CHICAGO (CBS) — President Donald Trump said Thursday he is considering commuting the sentence for disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is nearly halfway through his 14-year prison term.
Trump is Blagojevich’s last hope to get out of prison early. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his last-ditch appeal in April, leaving presidential clemency as his only option to go free before his sentence is over.
After two trials in 2010 and 2011, Blagojevich was convicted of 18 corruption counts, including charges he tried to sell an appointment to former President Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
In his office on Air Force One, the president suggested he might show leniency to Blagojevich, as he discussed pardoning conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza on Tuesday. Trump repeatedly misstated the length of Blagojevich’s prison sentence, calling his lengthy prison term “really unfair.”
“Eighteen years in jail for being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know that many other politicians say,” Trump said.
Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison, not 18.
“If you look at what he said, he said something to the effect like what do I get?” Trump said. “Stupid thing to say, but he’s sort of saying he’s going make a U.S. senator which is a very big deal. And it was foolish … 18 years now. I don’t know him other than that he was on The Apprentice for a short period of time.”
Blagojevich was a contestant on Trump’s television show “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010 as he was awaiting the start of his first trial on charges he tried to sell off Obama’s seat in the U.S. Senate, and shake down other potential campaign contributors by threatening to withhold state actions.
Trump said he is not considering a full pardon for Blagojevich, but only commuting his sentence. A pardon would mean Blagojevich would get out of jail immediately, and his conviction effectively would be wiped out. Commuting his sentence would simply reduce the amount of time he must spend in prison.
“What he did does not justify 18 years in a jail. If you read his statement, it was a foolish statement. There was a lot of bravado. Plenty of other politicians have said a lot worse,” he said. “And it doesn’t, he shouldn’t have been put in jail.”
In response to Trump’s comments, Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, issued a statement saying she and her daughters are “very encouraged.”
“He’s given us something that has been hard to come by recently…hope,” Patti stated. “From the beginning, we’ve eagerly awaited the day when Rod could come back home where he belongs, and we continue to pray our family will be made whole again soon.”
Blagojevich’s attorney, Len Goodman, also said he’s hopeful the president will grant Blagojevich clemency.
“He has the power to correct this injustice. Blagojevich did not ever improperly enrich himself in office. He did not take gifts or loans from supporters. He followed the rules for campaign fundraising set out by the Supreme Court. He did not take a penny from his campaign fund for his personal benefit,” Goodman said. “It’s time for Rod Blagojevich to come home to his wife and daughters.”
Goodman has not yet filed the official paperwork to seek a pardon or commutation for Blagojevich, but he has said he will send a formal petition in the next few weeks.
Blagojevich began serving his 14-year prison term in 2012, and he is scheduled to be released in 2024, given credit for good behavior.
Trump’s announcement of possible clemency for Blagojevich came three days after the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece written by the former governor, in which he accused the Justice Department and FBI of “abusing their power to criminalize the routine practice of politics.”
In the piece, Blagojevich wrote he was in prison “for the routine practice of attempting to raise campaign funds while governor.”
However, jurors found him guilty of charges he was trying to exchange official actions as governor for campaign cash.
While a federal appeals court threw out five of the convictions against Blagojevich in 2015, and ordered a new sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge James Zagel re-sentenced Blagojevich to the same 14-year term.
Blagojevich’s convictions included trying to extort a children’s hospital for contributions, shaking down a racetrack owner for campaign cash in exchange for quickly signing legislation to benefit the racing industry, demanding a fundraiser in exchange for releasing state funds for a school, and seeking to trade an appointment to Obama’s former Senate seat for campaign cash or a cabinet appointment.
CBS 2 Legal Analyst Irv Miller suggested Blagojevich is seeking to play on Trump’s sympathies. Like Blagojevich, President Donald Trump has been openly critical about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible collusion with Russia and other matters.
“He’s talking about the unbridled power of a prosecutor. I mean, come on, what is the President looking at these days?” said Miller.