WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump commuted the prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday, one of several high-profile grants of clemency he issued as he ramped up his criticism of federal prosecutions.
Trump announced pardons for former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, rogue financier Michael Milken and former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., who pleaded guilty in a gambling fraud case in the late 1990s. The president said he has not decided what to do with convicted allies Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn.
Blagojevich, a Democrat, entered federal prison in 2012 to serve a 14-year sentence after being convicted on federal charges of using his powers as governor to extract campaign money and other political favors in exchange for naming a successor to fill the Illinois Senate seat left open when Barack Obama became president.
“He served eight years in jail – a long time,” Trump said at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. “Many people disagree with the sentence.”
Trump repeated his claim that FBI Director James Comey was involved in Blagojevich’s prosecution. Trump fired Comey in 2017 and described him as a partisan “deep state” foe of his administration. Comey did not take over at the FBI until years after the Blagojevich case.
Blagojevich was one of four people to receive commutations, or reduced prison sentences, from the president. He granted pardons to seven others. Some had political ties to the president’s allies; others have become advocates for changing the criminal justice system. Trump has been repeatedly questioned about whether he will reduce the sentences of former aides and allies caught up in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Trump, who has broad clemency powers granted by the Constitution, said in August he was considering a commutation for Blagojevich, calling his prison term excessive. Trump said he felt Blagojevich, who appeared as a guest on his television program “The Apprentice,” was treated “very, very unfairly.”
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Thereare connections between the Blagojevich case and the investigation into Russian interference. Robert Mueller, the special counsel who oversaw the Russia probe, was the head of the FBI during the Blagojevich investigation. Trump has also blamed associates of Comey for the Blagojevich sentence.
Kerik, who was appointed as New York’s top police official in 2000 by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, spent three years in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2009 to several felonies, including tax fraud. Giuliani became Trump’s personal attorney.
Kerik thanked Trump on Twitter for making him a “full and whole American citizen again.” He said going to prison was “like dying with your eyes open.”
Milken, known as the “junk bond king,” pleaded guilty in 1990 to several counts of securities and tax violations. In the announcement of his pardon, the White House described Milken as “one of America’s greatest financiers” and credited his work on fighting prostate cancer.
The president also issued a pardon to Angela Stanton, an author and reality TV star who served time in prison for her part in a stolen car ring. An avid Trump supporter and advocate for criminal justice changes, Stanton spoke at the 2018 Women for Trump Conference and often posts pro-Trump messages to Twitter.
The spate of clemency comes amid a public spat between Trump and Attorney General William Barr about the president’s intervention in criminal cases. That dispute was caused in part by Trump’s tweets supporting a more lenient sentence for Stone, a longtime confidant of the president who was convicted of lying to Congress to protect the president’s campaign from the Russia probe.
Trump repeated his assertion Tuesday that Stone had been “treated very unfairly” but declined to say whether he’s considering a pardon.
“You’re going to see what happens,” Trump said Tuesday as he prepared to embark on a swing to Western states this week.
Barr told ABC last week that the president’s penchant for weighing publicly on prosecutions handled by the Justice Department made it “impossible for me to do my job.”
“I do make his job harder. That’s true,” Trump said Tuesday before calling the attorney general “a man with great integrity.”
Blagojevich’s case was the most high profile of the clemency grants announced Tuesday.
FBI agents captured the Illinois governor on a wire describing the Senate seat as “golden” in a profanity-laced conversation. He said he was “just not giving it up for … nothing.” The Illinois House voted to impeach Blagojevich a month after his arrest Jan. 9, 2009, and the state Senate unanimously voted to convict him 20 days later.
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In 2015, a federal appeals court threw out some of the charges and left others intact.
“I am thinking very seriously about commuting his sentence so that he can go home to his family after seven years,” Trump said in August. “I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. I thought from Day One – I said, ‘Boy, that is really tough stuff.’ “
Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, made several appearances on Fox News to personally appeal to the president. She tried to draw a parallel between the case against her husband and the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that dogged Trump during the first years of his presidency. That effort included an op-ed supporting the president’s mistrust of the Justice Department and the FBI.
Critics said Trump was handing out pardons to political allies.
“In office, Trump has used pardons almost exclusively to shield unrepentant felons, racists and corrupt scoundrels like Blagojevich and now Milken, one of the most prolific financial criminals in U.S. history,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.
The president previously granted 18 pardons – a full legal forgiveness for a crime – and six commutations, which shorten sentences. That clemency has often been aimed at conservative figures such as Joe Arpaio, a former sheriff in Arizona, and commentator Dinesh D’Souza.
Trump acknowledged he does not rely on the standard pardon process, which includes a recommendation and summary of the case from the Justice Department.
“Oftentimes, pretty much all the time, I really rely on the recommendations of people that know them,” he said.