If Roger Stone is dispatched to prison for years, President Donald Trump will commute his sentence or pardon him altogether.
The odds of that happening soared on Tuesday, the minute Trump commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor, and wiped clean with pardons the criminal records of some other high-profile people.
Trump does nothing for anybody that is not, at bottom, for himself. In this case, Blagojevich became the beneficiary.
We have long argued that the former governor is guilty as charged but that his 14-year sentence was way too harsh. On the merits of the case, and especially given the considerably shorter sentences handed out to public officials guilty of more egregious corruption — such as the 6 1⁄2 years given to bribe-taking former Gov. George Ryan for racketeering, conspiracy and fraud — we would argue Blagojevich has been fully and fairly punished. He has been imprisoned for almost 8 years.
But Trump’s decision to commute Blagojevich’s sentence at this time is all of a piece with the president’s warnings that he’s not about to stand by and watch Stone go off to prison for any extended time.
Stone is one of Trump’s closest and shadiest back-channel operatives. He was found guilty of obstructing a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including five counts of making false statements to Congress and tampering with a witness.
If Stone’s conviction stands, and especially if he is forced to serve prison time, Trump knows it will be seen as a symbolic indictment of the president himself, who wants the world to believe Congress’ entire probe of Russian interference was a “hoax.”
But to set Stone free — to commute or pardon his sentence should it come to that — in a manner that does not smack of being entirely self-serving, Trump has to lay the groundwork.
He has to establish a pattern. He has to grant clemency to others — people who have nothing on him — first.
That’s where Blagojevich’s early release comes in. And it’s also likely why Trump on Tuesday pardoned Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, as well as Edward DeBartolo, a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, among others. Their records are obliterated; at least Blagojevich’s conviction stays on his record.
Does all this sound horribly cynical? We hope it is. We hope we are wrong.
We hope Trump announced these acts of clemency out of nothing more than a deep-seated sense of fairness and compassion. But if such was the case with Blagojevich, the president could have freed him months ago.
Witnessing the deplorable machinations of the Trump White House for more than three years could make a cynic of anyone. The baseness of this crowd has been breathtaking.
“He served eight years in jail, a long time,” Trump said about Blagojevich before boarding Air Force One for a trip to the West Coast.
About that we agree. Fourteen years in a federal pen would have been an awfully long time for a former governor who was always more opportunistic, lazy and clueless than venal.
What was Blagojevich’s offense? He tried to sell a vacant Senate seat and extort big campaign donations from a hospital and a racetrack owner, behavior that even in Illinois will raise eyebrows. We can’t agree with Trump that Blagojevich’s only crime was to say things “many other politicians say.”
We suspect, in sadness but in truth, that Trump granted clemency to Blagojevich and the others to establish a precedent before swooping in and saving Stone. He needs to create a plausible deniability of abuse of this kingly power.
With these actions, Trump also is amping up his attacks on the Justice Department — sparing, of course, his chosen confederate, Attorney General Bill Barr. He is creating a little more cheap rhetorical fodder for his trashing of the DOJ’s supposed “deep state.”
Blagojevich is coming home to Chicago because Donald Trump was flying out to the West Coast. Trump has three more MAGA rallies out there, and he needed new material.
More importantly, it’s in the president’s selfish interest to keep Stone out of prison and on his side. We can only guess at what secrets Stone might know that Trump wants no one to hear.
It’s good Rod Blagojevich is walking free, but the motivation behind it sickens us.
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