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Trump’s Blago Commutation: Right Thing, Wrong Reasons

For Trump, freeing Blago may have had more to do with settling personal scores than correcting harsh sentence.

Blagojevich outside his home after a press conference on Wednesday, hours after being released from federal prison.   Photo: Terrence Antonio James

Donald Trump did the right thing by letting Rod Blagojevich out of prison early. But he did it for the wrong reasons.

I followed Rod Blagojevich’s trials closely, even attending a courtroom session, and I never thought the man belonged in prison. He never took any money, or even made a deal to take money. He was too much of a fool to be truly corrupt, but he was foolish enough to get caught trying. Even Blago’s father-in-law and political patron, former Ald. Dick Mell, eventually conceded that his son-in-law was such a maroon he should never have been promoted beyond the state legislature.

As I wrote back in 2011, when Blago was convicted on public corruption charges:

It was his desire to be a big shot, and it was his frustration at seeing Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel pass him by on the road to Washington that led him to hold the harebrained conversations about trading Obama’s Senate seat for a bigger job.

[snip]

Blagojevich is no more corrupt or compromised than most of the politicians in Illinois. His mistake? The deals he was trying to make are supposed to be unspoken or, at most, suggested with a handshake and a quiet word at a fundraiser. Blagojevich was foolish enough to speak out. He’s not going to prison because he tried to profit from his office. If that were a crime, every ex-politician would be in prison. He’s going to prison because he wasn’t smooth or smart eough to do it the right way.

Ed Burke, Rahm Emanuel, Michael Madigan, and Barack Obama have all earned millions off their political connections, but Blago was the chump who ended up mopping floors in a federal prison.

Last August, when Trump announced he was considering commuting Blago’s sentence, he seemed to agree that the ex-governor had been singled out and railroaded.

“He’s been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens,” Trump said. “He shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio. I would think that there have been many politicians — I’m not one of them, by the way — that have said a lot worse over telephones.”

I did think Blagojevich should have been impeached. His telephone conversations dishonored the governor’s office, and made it impossible for any politician to trust his word again. Impeachment, however, is a political proceeding, not a criminal trial.

Adding to the injustice of Blagojevich’s conviction was the sentence imposed by Judge James Zagel, who was aware that Blago was the second consecutive Illinois governor to go to prison, and wanted to use him as an example for future governors. Fourteen years is more than twice as long as political crook George Ryan got for the licenses-for-bribes scandal, which actually profited him politically, and which resulted in the deaths of six children. It’s also longer than the 11 years Al Capone got for tax evasion in the 1930s.

(Now that Blagojevich is free, there is no Illinois governor in prison for the first time since 2007.)

In his obituary of Richard M. Nixon, Hunter S. Thompson called the nearly-impeached president “a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe … so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning.”

That description applies equally well to Blagojevich and Trump — and there’s a line to be drawn between the three politicians that helps explain what happened Tuesday.

Blagojevich idolizes Nixon. As a college student, in 1980, he camped outside Nixon’s California retirement home until the ex-president emerged to sign an autograph and pose for a photo with him.

Blago saw in Nixon another man of humble origins who outworked and outwitted the political establishment, until it finally dogged him from office.

Trump sees himself the same way — as “Donnie from Queens,” never accepted by the Manhattan or D.C. elite.

All three were impeached, or nearly so. After Trump was acquitted, he found himself staring at Nixon’s White House portrait, feeling a kinship with another president taken to task by a Democratic Congress.

Of the three, only Trump survived his trial, and now he’s extending a helping hand to others he believes to have been similarly persecuted. He inaccurately tied Blagojevich’s prosecution to “the Comey gang and all these sleazebags.” (In fact, Comey, who Trump fired as FBI director, left his job as Deputy Attorney General in 2005, three years before Blago’s arrest. Comey didn’t return to the Justice Department until Blagojevich was in prison.)

On the same day that he commuted Blagojevich’s sentence, the president pardoned financier Michael Milken, former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo — a whole swamp of white-collar crooks. Our constitution gives one person the power to overrule the criminal justice system. Trump has always considered the presidency a sinecure to be used for the benefit of himself, his family, and his friends. Now that he knows he’s immune from congressional oversight, Trump is passing out pardons to the most Trumpian figures in American life, perhaps to show the world there’s nothing criminal about Trumpian behavior. As Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe tweeted, “Pardongate is meant to normalize white collar crime, bribery and corruption — and to anaesthetize the public to Trump’s emergence as a full-blown autocrat in the style of Putin.”

Commuting Blagojevich’s sentence did nothing to help the Republican Party — especially not the Illinois Republican Party, which portrays itself as the antidote to Democratic corruption. All five Illinois Republican congressmen released a statement describing themselves as “disappointed,” and calling Blagojevich “the face of public corruption in Illinois.” 

Pardoning Blago did, however, allow Trump to settle personal scores with federal prosecutors and impeachy Democrats.

Our ex-governor was the beneficiary of that revenge. Welcome home, Rod.

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