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Freeing Blagojevich Won’t Do What Trump Thinks it Will

An early release won’t endear Democrats to the President. And to his base, freeing a corrupt pol would be seen as the kind of swampy behavior Trump promised to end.

Blagojevich on a jog through the prison yard at the Federal Correctional Institution-Englewood near Littleton, Colorado   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

It’s not surprising that Donald Trump is fond of Rod Blagojevich — fond enough, perhaps, to commute the former governor’s 14-year corruption sentence and send him home to Ravenswood Manor.

Temperamentally, Don and Rod are a lot alike. They’re both insecure, egotistical loudmouths who see themselves as boys from the wrong side of the river, scorned by social and political elites. They hate and resent the same people, which goes a long way to winning over Trump. Both feel persecuted by the FBI. And both, in some ways, are where they are because of their enmity toward Barack Obama.

Blago is the son of a Serbian immigrant steelworker who as a boy shined shoes on the Northwest Side. He made his way up in politics through the ward organization of his Machine boss father-in-law, Ald. Dick Mell. No matter how many elections Blago won, or how many bespoke Oxxford suits he wore, he always had a chip on his shoulder about his origins.

“There are two places that you don’t want to be from if you wanted to curry favor with Rod Blagojevich — the North Shore or Hyde Park,” Democratic Party operative Pete Giangreco told this magazine in 2009. “He despised people from either place.”

Trump grew up in Queens, the son of a millionaire real estate developer who specialized in building low-cost housing. “Donnie from Queens,” as his enemies have called him, craved the respect of Manhattan society. Trump put his name on hotels, casinos, and resorts, but old New York still saw him as a crass bridge-and-tunnel playboy.

When Blagojevich appeared on Celebrity Apprentice in 2010, as part of a press junket between his arrest and trial, he and Trump hit it off. Trump really, really didn’t want to fire Blagojevich after his team designed a Harry Potter castle that kids didn’t think lived up to the books and movies. (Blago had also become the show’s comic relief, due to his inability to use a computer, text on a cell phone, or make a decision.)

Blago took responsibility for the failure, so Trump had no choice.

Among the Hyde Parkers Blagojevich despised was Barack Obama. In 2002, Blagojevich was the newly elected governor of America’s fifth-largest state. Meanwhile, Obama was a state senator still smarting from an ass-whooping by Bobby Rush in a congressional primary.

Which one of those two looked like he had a better path to the presidency? Blago thought it was him. Shortly after the election, I ran into one of his campaign volunteers, who told me, “I plan to be stumping for Rod in New Hampshire in 2008.”

Blagojevich could never hide his envy of Obama’s rise, mocking him as “Baaarry Obaaama” in an exaggerated Chicago accent. After Obama’s roof-raiser at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Blagojevich told him, “Great speech, Barack. But remember, this is as good as it gets.”

That envy ultimately undid Blagojevich. Years later, as Obama prepared to move into the White House and leapfrog Blagojevich, the governor, desperate to be taken along to Washington, allegedly tried to work out a deal: In exchange for a Cabinet job, he would appoint Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett to the president’s old Senate seat.

Obviously, Trump hates Obama, too. He got into politics as an exponent of the birther movement, which insisted that Obama was ineligible to be president because he was born in Kenya.

When Trump attended the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama called him out from the podium: “Donald Trump is here tonight! Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

Trump hates being made fun of, and loves revenge. The New York Times later speculated that “that evening of public abasement” contributed to Trump’s decision to run for president.

And then there’s the FBI, which may be Blago and Trump’s strongest bond. When the FBI arrested Blagojevich, the bureau was headed by none other than Robert Mueller, author of Trump’s least favorite book of 2019. Trump, however, blamed Blago’s imprisonment on a later FBI director, James Comey, who wasn’t even with the bureau then. Comey became director in 2013 and was fired in 2017 by Trump, who was unhappy with his investigation into Russian involvement in the last presidential election.

“I thought [Blagojevich] was treated unbelievably unfairly,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One last week. “He was given close to 18 years in prison. And a lot of people thought it was unfair, like a lot of other things — and it was the same gang, the Comey gang and all of those sleaze bags who did it.”

Whatever the kinship between the two men, Trump is only going to commute Blagojevich’s sentence if it’s good for Trump. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly told him a commutation would impress Democrats.

It’s true that many Democrats in Illinois feel Blago was unfairly punished. Jesse Jackson, whose son was another candidate for the seat Blago tried to sell, has lobbied for his release. Sen. Dick Durbin believes “the sentence imposed on Blagojevich was definitely way too long.” (Blago has so far served seven-and-a-half years, a year longer than George Ryan, whose office actually took bribes.)

But freeing Blago won’t convince Democrats to vote for a president so many of them already consider racist to the bone, and it won’t help Trump carry Illinois. And to Trump’s base, freeing a corrupt politician could be seen as the kind of swampy behavior Trump promised to end.

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