President Donald Trump has sent his clearest signal yet that he may be about to sign commutation papers freeing former Illinois governor and one-time “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant Rod Blagojevich from federal prison in Colorado.
The 62-year-old Democrat, who was once best known and the butt of jokes for his thick, meticulously coiffed hair, is seven years into a lengthy sentence for extortion, bribery and other wide-ranging political corruption.
“I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One this week about Blagojevich. He added: “I’m thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly.”
Trump’s comments on Blagojevich’s case contained several errors and underplayed the severity of the crimes, which included attempting to sell an appointment to the US Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008.
A look at Blagojevich’s crimes, Trump’s characterization of them and why the president may be taking a special interest in the case:
Q: Was Blagojevich convicted for bragging?
A: Trump echoed an assertion Blagojevich has made for years that federal prosecutors came after him for mere musings and boastful talk on the phone, which, unbeknownst to Blagojevich at the time in 2008, had been tapped by the FBI.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday night, Trump said Blagojevich was behind bars “over a phone call where nothing happens.” He added Blagojevich “shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio.”
Judges and prosecutors rejected such interpretations. The majority of Illinois residents, many who seemed otherwise jaded by the state’s long, ignominious history of political corruption, expressed shock at what Blagojevich did.
His conviction for trying to sell an appointment to Obama’s Senate seat for campaign contributions stood out, in part, because of Blagojevich’s excited, expletive-laden talk captured on wiretaps about how he could parlay his power to name a new senator into campaign donations.
“I’ve got this thing and it’s f------ golden,” he is heard saying. “And I’m just not giving it up for f------ nothing.”
Prosecutors said the crimes went beyond talk, with Blagojevich dispatching emissaries to press potential donors and to convey the message that they’d have to pay to play.
His other convictions included trying to shake down a Chicago children’s hospital. It’s CEO, Patrick Magoon, testified that Blagojevich threatened to cancel an $8 million state pediatric-care reimbursement unless Magoon paid $25,000 into Blagojevich’s campaign coffers.
A federal appeals court in 2015 did toss five of 18 convictions , including ones in which Blagojevich offered an appointment to the Senate for a high-paying job. But the convictions for trying to trade an appointment for campaign cash were upheld.
Q: Was Trump right about the sentence?
A: In his comments, Trump was right about the amount Blagojevich has served to date when he said: “I think it’s enough: seven years.”
Blagojevich reported to prison in 2012, after which his hair quickly turned white because hair dyes are prohibited behind bars. Inside, the Elvis Presley fan formed a prison band called “The Jailhouse Rockers,” his lawyers have said.
Trump was wrong in saying Blagojevich “was given close to 18 years in prison.” Judge James Zagel sentenced Blagojevich in 2011 to 14 years in prison.
“The abuse of the office of governor is more damaging than the abuse of any other office, except the president’s,” Zagel said in sentencing the two-term governor.
“When it is the governor who goes bad,” the judge said, “the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired.”
Federal felons must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, meaning Blagojevich would be eligible after serving 12 years. That would put his release date in 2024.
In speaking about how he thought Blagojevich’s sentence was too long, Trump also said: “You have drug dealers that get not even 30 days, and they’ve killed 25 people.” It’s unclear what Trump meant.
Q: What’s Trump’s interest in the case?
A: Trump appeared to draw a link between the federal prosecution of Blagojevich and the federal investigation of Russian meddling in the US election.
“And it was the same gang — the (James Comey) gang and the — all these sleazebags — that did it,” Trump said Wednesday.
But Comey, who Trump fired as FBI director in 2017, wasn’t in the FBI or anywhere in the Department of Justice during the investigation and indictment of Blagojevich. During that period, he was a vice president and general counsel at Lockheed Martin Corp. He left private practice in 2013, after Blagojevich was already in prison, and was confirmed that year as FBI director.
The Blagojevich investigation began during the George W. Bush’s presidency, when a familiar figure in the Russian investigation led the FBI: Robert Mueller.
Trump fired Blagojevich from the “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show in 2010 after Blagojevich struggled to complete basic tasks on a cellphone, like sending texts and emails. But Trump also expressed admiration for Blagojevich, whose first trial was about to begin. Trump praised him for how he was fighting his criminal case, telling him: “You have a hell of a lot of guts.”
Q: Has Trump discussed this before?
A: Trump first publicly mentioned the idea of freeing Blagojevich in May 2018. He said at the time that Blagojevich was convicted for “being stupid, saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say.”
As time passed with no action by Trump, Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, went on a media blitz with an apparent target audience of one: Trump himself.
Patti Blagojevich, who comes from a influential family of Chicago Democrats, went out of her way to praise the Republican president. She gave several interviews on Fox News, one of the president’s favorite news sources, likening the investigation of her husband to the Russia investigation that Trump called a “witch hunt.”
In his comments this week, Trump expressed sympathy for the Blagojevich daughters and admiration for Patti.
“I’m very impressed with his wife,” he said. “She’s one hell of a woman.”