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Trump floated commuting Rod Blagojevich's sentence last year. Here's why it might happen now, a family friend says

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump said this week that he was considering a commutation of the remainder of former Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 14-year prison sentence.
  • It wasn't the president's first time floating the offer.
  • But Blagojevich's friends and family think it could actually happen this time.
Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich arrives for a court hearing at the Dirksen Federal Building on April 21, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

President Donald Trump said this week that he was considering a commutation of the remainder of former Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 14-year prison sentence.

It wasn't the president's first time floating the offer. But Blagojevich's friends and family think it could actually happen this time.

Mark Vargas, a former Defense Department official who described himself as a "Blagojevich family friend" in a phone call with CNBC, said that the "big difference" is that Blagojevich has seen more recent support than when Trump first raised the issue last year.

There's "more activity and support, public support now," Vargas said. "A little bit more momentum."

On Wednesday night, upon return to Washington after visiting the first responders and victims of two deadly mass shootings over the weekend, Trump made the surprise announcement.

"We're going to be doing something very, I think -- very impactful," he told reporters aboard Air Force One.

"A man who is a Democrat, not a Republican -- who I don't know very well, but he was on 'The Apprentice' for a couple of weeks," Trump said, referring to his defunct reality television show. "His name is Rod Blagojevich. And I am thinking about commuting his sentence ... in fact, I'm very strongly considering that -- I think he was treated unbelievably unfairly."

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Trump seemed to bring up the issue out of the blue. But he had made nearly identical comments in May 2018, when he said he is "seriously thinking about -- not pardoning -- but I am seriously thinking of a curtailment of Blagojevich."

"He shouldn't have been put in jail," Trump said then.

Trump had also weighed a pardon for celebrity chef and media mogul Martha Stewart — who was also an "Apprentice" star — in those same remarks. Earlier that day, Trump said he would pardon right-wing filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza, who had produced a flattering political documentary comparing Trump to President Abraham Lincoln.

D'Souza's pardon later came to pass. But Blagojevich remained in Colorado federal prison, where he has been held since 2012.

Blagojevich was found guilty of trying to benefit from the process of selecting a replacement for the Illinois Senate seat that Barack Obama vacated after he was elected president in 2008. He had pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.

The disgraced former governor, now 62, is currently set to remain in prison until at least May 2024.

The New York Times, citing people with knowledge of the commutation talks, reported that Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, had suggested Blagojevich be pardoned, "saying that it would appeal to Democrats."

But Trump still faces headwinds, notably from his own party members.

The entire House Republican delegation from Illinois came out against a commutation for Blagojevich on Thursday afternoon.

Blagojevich "has a clear and documented record of egregious corruption," they said in a joint statement. Commuting his sentence "sets a dangerous precedent and goes against the trust voters place in elected officials."

"I was very happy to hear [Trump's most recent] comments about Blagojevich," said Len Goodman, an attorney for Blagojevich, in an email to CNBC. "I hope to see him back home soon."

Blagojevich's wife, Patti Blagojevich, said in a tweet Thursday that Trump's recent comments "make us very hopeful that our almost 11 year nightmare might soon be over."

Vargas noted that other high-profile political figures had recently called for Blagojevich to be pardoned. Rev. Jesse Jackson, as well as his son, former Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., wrote a letter to Trump in July requesting a pardon for the former governor.

"We agree with your assessment that Mr. Blagojevich's sentence of 14 years was both unfair and unnecessary," they wrote.

And Vargas pointed to former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who begged Trump in a tweet to "send him home already!"

Kerik, reportedly a protege of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2009 after pleading guilty to federal charges, including tax fraud.