CHICAGO (AP) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday commuted what he called the “ridiculous” 14-year prison sentence handed out to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for political corruption, clearing the way for his release after more than eight years behind bars.
The Republican president said the punishment imposed on the Chicago Democrat and one-time “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant was excessive.
“So he’ll be able to go back home with his family,” Trump told reporters in Washington. “That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence in my opinion and in the opinion of many others.”
Blagojevich, 63, who hails from a state with a long history of pay-to-play schemes, was expected to walk out of prison later in the day. He was convicted in 2011 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.
Trump had said repeatedly in recent years that he was considering taking executive action in Blagojevich’s case, only to back away from the idea.
One of Blagojevich lawyers said she refused to believe it at first when word of her client’s possible release began to spread, fearing that the president might not follow through.
“When it became obvious it was real, I got tears in my eyes,” said Lauren Kaesberg. “It was overwhelming.”
Others in Illinois, including the governor, said setting Blagojevich free was a mistake.
Trump “has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a written statement.
Many Republicans agreed.
“In a state where corrupt, machine-style politics is still all too common, it’s important that those found guilty serve their prison sentence in its entirety,” said the the chairman of the Illinois GOP, Tim Schneider.
The White House cited support from several Illinois-based leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as supporting Blagojevich’s early release. More than 100 of his fellow inmates also sent in letters of support.
Trump also granted clemency to financier Michael Milken, who served two years in prison in the early 1990s after pleading guilty to violating U.S. securities laws, and pardoned former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, who served just over three years for tax fraud and lying to the White House while being interviewed to be Homeland Security secretary.
The Illinois House in January 2009 voted 114-1 to impeach Blagojevich, and the state Senate voted unanimously to remove him, making him the first Illinois governor in history to be removed by lawmakers. He entered prison in March 2012.
After exhausting his last appeal in 2018, Blagojevich 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 probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — a probe Trump long characterized as a “witch hunt.”
At Blagojevich’s home, his wife’s sister, Deb Mell, emerged onto the porch after a rideshare driver arrived to deliver food. She said the logistics of the former governor’s return were not complete and that Patti Blagojevich would not speak to reporters until her husband is home.
“The kids are overjoyed and Patti’s ecstatic,” Mell said.
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 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.”
After his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest while still governor, Blagojevich became known for his foul-mouthed rants on wiretaps. On the most notorious recording, he gushed 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 promoted by Blagojevich that he engaged in common political horse-trading and was a victim of an overzealous U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald. After Blagojevich’s arrest, Fitzgerald said the governor had gone on “a political corruption crime spree” that would make Abraham Lincoln turn over in his grave.
A joint statement from Fitzgerald and the lead prosecutors at Blagojevich’s trial, none of whom work in the Chicago U.S. Attorney’s Office anymore, stopped short of criticizing Trump’s decision. But they highlighted the convictions, including for trying to shake down the children’s hospital, saying, “Mr. Blagojevich remains a felon.”
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 expressed some sympathy for Blagojevich when he appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010, before his first corruption trial started. When 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 television station WLS that Blagojevich should not 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’s first trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict, except for a single conviction, for lying to the FBI.
At his second trial in 2011, Blagojevich testified, describing himself as a flawed dreamer grounded in his parents’ working-class values. He sought to humanize himself to counteract the seemingly greedy governor heard on wiretap recordings played in court. He said the hours of FBI recordings were the ramblings of a politician who liked to think out loud.
He was convicted on 18 counts. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in 2015 tossed out five of the 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.
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.”
Famously fastidious about his dark hair as governor, Blagojevich’s hair turned white behind bars because hair dyes are banned in prison.
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mtarm. Associated Press Writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Rod Blagojevich case: https://www.apnews.com/RodBlagojevich.