For B-list celebrity felons, the Trump presidency is shaping up as a golden era, with forgiveness in the air and, more to the point, pardons and commutations suddenly and unexpectedly on the table.
Trump began Thursday by announcing his pardon of conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to violating federal campaign finance law as part of a straw donor scheme. The move was a surprise in the sense that no one had reported on the possibility, but for those familiar with D’Souza’s work – racist memes and vile smears of President Barack Obama fill his oeuvre – the news was something less than a shock.
That, as it happened, came just moments later.
Aboard Air Force One, Trump told reporters that with D’Souza done and dusted, he was also considering directing his mercies at Martha Stewart, who spent five months in prison more than a decade ago for lying and obstructing justice in connection with a 2001 stock deal, and Rod Blagojevich, the Democratic former Illinois governor currently serving a 14-year sentence after being convicted on corruption charges back in 2011.
Odd? Sure. But the similarities between Stewart and Blagojevich extend beyond their legal troubles and time spent, respectively, behind bars.
To start, both were convicted with a hand, however indirectly, from former FBI director James Comey. In Stewart’s case, which he ruminated on at length in his recent memoir, Comey as the US attorney in Manhattan gave prosecutors the green light to pursue her case.
Comey also has a longstanding relationship with former US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, whom he appointed as special counsel in the Valerie Plame leak case, which ended with the conviction of Scooter Libby, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, for perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements. (Libby, as it happens, was pardoned by Trump earlier this year.)
Fitzgerald was also the federal prosecutor who arrested and charged Blagojevich with conspiring to sell off Obama’s Senate seat, one in a series of slimy attempted shakedowns, back in 2008. Three years later, after being kicked out of office, Blagojevich – who’d been caught on tape talking through his plans – was on his way to prison.
Fitzgerald is now on Comey’s legal team.
“Eighteen years is, I think, really unfair,” Trump said of Blagojevich earlier in the day, perhaps mistaking the number of charges he had been found of guilty of (18) with the term of his sentence, “for being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know that many other politicians say.”
Blagojevich, Trump added, shouldn’t expect a pardon, but rather a “curtailment” – or commutation, it would seem – of his ongoing sentence.
Then it was on to Stewart, who in Trump’s estimation had been “harshly and unfairly treated.”
“She used to be my biggest fan in the world,” he said, “before I became a politician. But that’s OK, I don’t view it that way.”
Millions of American have viewed Stewart and Blagojevich in a very specific way – as participants in the “Apprentice” franchise, which premiered with Trump as its star in 2004. The former Illinois governor took part as a contestant in a season that aired in 2010, and though he didn’t last long, walked away with some praise from Trump in the “boardroom.”
“Governor, I have great respect for you, I have great respect for your tenacity, for the fact that you just don’t give up,” Trump said, after Blagojevich had led his team (poorly) in a Harry Potter-related challenge. “But Rod, you’re fired.”
Stewart played the other side in a spinoff titled, “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart,” which ran for a single season back in 2005, a few months after she was released from prison.
There is no clear sign Trump will follow through on what he discussed Thursday, but given the profile of those he’s seen fit to cast as victims of an overzealous justice system – Libby and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio come to mind – is there anyone out there who’d bet against it?