CHICAGO — President Donald Trump on Tuesday commuted the 14-year prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, calling the sentence “ridiculous.” Blagojevich was convicted of political corruption just months after he appeared on Trump’s reality TV show, “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Blagojevich, who hails from a state with a long history of pay-to-play schemes, is expected to walk out of prison later Tuesday, according to a person close to him, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they had not seen any signed paperwork. He had been found guilty of crimes that included seeking to sell an appointment to Barack Obama’s old Senate seat and trying to shake down a children’s hospital.
The 63-year-old Democrat exhausted his last appellate option in 2018 and had seemed destined to remain behind bars until his projected 2024 release date. His wife, Patti, went on a media blitz in 2018 to encourage Trump to step in, praising the president and likening the investigation of her husband to special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — a probe Trump long characterized as a “witchhunt.”
“Rod Blagojevich, the former Governor of Illinois, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He has served 7 years,” Trump had tweeted in August of 2019. “Many people have asked that I study the possibility of commuting his sentence in that it was a very severe one. White House staff is continuing the review of this matter.”
Blagojevich’s conviction was notable, even in a state where four of the last 10 governors have gone to prison for corruption. Judge James Zagel — who in 2011 sentenced Blagojevich to the longest prison term yet for an Illinois politician — said when a governor “goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured.”
Blagojevich became the brunt of jokes for foul-mouthed rants on wiretaps released after his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest while still governor. On the most notorious recording, he gushes about profiting by naming someone to the seat Obama vacated to become president: “I’ve got this thing and it’s f——— golden. And I’m just not giving it up for f——— nothing.”
When Trump publicly broached the idea in May 2018 of intervening to free Blagojevich, he downplayed the former governor’s crimes. He said Blagojevich was convicted for “being stupid, saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say.” He said Blagojevich’s sentence was too harsh.
Prosecutors have balked at the notion long fostered by Blagojevich that he engaged in common political horse-trading and was a victim of an overzealous U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald said after Blagojevich’s arrest that the governor had gone on “a political corruption crime spree” that would make Abraham Lincoln turn over in his grave.
Mueller — a subject of Trump’s derision — was FBI director during the investigation into Blagojevich. Fitzgerald is now a private attorney for another former FBI director, James Comey, whom Trump dismissed from the agency in May 2017.
Trump also expressed some sympathy for Blagojevich when he appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010 before his first corruption trial started. As Trump “fired” Blagojevich as a contestant, he praised him for how he was fighting his criminal case, telling him: “You have a hell of a lot of guts.”
He later poll-tested the matter, asking for a show of hands of those who supported clemency at an October, 2019 fundraiser at his Chicago hotel. Most of the 200 to 300 attendees raised their hands, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing several people at the event.
On the same day, Trump told Chicago’s WLS-TV that — despite bringing up the possibility of freeing Blagojevich in August and then appearing to back away from the idea — Blagojevich shouldn’t abandon hope of an early release.
“No, he should not at all give up hope, at all,” Trump said. “We are looking at it.”
Blagojevich testified at his 2011 retrial, describing himself as a flawed dreamer grounded in his parents’ working-class values. He sought to humanize himself to counteract the blunt, profane, seemingly greedy Blagojevich heard on wiretap recordings played in court by prosecutors over several weeks. He said the hours of FBI recordings were the ramblings of a politician who liked to think out loud.
But jurors accepted evidence that Blagojevich demanded a $50,000 donation from the head of a children’s hospital in return for increased state support and extorted $100,000 in donations from two horse racing tracks and a racing executive in exchange for quick approval of legislation the tracks wanted.
He originally convicted on 18 counts, including lying to the FBI, wire fraud for trying to trade an appointment to the Obama seat for contributions and for the attempted extortion of a children’s hospital executive. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in 2015 tossed five of 18 convictions, including ones in which he offered to appoint someone to a high-paying job in the Senate.
The appeals court ordered the trial judge to resentence Blagojevich, but suggested it would be appropriate to hand him the same sentence, given the gravity of the crimes. Blagojevich appeared via live video from prison during the 2016 resentencing and asked for leniency. The judge gave him the same 14-year term, saying it was below federal guidelines when he imposed it the first time.
Famously fastidious about his dark hair as governor, it turned white behind bars because hair dyes are banned in prison.
Blagojevich had once aspired to run for president himself but entered the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in suburban Denver in 2012, disgraced and broke. Court documents filed by his lawyers in 2016 portrayed Blagojevich — known as brash in his days as governor — as humble and self-effacing as well as an insightful life coach and lecturer on everything from the Civil War to Richard Nixon. Blagojevich, an Elvis Presley fan, also formed a prison band called “The Jailhouse Rockers.”
The Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.