CHICAGO (CBS) — President Donald Trump says he doesn’t know former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich very well, but the imprisoned former governor and his wife clearly know how to appeal to his personal sensibilities.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One on the way back to Washington from El Paso, Texas, the president said he was “looking very seriously” at commuting Blagojevich’s 14-year prison sentence on corruption charges.
The former governor and his wife began their effort to convince Trump to grant him leniency more than a year ago. In seeking to convince the president to set Blagojevich free early, they not only turned to his favorite medium – television – to make their case, they also painted themselves as victims of one of Trump’s favorite foils – federal prosecutors.
For the second time in the past 15 months, President Trump has said he is seriously considering commuting Blagojevich’s 14-year prison sentence, and sending him home to his family early.
However close the two might or might not be, the former governor and the president clearly have a lot in common, particularly their love for the spotlight and that they both consider themselves the victims of overzealous federal investigations. Trump also has personally donated $7,000 to Blagojevich’s campaigns over the years before his conviction, and his hotel and casino organization donated another $2,000.
After his arrest in December 2008, Blagojevich went on a whirlwind tour of TV talk shows to proclaim his innocence and denounce federal prosecutors and the FBI for going after him. In much the same way, Trump repeatedly has called in or appeared on Fox News and other national news programs to criticize the federal investigation of his campaign.
Rod and Patti Blagojevich clearly took note of the president’s love for Fox News when they began making very personal appeals to Trump last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the former governor’s last-ditch appeal of his case, leaving presidential clemency as his only option for getting out of prison before his 14-year sentence is up.
After the Supreme Court denied her husband’s appeal, Patti Blagojevich last year turned to Fox News, the only network Trump likes, to make her case for a commuted sentence by drawing a clear comparison of Rod’s case to the federal investigation of the Trump campaign.
Patti Blagojevich painted her husband as the victim of an unfair prosecution, and a justice system that failed him — themes the president himself has repeatedly turned to regarding the now-closed investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections and possible ties to the Trump campaign.
“If they can bring down my husband, who was the governor of the fifth largest state, for asking for campaign contributions, absolutely no one is safe in this country,” she said in a Fox News interview in May 2018.
She has made several other appearances on Fox News, repeatedly criticizing federal prosecutors and the FBI.
The concerns clearly resonated with Trump as he, too, was under federal investigation for more than two years, and frequently watches Fox News.
As Patti Blagojevich put it before turning to Fox News, “We have a different audience now. It’s an audience of one.”
Blagojevich himself also made an indirect appeal to Trump last year to grant him leniency.
The former governor wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal stating, “Some in the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation are abusing their power to criminalize the routine practice of politics,” adding he’s in prison “for the routine practice of attempting to raise campaign funds while governor.”
The letter was clearly meant to appeal to Trump’s sympathies, as the president has repeatedly shown his disdain for the FBI, and for the now-closed investigation into his campaign and possible collusion with Russian election tampering, overseen by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former director of the FBI.
Trump repeatedly called Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt,” and has railed against former FBI director James Comey, who he fired amid an FBI investigation of the president’s campaign, before it was turned over to the special counsel’s office.
In his latest comments about possibly commuting Blagojevich’s sentence, the president even suggested Comey was somehow behind the former governor’s prosecution, even though Comey did not become director of the FBI until two years after Blagojevich was convicted, and was working as a private practice attorney at the time of the Blagojevich investigation.
“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.
Comey’s only tie to the Blagojevich case is that his good friend, Patrick Fitzgerald, was the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, whose office led the investigation and prosecution of Blagojevich.
The Blagojeviches’ appeals to Trump seemed to gain some traction with the president last year, when he said he was “seriously considering” leniency for the former governor, saying “plenty of other politicians have said a lot worse. And it doesn’t, he shouldn’t have been put in jail.”
While Blagojevich’s attorneys formally filed a petition for clemency more than a year ago, Trump has yet to act, so it’s unclear if or when he’ll follow through on his hints at leniency.