President Donald Trump was on the cusp of commuting former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s sentence late last week, multiple sources said. But then Republican members of Illinois’ congressional delegation began flooding the White House with calls.
Now, Trump appears to have backed off his plans to commute Blagojevich’s sentence.
Several Republican lawmakers called acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House counsel Pat Cipollone, the sources told CNN, and the Republican members of Illinois congressional delegation issued a joint statement opposing the move.
At least two of them, Reps. Darin LaHood and Mike Bost, made their case directly to the President on Thursday night, urging him not to go forward. They laid out the litany of crimes Blagojevich committed while in office and argued it would send the wrong message to voters about corruption by public officials.
Trump’s response: “I wish I had the perspective before,” according to Bost, who served on the Illinois House’s impeachment committee to remove Blagojevich from office in 2009.
“Those charges were so outrageously bad,” Bost said.
That same evening, LaHood – a former federal and state prosecutor – called Trump as well and laid out in detail the brazen charges against Blagojevich, including allegations he threatened to cancel millions in state dollars for a children’s hospital if its CEO did not write him a $25,000 campaign check. Among the charges was that Blagojevich attempted to sell former President Barack Obama’s Senate seat that he resigned in order to become president.
And Trump was informed on the call that Blagojevich – whom Trump knew from his role on “Celebrity Apprentice” – didn’t offer any remorse for his crimes, sources said.
“I think this would have real ramifications,” said LaHood, who also spoke with Cipollone about the matter. “We’re trying to send a message that this type of public corruption is terrible for Illinois.”
A White House official downplayed the idea anything had changed, insisting there is “no pumping the brakes” on Blagojevich and that Trump is still looking at a handful of possible pardons and commutations. The New York Times first reported that Trump was having second thoughts about commuting Blagojevich’s sentence.
Another White House official said that while Blagojevich’s pardon seemed imminent late last week, there had been no movement on the matter since Trump spoke with the two congressmen. It appeared to be on ice, the official said, while offering the caveat that Trump could change his mind and decide to move forward.
The calls from the congressmen came after Trump told reporters Wednesday night aboard Air Force One that he was “thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly.” That statement led to the Republican members of Illinois’ congressional delegation statement opposing the action – similar to one they issued in 2018 when Trump first floated the commutation – and prompted LaHood and Bost’s calls to Trump.
“I think it’s enough, seven years,” Trump said referring to the years Blagojevich has served out of his 14-year sentence.
Trump’s comments were the culmination of several months of work at the White House to prepare for the President to commute Blagojevich’s sentence. The White House counsel’s office had been analyzing Blagojevich’s case in recent months and his file had been “vetted significantly,” a senior administration official said.
Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner had been funneling messages of support for Blagojevich’s commutation to the President, two sources said, and the disgraced governor’s wife had also taken her appeals for a commutation directly to Trump through appearances on Fox News. Trump adviser and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani also made it clear to Trump that Blagojevich’s sentence was too harsh.
It was only after his calls with LaHood and Bost that Trump softened his stance, tweeting simply that “many people have asked that I study the possibility of commuting his (Blagojevich’s) sentence in that it was a very severe one” and that his staff was “continuing the review of this matter.”
Multiple sources familiar with the calls said Trump and Mulvaney both did not seem aware of the details of Blagojevich’s case, even though the President had decried the former governor as being treated “unbelievably unfairly.”
Bost said that while Trump “saw a sentence that didn’t meet the crime … he did express he wished he had the perspective earlier” after speaking with Bost.
“The answer he gave me: He would continue to look at it,” Bost said.
Bernard Kerik, a former NYPD commissioner who served time in prison on a tax fraud conviction and has been advocating for Blagojevich, slammed the opposition to Blagojevich’s commutation as “just as political as the prosecution and sentencing itself.”
Mark Vargas, a spokesman for the Blagojevich family, told CNN late last week that the family had heard rumors of a possibly impending commutation, but said the family had not confirmed the rumors and was “in a holding pattern.”
This week, Vargas said he had no update on any movement from the White House.