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Trump wants to free former Celebrity Apprentice contestant convicted of bribery, extortion

Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell a US Senate seat. Trump said most politicians have done worse.

President Donald Trump said he is likely to free corrupt former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (D), a former contestant on his reality game show.
President Donald Trump said he is likely to free corrupt former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (D), a former contestant on his reality game show. (Photo by Frank Polich/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump says he is “very strongly” leaning toward commuting the sentence of convicted felon and former Celebrity Apprentice contestant Rod Blagojevich.

Though the former Illinois governor was removed from office and convicted of numerous federal corruption charges for trying to illegally sell an appointment to a vacant United States Senate seat, Trump minimized his crimes as mere “braggadocio” no worse than most other public officials, and said he liked Blagojevich’s wife.

Trump made the comment to reporters on Wednesday, as he began his return trip to Washington following his day of bringing “unity” to the country by attacking his critics on a trip ostensibly meant to console victims of two mass shootings.

“I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly,” Trump said of his season three Celebrity Apprentice hopeful. “He’s been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens — over a phone call which he shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio you would say,” the president added. “I would think that there have been many politicians — I’m not one of them by the way — that have said a lot worse over the telephone.” 

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This is a gross oversimplification. Blagojevich was convicted of 17 public corruption counts in 2011, including wire fraud, extortion, and bribery. Beyond the famous phone conversation in which he boasted that the opportunity to appoint an interim senator was “fucking golden” and that he was “just not giving it up for fucking nothing,” he was also accused of demanding tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations by a politician had who wanted the seat. An appeals court upheld his conviction on most of those counts in 2015, while overturning some.

Trump also praised Patti Blagojevich, saying “His wife I think is fantastic.” While the former Illinois first lady was not charged, prosecutors did reportedly note in their indictment of her husband that she received tens of thousands of dollars in little- or no-work real estate deals. They also alleged that she was captured in telephone calls shouting obscenities and urging that the Chicago Tribune fire editorial writers in exchange for state assistance.

After Blagojevich was removed from office — but before he was convicted — Trump made him a contestant on the spring 2010 season of his reality show, alongside professional wrestler Bill Goldberg, former baseball star Darryl Strawberry, TV personality Sharon Osbourne, and stand-up comedian Sinbad. At the time, Blagojevich maintained his innocence.

“You’re doing wonderfully, everything’s great. But you keep losing and you’re running out of people. You’re the project manager!” Trump scolded at the end of the fourth episode of the season. “And Governor, I have great respect for you. I have great respect for your tenacity, for the fact that you just don’t give up. But Rod, you’re fired.”

The New York Times reported on Thursday that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner “had suggested Mr. Blagojevich be pardoned, saying that it would appeal to Democrats,” but that they decided on commutation fearing the political optics of a full pardon.

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Trump first suggested he might free Blagojevich back in May 2018, but has thus far not acted. He has previously used his pardon and commutation powers to help far-right conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza, former Vice President Dick Cheney aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and the disgraced former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Joe Arpaio.

This post has been updated to note that an appeals court tossed some of Blagojevich’s conviction counts on appeal.