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President frees imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich — now a grateful ‘Trumpocrat’

Blagojevich returns to his home in Chicago early Wednesday after Trump’s move brought to an end one of the most bizarre legal dramas in Illinois history.

Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich arrives back in Illinois just before midnight Wednesday at O’Hare International Airport, where he signed a baseball for a well-wisher amid the crowd of media gathered there. He was driven to his home in Chicago’s Ravenswood Manor shortly thereafter.
Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

The long legal journey of Rod Blagojevich began in 2008 with an early-morning visit from the FBI, and it ended Tuesday with a phone call from the president of the United States that led hours later to the former governor walking out of federal prison a free man.

President Donald Trump called former Illinois first lady Patti Blagojevich at about 10:30 a.m. to tell her he would commute the ex-governor’s 14-year prison sentence, a White House source said. That decision immediately roiled Illinois’ legal and political system, and it brought to a stunning conclusion one of the state’s most bizarre legal dramas.

It will also now inject the flamboyant former governor, age 63 and sporting a mop of white hair, back into a state that has learned for eight years to get along without him.

“He’s got a obviously a big fan in me,” Blagojevich said to an NBC5 reporter who asked him about the president at the Denver airport. “If you’re asking what my party affiliation is, I’m a Trumpocrat.”

That was hours after the president told reporters he was freeing Blagojevich.

“Yes, we have commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich,” Trump said. “He served eight years in jail. A long time.”

Trump cited Patti Blagojevich’s years-long campaign for clemency for her husband, as well as the Blagojevich children. But he also referenced his political nemeses, including former FBI Director James Comey and former Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is a friend of Comey. Trump referred to Fitzgerald, who led Blagojevich’s prosecution, as “Fitzpatrick.”

“It was a prosecution by the same people — Comey, Fitzpatrick — the same group,” Trump said.

The former governor arrived back in Illinois at O’Hare International Airport just before midnight Tuesday and returned to his home in Chicago’s Ravenswood Manor amid a crush of news cameras. Along the way, he shook hands with well-wishers and autographed a baseball.

Blagojevich family members found themselves huddled inside the ex-governor’s Ravenswood Manor home Tuesday while attorneys worked out the logistics of his release from a federal prison in Colorado. Former Ald. Deb Mell, Patti Blagojevich’s sister, told reporters the family was “ecstatic.”

Patti Blagojevich did not comment, other than to write on her Facebook page: “Thank you to all my Facebook friends that have stuck with me and encouraged me over the last 8 years. At long last — Rod’s coming home!!!!” She has hundreds of positive messages on her page.

In an interview with a WGN reporter at the Denver airport Tuesday night, Rod Blagojevich praised the president, said he felt a “profound and everlasting gratitude” and promised more to come at a news conference outside the family home at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

“There’s divine intervention in all of this,” he said.

Fellow passengers tweeted photos of Blagojevich on the Chicago-bound plane Tuesday night.

Blagojevich had not been due out of prison until March 2024.

The ex-governor’s brother, Robert Blagojevich also offered praise for Trump: “I am very grateful to President Trump for what he’s done for my brother and his family. He is the ultimate disrupter, and that’s what Washington, D.C., needs right now.”

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich greets supporters outside his family’s Ravenswood Manor home early Wednesday after being released from a Colorado prison Tuesday night, Feb. 18, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

But not everyone was on the Welcome Wagon for the former governor.

The team of former feds who prosecuted Blagojevich a decade ago released a joint statement. Fitzgerald and former Assistant U.S. Attorneys Reid Schar and Chris Niewoehner are now in private practice. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Hamilton is a Cook County judge.

“Although the president has exercised his lawful authority to commute the remaining portion of Mr. Blagojevich’s prison sentence, Mr. Blagojevich remains a felon, convicted of multiple serious acts of corruption as governor,” the statement read in part.

They added later, “His prosecution serves as proof that elected officials who betray those they are elected to serve will be held to account.”

The man who has Blagojevich’s old job, J.B. Pritzker, was not happy about Trump’s decision.

“Illinoisans have endured far too much corruption, and we must send a message to politicians that corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated,” Gov. Pritzker said in a statement issued by his office.

“President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time,” Pritzker added.

Pritzker faced criticism during his campaign for governor after the Chicago Tribune published excerpts of a phone call secretly recorded by the feds in which Pritzker and then-Gov. Blagojevich talked about who would be acceptable to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Pritzker called former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. “a little more crass.”

Several other politicians weighed in Tuesday once news of Blagojevich’s commutation broke. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “There’s a lot of people who oppose this action, given what Blagojevich did during his time in office.”

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, who served as the ranking GOP member of the Illinois House impeachment committee when Blagojevich was removed from office, said he believes Trump commuted the former governor’s sentence “just because of the celebrity of Rod Blagojevich.”

“I was involved first-hand with the impeachment efforts, and I saw a governor who was rogue on steroids,” Durkin said. “He was a person that didn’t care about the state of Illinois. He cared about his own ambition and he abused the office.”

All of this brings to a fitting end the legal saga that reaches back more than a decade, to the December 2008 early-morning arrest of Blagojevich by the FBI at his home in Ravenswood Manor. Illinoisans then watched as their governor was impeached and eventually convicted on public corruption charges.

But that’s not all.

His wife ate a tarantula on national television. The former governor also took his turn on a TV game show that would put his incompetence with computers on display for the world to see. He could barely turn one on.

The ridicule might have been worth it, though. Few then would have expected the host of that game show, Donald Trump, would ascend to the White House and be in a position to one day free Blagojevich.

Now Trump has done so in the midst of the largest public corruption investigation to hit Chicago since the days of the Blagojevich scandal. Several city and state politicians find themselves in the crosshairs of federal investigators.

The president seems to have been mostly moved to act by Patti Blagojevich, who has been campaigning for nearly two years for her husband’s release.

“She’s one hell of a woman,” Trump once said of Patti.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel handed Blagojevich the stunning 14-year prison sentence in 2011. Blagojevich appealed. It took years, but a three-judge panel finally tossed five of his 18 convictions in 2015 and ordered a new sentencing hearing. Zagel then left Blagojevich’s daughters in tears when he handed the former governor the same 14-year sentence all over again in 2016.

In 2011, Zagel told Blagojevich, “The fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired.” He echoed those remarks in 2016.

Blagojevich pressed on. The U.S. Supreme Court shot him down for the last time in April 2018, leaving presidential clemency as Blagojevich’s only hope. That’s when Patti Blagojevich began an obvious campaign to court the attention — and mercy — of Trump.

By then, the president was well into his own battle with Comey and then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

“This same cast of characters that did this to my family are out there trying to do it to the president,” Patti Blagojevich told the Sun-Times in a phone interview in April 2018.

She linked Mueller and Comey to her husband through Fitzgerald, who went on to serve as Comey’s lawyer in private practice.

Blagojevich’s fortunes turned much brighter in May 2018 when, on Air Force One, Trump told reporters he might spring Blagojevich, who he said went to jail “for being stupid.”

Blagojevich’s legal team then filed a new, formal request for a commutation — a move that would not absolve the former politician but would reduce his time in prison.

Despite the appellate court’s decision to toss five of his convictions, prosecutors said in 2016 that Blagojevich “remains convicted of the same three charged shakedowns” for which he originally went to prison.

Those include his attempt to sell then-President-elect Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, to extort the CEO of Children’s Memorial Hospital for $25,000 in campaign contributions and to hold up a bill to benefit the racetrack industry for $100,000 in campaign contributions.

Blagojevich was also caught on tape making the notorious comment — referring to the Senate seat — “I’ve got this thing and it’s f---ing golden.”

Trump has earlier said that Blagojevich has “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. 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.”

Once Trump started to consider doing something for Blagojevich, he asked son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to work on a commutation with the White House Counsel’s office, a senior administration official has told the Sun-Times.

Meanwhile, Blagojevich’s appeal and campaign for clemency revealed some details about the eight years he’s spent behind bars. It turned out he helped form a prison band known as The Jailhouse Rockers. They had a 21-song playlist that included “Bad Moon Rising.”

His appearance by video at his re-sentencing in 2016 also confirmed, once and for all, that his black hair had gone snow white in prison.

Blagojevich spoke then about reconciliation, telling the judge that “it was very important for me to free myself from the prison of resentment.” He talked remorsefully about his legacy, and he said he winced every time his children visited him in prison.

He also said, “I made many mistakes.”

“I regret those mistakes and misjudgments,” Blagojevich said at the time. “I’m sorry for them. I wish I could find a way to turn the clock back and make different choices. But that is not possible.”

Contributing: Stefano Esposito, Sam Charles, Mitchell Armentrout, Tina Sfondeles

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