CHICAGO (CBS) — President Donald Trump’s talk of commuting former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s sentence continued Thursday night – this time by tweet.
As CBS 2’s Dana Kozlov reported, Trump tweeted that the White House staff was “continuing the review of this matter” when it came to what to do with Blagojevich’s sentence.
Rod Blagojevich, the former Governor of Illinois, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He has served 7 years. Many people have asked that I study the possibility of commuting his sentence in that it was a very severe one. White House staff is continuing the review of this matter.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 8, 2019
Just 24 hours earlier, Trump’s tone was stronger as he said he was “looking very seriously” at commuting the former Illinois governor’s 14-year prison sentence.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One on Wednesday night, Trump confirmed he was thinking about commuting Blagojevich’s sentence, which would mean the former governor would be released from prison early.
“I am thinking very seriously about commuting his sentence so that he can go home to his family after seven years. You have drug dealers that get not even 30 days, and they’ve killed 25 people,” Trump said.
Before his conviction on corruption charges, Blagojevich was a contestant on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show.
“I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly. He was given close to 18 years in prison, and a lot of people thought it was unfair, like a lot of other things. And it was the same gang — the Comey gang and all these sleazebags — that did it,” Trump said.
New York Times correspondent Maggie Haberman reported Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, urged the president to pardon Blagojevich, and aides got Trump to agree instead to commute his sentence.
“I do think he’s serious,” said CBS 2 Legal Analyst Irv Miller.
But compared to his Air Force One talk on Wednesday night, the president a day later seemed to have lost some of his punch about the matter.
On Thursday night, five Republican Illinois congressmen — Darin LaHood, John Shimkus, Adam Kinzinger, Rodney Davis, and Mike Bost — were on record urging President Trump not to issue the commutation.
“It’s important that we take a strong stand against pay-to-play politics, especially in Illinois where four of our last eight Governors have gone to federal prison for public corruption,” the congressmen said in a statement. “Commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, who has a clear and documented record of egregious corruption, sets a dangerous precedent and goes against the trust voters place in elected officials. We stand by our letter and urge the President to not commute Rod Blagojevich’s sentence.”
The Blagojevich family representative said the former governor does not plan to say anything until he is home.
Robert Grant, who headed the Chicago FBI office when Blagojevich was arrested, does not think the ex-governor should walk free.
“I think Rod Blagojevich has to accept responsibility before anybody could even consider a commutation of sentence,” Grant said.
A representative of Blagojevich and his wife, Patti, said Thursday night that they have seen Trump’s latest tweet. They are not commenting, and they have not heard anything directly from the White House.
Patti Blagojevich tweeted Thursday that she is “very hopeful that our almost 11 year nightmare might soon be over.”
Our President's comments on Air Force One last night make us very hopeful that our almost 11 year nightmare might soon be over. We are very grateful.
For press inquires please contact Mark Vargas -202-878-1715, @markavargas .
— Patti Blagojevich (@pblagojevich) August 8, 2019
There were cars in the driveway at the Blagojevich family’s Ravenswood Manor neighborhood home Thursday afternoon, but there was no sign of Patti Blagojevich. A representative said Mrs. Blagojevich will not be commenting right away.
Trump reignited the commutation consideration during a tumultuous week, in which he offered prayers to those in Toledo, instead of Dayton, Ohio, after a mass shooting there – and after his daughter, Ivanka Trump, tweeted incorrect information about Chicago’s weekend shootings.
It also comes 15 months after Trump’s first mention of setting Blagojevich free.
If Trump does end up issuing a commutation order, Miller said that could change in a matter of a minute.
“It could be either through, the White House communications office could announce it. It could be the pardon attorney at the Department of Justice could announce it, or it could be a tweet,” Miller told CBS 2’s Kozlov.
Blagojevich has served more than seven years of his sentence, following his 2011 conviction for, among other things, trying to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat once held by Barack Obama before he was elected president in 2008.
Trump repeatedly has suggested Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence was too severe for his crimes.
“I am thinking about commuting his sentence. He’s been in jail for seven years, over a phone call where nothing happens. But over a phone — where nothing happened. Over a phone call where — which, you know, he shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio, you would say. I would think that there have been many politicians — I’m not one of them, by the way, just in case — but that have said a lot worse over telephones,” Trump said Wednesday.
Miller said momentum for a shorter sentence for Blagojevich has been growing the past couple years.
“Frankly, a lot of people are behind it. Dick Durbin, the Senate minority leader, is in favor of it. I think this time it’s going to happen,” he said.
Other high-profile people – including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. – also have been pushing for leniency for Blagojevich.
Trump also has the power to decide if Blagojevich walks out of prison immediately or at a future date. Miller said an immediate release is the more likely outcome.
“If (Trump) stays true to what he’s done before, he will have it exercised immediately,” Miller said. “He has never extended the commutation to a different date.”
What is not clear to Miller or to Blagojevich’s family spokesman Mark Vargas is who would pay for a plane ticket back in Chicago. Vargas, who said Patti Blagojevich plans to stay home and wait for her husband’s return, would not say who might meet the ex-governor and escort him home.
When Blagojevich reported to prison in 2012, his defense attorneys Sheldon Sorosky and Aaron Goldstein walked him inside. But Vargas said plans could change if a commutation is ordered for a future date.
If not, Miller said, “You could expect a fax going to the penitentiary in Colorado, and you could expect him to walk out within a couple hours. It could be that quick.”
As CBS 2’s Kozlov reported, there have been rumblings that Trump might grant Blagojevich clemency over the past year, intensifying in the past two weeks.
Trump is Blagojevich’s last hope to get out of prison early. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his last-ditch appeal, leaving presidential clemency as his only option to go free before his sentence is over. He formally filed a petition for leniency last year.