WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump put commuting imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich sentence on hold after critics pushed back and if it is revived, the Illinois Republicans in Congress want a chance to persuade Trump to keep him locked up.
“I requested that we have an opportunity to weigh in before a final decision is made,” Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., told the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday.
He added later in our conversation, the GOP Illinois delegation “ought to be able to have a say, be able to have an audience whether it’s on the phone or in person before a final decision is made.”
The situation right now is fluid.
I reported last Friday that clemency for Blagojevich — seemingly hours away from freedom last Thursday — is stalled because of opposition from inside and outside the White House, despite having presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner as his champion.
Blagojevich, in year seven of a 14-year term in a federal prison not far from Denver, continues to serve his time for his corruption conviction.
While the White House did not commit to consultations with the Illinois Republicans, the ask signals the Illinois Republicans feel so strongly about an early release for Blagojevich that they are ready to step up their protests to persuade Trump not to give Blagojevich a break.
LaHood and Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., in separate conversations, talked with Trump about Blagojevich the day after the president on Aug. 7, told reporters on Air Force One, “I’m thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly.”
Trump, in showing his hand, gave opponents time to muster opposition and by the evening of Aug. 8, Trump pulled back, saying in a tweet the matter was under “review.”
When Trump first floated the potential of cutting short Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence on May 31, 2018, the Illinois GOP delegation — then numbering seven — protested in a letter.
On Aug. 8, the Republican Illinois delegation — shrunken to five members — wrote another letter to Trump against against an early release. In contrast to 2018, this time LaHood and Bost — who while a Springfield lawmaker was on the panel impeaching Blagojevich — plus others from Illinois are doing more than just writing a letter.
LaHood first contacted interim White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to tell him his reasons for objecting to clemency. That led to, a few hours later, a phone conversation with Trump. Over last weekend, LaHood also talked to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.
“I called people at the White House to share my view, one member of Congress view, on why this was not a good thing to do,” LaHood said.
CNN first disclosed that Hood and Bost talked to Trump.
LaHood, a former federal prosecutor, said the points he made was that under federal sentencing guidelines, Blagojevich was eligible for an even longer sentence. I surmise LaHood wanted to do that because Trump all but said the 14-year sentence was excessive.
LaHood said he also argued that Blagojevich was not remorseful, and misconduct by the judge, prosecutors and law enforcement officials was not an issue, which I take was a bid to cut into a Trump potential theory that Blagojevich was the subject of a “witch hunt.” Trump has complained constantly that the congressional and Mueller probes against him, his family and associates are “witch hunts.”
Blagojevich was impeached “and removed from office by Democrats,” LaHood said. The federal probe against Blagojevich started during the Bush 43 presidency. “This wasn’t a partisan witch hunt,” LaHood said.
In addition, LaHood said he emphasized that the culture of corruption in Illinois is so deep that four of the past 10 governors — not counting freshman Gov. J.B. Pritzker — have gone to prison and none of them were granted clemency.
That’s former Illinois Governors Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, George Ryan and Blagojevich.
Since Trump is fixated on former FBI director James Comey, LaHood also emphasized that he had nothing to do with prosecuting Blagojevich.
LaHood also noted that Democrats Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot are against clemency.
“They were surprised to know that and that Democrats removed him from office,” he said.
(Some Illinois Democrats do support a break for Blagojevich, including Sen. Dick Durbin, Rep. Robin Kelly and Rep. Jan Schakowsky. And Rep. Bobby Rush rode in a car with Patti Blagojevich — who was sandwiched between him and the Rev. Jesse Jackson — at the Bud Billiken parade in Chicago last weekend.)
Said LaHood, “I wanted to make sure they had a full accounting of the facts on the ground in Illinois.”