WASHINGTON — Fueled by several agendas, President Donald Trump is stepping up his controversial use of clemency, with a byproduct a potential commutation for imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The political and legal implications for Trump if he does commute Blagojevich’s sentence can’t be considered outside the larger context of the pattern that is developing when it comes to Trump and clemency grants.
How Trump is handling pardons and commutations is not normal, perhaps crossing a line and paying little attention to the Justice Department well-established pardon process.
Thursday started with a Trump tweet that he will pardon racially inflammatory conservative author Dinesh D’Souza.
Later, aboard Air Force One, en route to Houston, at the end of an off-the-record session with reporters, Trump, going on the record, pivoted from remarks about D’Souza to add, “I am seriously thinking about — not pardoning — but I am seriously thinking of a curtailment of Blagojevich because what he did does not justify 18 years in a jail.”
Blagojevich, convicted in 2011 for campaign donation shakedowns and trying to leverage some gain through his appointment to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat, is serving a 14-year sentence in a federal prison in Colorado.
Trump said Martha Stewart, the “domestic diva” author and TV personality who spent five months in prison for lying and obstruction of justice may be pardoned because “to a certain extent” she was “harshly and unfairly treated. And she used to be my biggest fan in the world.”
That Trump knows Blagojevich and Stewart from appearing on his “Celebrity Apprentice” show helps.
Politically, my analysis is Trump supporters won’t care if Blagojevich gets his sentence cut. He’s been in prison since 2012, so its not like he has not been punished. Outside of Illinois, folks have not lived with the Blagojevich case for years like we have.
And for swing voters, there is more than Blagojevich to be concerned about when it comes to Trump and pardons.
As Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe said in a Tweet, “(Former FBI Chief Jim) Comey prosecuted Stewart & Comey’s counsel (Patrick) Fitzgerald prosecuted Blagojevich. Both were convicted of obstructing justice and perjury. Using pardons & commutations to send signals to co-conspirators as part of a coverup may well be impeachable.”
Among the factors at play with Trump and his not normal selective use of clemency grants:
• Trump’s increased pace of pardons and commutations — starting with Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney, sends a signal to figures in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe that he will have their back because his clemency power is absolute. Paul Manafort, who has been indicted, and Michael Cohen, who may be, are or will be under pressure to cooperate with the feds.
• This fits in with Trump’s continued attempts to delegitimize certain aspects of law enforcement, targeting what he sees as over-reaching prosecutors — a constant complaint of Trump about Mueller as he closes in on people in the Trump orbit.
Blagojevich made a similar argument of prosecutorial overeach in an op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, a newspaper read daily by Trump. Patti Blagojevich has amplified that message in her Fox TV hits — all aimed at that audience of one, Trump.
• D’Souza’s pardon is another blatant appeal to his base. Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, before he started his sentence for criminal contempt related to the detention of suspected illegal immigrants.
Trump’s continuing emphasis on how “the system” is fundamentally unfair — that is when it comes to probes like Muellers’ dealing with campaigns, donations, lying to the feds and obstruction of justice — are reflected in Trump’s clemency acts.
Big picture aside, the Blagojevich campaign to put a Blagojevich clemency bid on Trump’s radar worked — though the ultimate outcome for now is unknown.