In 2008, then Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was charged with bribery, wire fraud, attempted extortion, and racketeering. Soon after, he was impeached and removed from office.
His most famous corruption scheme, of course, involved his attempts to sell Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. Many of us remember the FBI’s audio-recordings of him using some pretty colorful language while trying to broker the deal. Those soundbites received a huge amount of media airtime, especially on Fox News where folks like Sean Hannity had a field day playing them back to back with Obama’s earlier political endorsement of Blagojevich. Blago’s other charges included his shaking down of multiple individuals… including a children’s hospital executive of all people.
Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald referred to Blago’s criminal adventures as a “political corruption crime spree,” and in 2011, the former governor was convicted on 17 counts. While prosecutors sought a sentence of 15 to 20 years (citing “extensive corruption in office”), the judge in the case decided on 14 years — the length of which had been upheld through subsequent appeals, including all the way to the Supreme Court.
By any objective standard, Blago was a poster-child for American political corruption — the very epitome of “the swamp” we’ve heard so much about in recent years. And our legal system, at multiple levels, seemed to agree.
But something changed in 2018, after the Supreme Court rejected Blago’s appeal. His wife Patricia turned up on Fox News programming to put forth an appeal of her own — this time to the President of the United States.
As some may remember, Blago had a bit of a relationship with Trump, having oddly competed on Trump’s NBC reality show, Celebrity Apprentice, as he awaited his trial. Since winning the presidency, Trump had also been on the receiving end of lots of praise from Blago in interviews from behind bars. Patricia worked to tighten that relationship, in her appearances on Trump’s favorite television network, by drawing comparisons between her husband’s legal woes and what the president was going through with the Russia investigation.
“I see that the same people that did this to my family,” Patricia told FNC’s Martha MacCallum in one of those interviews, “the same people that secretly taped us and twisted the facts and perverted the law that ended up my husband in jail, these same people are trying to do the same thing they did to my husband, just on a much larger scale.”
Her efforts proved promising. Trump was soon in front of cameras saying that he was “thinking very seriously” about commuting Blago’s sentence.
“I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly…” Trump said of Blago. “And it was the same gang—the Comey gang and all these sleazebags—that did it.”
In reality, James Comey wasn’t even working in government at the time, and didn’t become the director of the FBI until two years after Blago’s conviction.
Regardless, earlier this week, Trump commuted Blago’s sentence, shortening it by six years. He offered the below explanation:
“He served eight years in jail, it’s a long time. I watched his wife on television. I don’t know him very well; I’ve met him a couple of times… He was on for a short while on Apprentice years ago. Seems like a nice person, don’t know him, but he served eight years in jail, a long time he had to go, many people disagree with the sentences. He’s a Democrat; he’s not a Republican.”
Trump, again, falsely claimed that James Comey was behind the prosecution, and called Blago’s sentence “a tremendously powerful ridiculous sentence.”
Now, it should be noted that U.S. presidents are afforded the legal right to pardon, or commute the sentence of, anyone they want to, and at any time they want to. They don’t need a reason, and they aren’t required to explain themselves.
It’s also true that past presidents have pardoned and commuted the sentences of people who’ve done worse things than Blago.
But one big takeaway here is the effective neutering of the notion that President Trump has any interest at all in “draining the swamp,” the phrase he and his supporters often use when describing the president’s alleged anti-corruption crusade.
It was a laughable theme when it was used to defend Trump’s illegal delay of defense funding to Ukraine, and it’s a laughable theme now.
There is no serious argument that Blago is innocent of what he was serving time for. And despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, next to no one familiar with our legal system believes that Blago’s sentence was overly harsh for the very serious corruption-related crimes he was convicted of.
As Tom Rogan of the Washington Examiner wrote, Blago is “one of the mosquitolike corrupt officials who suck the blood out of democracy.”
Yet, Trump commuted the man’s prison time nearly in half. And for what reason? Because of a television relationship? Because Trump’s ego and persecution complex were played up to on national television?
Again, Trump had every right to spring Blago. But one can only imagine the outcry from the political right and conservative media if it had been President Obama who had done this.