President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that he was “strongly considering” commuting the 14-year prison sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who was convicted of trying to essentially sell President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat for personal gain.
Trump described the incriminating phone call in which Blagojevich, a Democrat, was taped discussing selling the seat as mostly a minor offense and something “many” politicians have done.
The move is likely to face steep blowback, since Blagojevich’s crime has long been seen as the epitome of the kind of pay-to-play that Trump has claimed he wanted to stop when he took office.
Trump told reporters of his plans after a day of highly critical news coverage that focused on the reception toward the president as he traveled to the sites of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 dead.
“I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly; he was given close to 18 years in prison,” Trump 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. And his name is Rod Blagojevich. And I’m thinking about commuting his sentence.”
The president made plans to commute the sentence this week, according to two people with knowledge of the talks, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser who has internally championed pardons and commutations, had suggested Blagojevich be pardoned, advising the president that it would appeal to Democrats, one of those people said. Other advisers told Trump that such a move would be politically unwise given the nature of Blagojevich’s conviction; instead, commuting the sentence was what had been settled on.
In May 2018, Trump suggested that he was considering commuting Blagojevich’s sentence. A month later, official paperwork was filed requesting the commutation.
Speaking on the plane, the president noted: “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 referenced Blagojevich’s wife, Patti Blagojevich, who has personally appealed to the president on Fox News to relieve her husband’s prison term.
“His wife, I think, is fantastic and I’m thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly. I think it’s enough, seven years,” Trump told reporters.
Aides had hoped to keep Trump from announcing such a move for as long as possible, the people briefed on the discussions said. Instead, the president, who often tries to shift the focus of the news media when he does not like the coverage, decided to share the possibility with reporters covering his trip, days after two mass shootings over the weekend.
Blagojevich was captured on an FBI recording discussing the seat that Obama was about to vacate for the presidency. “I’ve got this thing, and it’s” golden, Blagojevich said, using an expletive. “I’m not just giving it up for” nothing, he added. He was impeached and removed from office, and ultimately convicted after his first trial ended in a mistrial.
Before he was imprisoned, Blagojevich appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice,” a spinoff of the reality TV show that Trump starred in for 14 seasons.