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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Explained: Who is Rod Blagojevich and why did Trump commute his sentence?

Prosecutors said Rod Blagojevich had tried to sell or trade to the highest bidder the Senate seat that Barack Obama was vacating to become the president.

By: New York Times | Chicago | Updated: February 20, 2020 2:16:17 pm
Explained: Who is Rod Blagojevich? And why did Trump commute his sentence? Rod Blagojevich, the ex-Illinois governor convicted of trying to peddle Barack Obama’s vacated US Senate seat, speaks outside his home after US President Donald Trump commuted his prison sentence, in Chicago, Illinois. (Reuters)

Written by Monica Davey and Mitch Smith

Rod R. Blagojevich, whose criminal sentence President Donald Trump has commuted, became a household name when he was arrested 12 years ago on an explosive accusation: Prosecutors said he had tried to sell or trade to the highest bidder the Senate seat that Barack Obama was vacating to become the president.

Blagojevich’s expletive-filled remarks about his role in choosing a new senator — caught on government recordings of phone calls — became punchlines for late-night television.

“I’ve got this thing, and it’s golden,” he was memorably quoted as saying, using profanities. “And I’m just not giving it up for nothing. I’m not going to do it. And I can always use it. I can parachute me there.”

In the years he has since spent in a federal prison in Colorado, Blagojevich’s name has faded some. (So, court appearances show, has his trademark pouf of black hair.)

Blagojevich, a Democrat, was not only governor of Illinois and a former member of Congress but also an undeniably flamboyant character. He was an Elvis Presley fan who was also known for eloquent recitations of anecdotes from leaders he admired, like Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan; a figure who protested his innocence at every chance, including on reality television and radio shows and in a book he wrote; and an isolated governor who was said to keep a hairbrush nearby at all times.

On Tuesday, as word of the commutation of his sentence spread, crowds of reporters gathered outside Blagojevich’s house on Chicago’s North Side — where a supporter sang “God bless our president!” to the tune of “God Bless America” — and outside the federal prison in suburban Denver, where a car repeatedly drove by with a large “Trump 2020” flag waving from the rear window.

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What was the case against Rod Blagojevich?

About a month after Obama was elected president in 2008, Blagojevich, the sitting governor of Illinois, was arrested early one morning at his Chicago home. The accusations were stunning: Prosecutors said Blagojevich (pronounced bluh-GOY-uh-vich, though plenty of people, even in Illinois, still just call him “Blago”) had not only tried to crassly benefit from making an appointment to Obama’s vacant Senate seat but had also sought millions of dollars from people with state business in all sorts of other scenarios. Federal prosecutors said the conduct was so abysmal that it “would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.”

The state’s political scene was turned upside down. Lawmakers impeached and removed him, even as he defiantly fought back, seeming to embrace the spectacle. After two trials — jurors were deadlocked on most of the charges in the first one — Blagojevich was convicted of 18 charges and sentenced to 14 years in prison. (A judicial panel later ruled that five of the convictions were invalid, but the sentence stood.) He left Chicago for a prison in Colorado in 2012 and even down to the last day he kept talking.

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How does Rod Blagojevich know Donald Trump?

When Blagojevich was awaiting trial, he did something lots of legal experts warned was a risky and unwise idea: He went out and talked about his innocence. A lot. He hosted a radio show. He agreed to appear in a spoof of his own political career (“Rod Blagojevich Superstar!”). He sang “Treat Me Nice,” a song Elvis Presley was better known for, at a Chicago block party.

He had perhaps the widest audience, though, when he appeared in a season of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” hosted by Trump.

“You’ve got a hell of a lot of guts,” the future president told the former governor in one episode, according to a Chicago Magazine account. “You’re out there punching away.”

“Governor, you’ve proven you have a lot of fight,” Trump said just before firing Blagojevich from the show, according to a Chicago Magazine recap.

“I feel badly for him,” Trump said later on the show. “He tried, but I feel badly. It’s pretty sad.”

Several years ago, when Trump as president first suggested that he might consider commuting Blagojevich’s sentence, the former governor’s former lawyer, Sam Adam Jr., declared it good news. By April 2018, Blagojevich’s many efforts at other legal appeals and options had run out.

“It’s something I would love to see — for his children, for his family,” Adam said in 2018. “He got to know him, and Donald Trump was someone who was fond of him. We got so much heat for letting him go out and do that stuff back then. How ironic if that turns out to be his saving grace.”

As months passed with no commutation, his family kept pressing the case. Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, made frequent appearances on Fox News, appealing to the president for mercy and criticizing how federal prosecutors handled the case.

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“That Obama Justice Department locked him up and threw away the key,” Patti Blagojevich said last year on Fox. She added that Trump’s public consideration of the case gave her “a tremendous amount of hope.”

Deb Mell, who is Rod Blagojevich’s sister-in-law, said on Tuesday that the family was thrilled with the news and expected the former governor to take a commercial flight home to Chicago after his release. Family members declined to speak in detail.

How is this playing back home?

If the rest of the world has forgotten about Rod Blagojevich, Illinois has not. Some political leaders — Democrats and Republicans — had sharp critiques of Trump’s decision to commute the former governor’s sentence.

“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 Tim Schneider, the chairman of the state’s Republican Party. “Rod Blagojevich is certainly no exception. The former governor’s proven record of corruption is a stain upon Illinois and its citizens. We must stand up and send the message that corruption will not be tolerated in Illinois.”

And Republican members of the congressional delegation from the state said they were disappointed by the decision.

“Blagojevich is the face of public corruption in Illinois, and not once has he shown any remorse for his clear and documented record of egregious crimes that undermined the trust placed in him by voters,” a statement issued by five members of Congress read. “As our state continues to grapple with political corruption, we shouldn’t let those who breached the public trust off the hook.”

Some other Illinois politicians have questioned the severity of Blagojevich’s sentence. Roland W. Burris, whom Blagojevich ultimately appointed to the vacant Senate seat, said he was pleased that the former governor was coming home. A full pardon would have been even better, Burris said.

“For him to be away for eight years for running his mouth — I just think that was excessive,” said Burris, who was never embraced by fellow Democrats during his stint in the Senate, and did not run for reelection; he has since retired as a lawyer in Chicago. “Patti stuck by him all the way,” Burris said, “and I just hope that he can settle in now and get his life back together.”

But the state’s current governor, J.B. Pritzker, also a Democrat, was critical of the commutation. “President 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,” he wrote as part of a Twitter thread.

And Jim Durkin, the Republican leader in the Illinois House of Representatives, told reporters on Tuesday that Blagojevich had been “rogue on steroids” and that he disagreed with the president’s decision.

“It’s just because of the celebrity of Rod Blagojevich,” Durkin said. “And I think it’s wrong, and it sends a bad message to the people of this country, that, you know what, you don’t exactly have to pay your debt to society.”

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