for Medicaid payments, Blagojevich communicated to them that he’d do so in exchange for a “campaign contribution” of $50,000.
  • The racetrack executive shakedown: After the Illinois legislature passed an extension for a program designed to help out racetracks by taxing casinos, Blagojevich delayed signing it to try to get $100,000 in “campaign” contributions from a racetrack executive. He communicated that he wouldn’t sign the bill before he got the donations.

Eventually, Blagojevich got five of these counts thrown out on appeal, due to a technicality related to jury instructions. An appellate panel concluded that it would not, in fact, have been illegal for Blagojevich to try to trade the Senate appointment for a Cabinet appointment for himself, since both are “public acts.” Now, Blagojevich had also sought various financial and private benefits (the nonprofits posts for him and board seats for his wife), and the appellate judges agreed there was “sufficient” evidence to convict him for that reason. But the jury had been told that they could convict him even if only the Cabinet allegation was proven.

This was hardly a resounding vindication for Blagojevich, since the judges also called the “evidence” of his guilt “overwhelming,” pointing out that much of it was “from Blagojevich’s own mouth.” And in the end, it didn’t change his sentence, which turned out to be a hefty 14 years.

This is the latest in Trump’s series of political pardons or commutations

Ordinarily, Blagojevich would have little hope of a pardon or commutation — his offense seems absurdly corrupt, and what president would want to be seen as waving away his crimes?

But then he got extraordinarily lucky when his old reality TV host Donald Trump became president. Trump doesn’t seem particularly disturbed by corruption, when it’s practiced by his friends or allies, at least. And, even more importantly, Trump seems to have discovered that ... he kind of likes pardoning people. There have been three main precursors to the kind of commuted sentence Blagojevich would represent.

1) Joe Arpaio: The former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Arpaio was a favorite of the anti-immigrant right for “cracking down” on unauthorized immigrants (as well as for stunts like making his inmates wear pink underwear). But the Justice Department (under President Obama) found he had been rampantly racially profiling Latinos, so the courts tried to get him to rein in his practices. He refused and was charged with criminal contempt of court, lost reelection, and was convicted.

But in August 2017, before Arpaio was even sentenced, Trump pardoned him, in the first pardon of his presidency. The Arpaio pardon served Trump’s policy aims because he was trying to encourage officials to “get tough” on unauthorized immigrants across the country. Trump was also rewarding a political ally who had endorsed him early in his campaign. And he spun it as mercy — as helping a then-85-year-old man avoid prison.

2) Scooter Libby: Trump’s next big political pardon was for I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney during George W. Bush’s administration. Libby had become embroiled in the investigation over the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity and was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about his contacts with journalists over the matter. President Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence in 2007, so he never served any time. But Bush notably refused to grant him a full pardon, despite frequent appeals from Cheney.

Trump then decided to grant Libby that full pardon in April 2018. Though Libby had many friends in the conservative movement who long pushed for the move, the pardon was mainly symbolic, since his sentence was already commuted. But many speculated about just what symbolism Trump intended, in the midst of the Mueller investigation. Was he sending a message that aides who remained loyal to him would also be rewarded — even if they lied to the FBI?

3) Dinesh D’Souza: Next came Trump’s pardon for D’Souza, the longtime (and controversial) conservative author and commentator. In 2012, D’Souza had told two people to donate $10,000 each to an old friend’s Senate campaign and promised to pay them back the money himself. This, however, was illegal, and D’Souza eventually pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance law for it.

But D’Souza argued he only pleaded guilty to avert more serious charges and portrayed himself as targeted by Obama’s supposedly corrupt Justice Department for political reasons. That is the exact narrative Trump wanted to promote — and so he pardoned D’Souza in May 2018.

The Blagojevich commutation happened after a delay — and as all eyes are turning toward Roger Stone and Michael Flynn

Just after the D’Souza pardon nearly two years ago, Trump told reporters that “there’s another one I’m thinking about, Rod Blagojevich.”

Indeed, Blagojevich’s supporters (most notably his wife Patti) have fashioned several arguments designed to appeal to Trump personally in a campaign that has included a formal clemency petition as well as appeals during Fox News appearances.

The most accurate point Trump has made is simply that Blagojevich has been in prison for a long time. He has: nearly eight years. However, Trump also claimed he got an 18-year sentence, which is wrong; it was 14 years.

Most notably, Blagojevich’s supporters have argued that Blagojevich was a victim of a corrupt and political FBI “deep state,” exaggerating ordinary political behavior into crimes — with the implication being that he’s just like Trump.

This argument seems to have resonated with Trump — he said last August that Blagojevich had been “treated unbelievably unfairly” by “the Comey gang.”

Now, former FBI Director James Comey was not even in the federal government for the time spanning Blagojevich’s 2008 arrest to his 2011 conviction. (The FBI director at the time was Robert Mueller.) But Trump is probably referring to Patrick Fitzgerald, the Northern Illinois US attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich as well as Scooter Libby. Fitzgerald is a close friend of Comey’s, and now that he’s back in private practice, he’s Comey’s lawyer.

Trump also has been repeating a false description of the Blagojevich case, claiming he was only charged for what he said on one phone call that could have been just talk. In fact, the charges related to a month’s worth of discussions and three separate corruption-related incidents. It is true that no money ended up changing hands, but that certainly wasn’t for lack of trying on Blagojevich’s part.

Trump brought up commuting Blagojevich’s sentence unprompted multiple times over the past two years, making clear he wanted to do it. But each time he did so, he faced pushback, as Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Republican members of Congress in Illinois were understandably appalled by the idea, and even most White House staff seemed to think it was a bad look. So, for a while, Trump was hesitant to go through with it.

But it seems obvious why the idea was so consistently tempting. Trump wants to normalize corrupt behavior from himself and his allies, he wants to set precedents that pardoning corrupt friends of the president is okay, and he wants to further cement the narrative that any FBI corruption investigations that touch on his allies are “deep state” frame-ups.

That’s particularly relevant to three of his close allies who faced charges in the Mueller investigation: Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone.

About a year ago, Manafort was sentenced to a combined seven-and-a-half years for tax fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy, and witness tampering. But so far, Trump has done nothing to ameliorate his former campaign chair’s sentence — he remains behind bars, where he has been for nearly two years now (he was jailed before his trials for violating his conditions of release).

Then there was former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn agreed to cooperate with the government, but eventually reneged on the deal and is now seeking to have his guilty plea thrown out. His sentencing was originally scheduled for this month but it has been delayed.

Finally, there’s longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, who was convicted for obstruction, false statements, and witness tampering. Stone is due to be sentenced this Thursday, and Attorney General Bill Barr controversially intervened to water down prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation for him (spurring all four prosecutors to quit the case).

So if Trump gives Blagojevich clemency and the political system yawns (or briefly protests and then moves on to the next thing), it could be less of a stretch for him to pardon Manafort, Flynn, or Stone later.

And there’s one other likely reason the idea appeals to him so much. He probably looks at Rod Blagojevich — wiretapped by the FBI discussing all sorts of corrupt ideas and then convicted and sent to prison — and thinks, There but for the grace of God go I.

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