Elected officials can’t help being crooks. Corruption is the currency of democracy, the grease that keeps the wheels turning.

That’s been the legal defense in most of the political trials I’ve covered in Illinois, including those of former governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich.

It’s not just the politicians who say making dirty deals (trading favors) is part of the job description, but a three-judge U.S. Appellate Court said as much in dismissing five criminal counts against Blagojevich.

OPINION

President Donald Trump said much the same in suggesting last week that he might commute Blagojevich’s 14-year prison sentence because the governor was merely trying to barter a deal for himself in exchange for Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat.

All those “years in jail for being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know that many other politicians say,” Trump told reporters, while suggesting he might cut Blagojevich’s prison sentence short.

Plenty of other politicians have said a lot worse, Trump said. “He shouldn’t have been put in jail.”

I love watching jurors during political corruption trials when they hear that sort of defense coming from the mouths of lawyers and politicians.

Ryan actually got on the witness stand and said there was a culture of corruption down in Springfield and he simply couldn’t help himself.

I could tell the jurors were thinking only one thing, the same thing you or I would.

“Buddy, you are so going to prison. You are a crook.”

Ryan was sentenced to 6½ years in prison. That was supposed to serve as an example to other elected officials. The U.S. attorney called it “a low water mark” in public corruption.

Blagojevich was the very next governor. And he was worse than Ryan. Used the same defense in court.  It was just politics. Whined like a baby when the FBI caught him on tape trying to sell that U.S. Senate seat. Not only was Blagojevich corrupt, but he corrupted other public officials and private citizens by putting a “For Sale” sign on state government. You had to pay to play.

The federal appellate judges in his case, however, said that in their opinion, the trade of a public job in exchange for a favor is essential to the political process.

That’s simply “logrolling.”

In other words, get my son a job on the police department and I will give you my vote. Appoint my wife the director of the Department of Children and Family Services and I will back your bill to increase taxes. Give my son-in-law a seat on the board of a state panel that approves hospital expansion projects, and I will support your gambling bill.

Those appellate judges and many others see that sort of thing as political logrolling, horse-trading, deal-making.

I still see it as wrong.

Over the decades I watched crooked politicians repeatedly sentenced to two, four or six years in federal prisons for crimes that undermined the public’s confidence in government. Sentences that amounted to nothing in prisons run like private health clubs.

I smiled when Blagojevich got hit with a real sentence, 14 years. I hope the next guy gets 25 years.

These fellows are worse than stick-up men because they undermine the public’s confidence in government. They tell us that we can’t expect honesty and integrity in elected officials. And if you want a job in government, or a contract as a vendor, doing good work isn’t enough. You have to pay up.

The government does not belong to these crooks. It is ours. We say how it should be run. And we say if you make corruption the currency of our democracy, we’re going to stick you in prison for a long time.

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