Illinois Republicans in Congress are making an urgent plea to President Donald Trump: Don’t let Rod Blagojevich off the hook.
The former Democratic governor, who’s serving a 14-year sentence stemming from felony corruption charges, is filing official clemency paperwork after Trump told reporters he was considering a commutation.
But publicly and privately, Republicans from Illinois say that doing so would be a huge mistake – and send the wrong message to politicians who abuse their public offices for personal gain.
“I’m not going to talk about his thinking, but I think pardoning Blagojevich would be stupid,” said Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
Multiple Republicans in the delegation told CNN that they have relayed their concerns directly to the White House to warn Trump of the consequences of showing leniency on Blagojevich, warning that doing so would lead to a major uproar given that the governor’s corruption scandal left the state reeling for years.
“I would stress to the administration in the strongest possible terms that pardoning or commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich would be a mistake,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, a Republican who represents the area around the Illinois capital of Springfield, where Blagojevich was governor for six years. “It would send the absolute wrong message that the behavior that was engaged in by Rod Blagojevich somehow is acceptable or forgivable.”
Blagojevich was arrested in 2008 for engaging in a pay-to-play scheme that included an effort to sell an appointment to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he became president. Federal prosecutors, who had recordings of Blagojevich discussing favors in exchange for the appointment, also laid out what they said was a wide-ranging corruption scheme where the governor sought to award political handouts in exchange for campaign cash. He was convicted on 17 charges and sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2011.
In January 2009, the Democratic-controlled state Senate voted 59-0 to remove Blagojevich just weeks after the state House overwhelmingly impeached him, with just one lawmaker voting in support of the then-governor. In another damning rebuke, the state senate voted, again 59-0, to ban Blagojevich from ever holding office again in Illinois.
If Trump were to help Blagojevich now, Republicans say it would reopen old wounds.
“Let me tell you the conversations going around Springfield are that there were probably not enough charges to bring,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican whose district also encompasses the Springfield area. “So I think that’s not being taken into consideration.”
Davis added, “I’ve gotten calls from folks that were affected by decisions that were made by the Blagojevich administration, unfairly fired, lost their jobs, having to file lawsuits. They were personally financially hit, and their lives were disrupted. … I would much rather see some other folks be able to be pardoned rather than somebody like this.”
It’s unclear precisely why Trump is considering showing leniency to Blagojevich, who got to know Trump while appearing on “The Celebrity Apprentice” in a four-episode stint in 2010 before his trial. Blagojevich’s prosecutor was US Attorney Patrick Fizgerald, now a member of the legal team for fired FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump frequently bashes.
Speaking to reporters recently, Trump didn’t give much window into his thinking.
“I am seriously thinking about – not pardoning – but I am seriously thinking of a curtailment of Blagojevich,” Trump said, adding that “to a certain extent” Blagojevich has been “harshly and unfairly treated.” He added Friday that he is considering pardoning thousands of others.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump will “base” his decision on “what he thinks is the right decision to make.”
For the last several days, members of Blagojevich’s family, including his wife Patti, have been taking to the airwaves to appeal to Trump for leniency, arguing that the conviction was unfair.
“You know they were emboldened,” Patti Blagojevich said on Fox News, trying to appeal directly to Trump’s concerns about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. “They took down a governor, and now they’re got their sights much higher.”
One top Senate Democrat seems to agree that the 14-year sentence is too tough on Blagojevich.
“Fourteen years is, you know, violent felonies and treason,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told CNN.
Pressed further on how much time he should have been sentenced, Durbin didn’t get specific.
“You’re asking me, and I’m saying to you I thought that was an excessive sentence,” he said.
But Republicans say doing anything to forgive Blagojevich would undercut the will of the justice system and voters in Illinois.
“He was a bad governor who broke the law,” Kinzinger said.