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Trump delays Blagojevich clemency decision — top Illinois pols say butt out

“White House staff is continuing the review of this matter,” Trump said in a Thursday night tweet about whether he will free former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich
Then Gov. Rod Blagojevich announces a new economic strategy for Illinois in 2003.
M. Spencer Green/AP

President Donald Trump on Thursday night prolonged the drama of whether he will commute the sentence of imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, saying in a tweet “White House staff” is still reviewing whether to free him.

This comes a day after Trump told reporters he “very strongly” leaned toward giving Blagojevich a break from serving the rest of his 14-year sentence for corruption.

“Rod Blagojevich, the former Governor of Illinois, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He has served 7 years. Many people have asked that I study the possibility of commuting his sentence in that it was a very severe one. White House staff is continuing the review of this matter,” Trump said.

The reactions from some of the state’s key elected officials from both parties on Thursday?

Leave him in prison. Stop toying with him. And focus on more important matters.

That includes former Blagojevich ally Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“President Trump has some pretty important things that he ought to be dealing with, not the least of which is the mindless killings over the last week and gun safety. I wish he focused on that,” Pritzker told reporters at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. “Gov. Blagojevich should remain in prison.”

Pritzker spent weeks last year during his gubernatorial campaign trying to distance himself from the disgraced former governor — and apologizing to the African American community for comments he’s heard making to Blagojevich on wiretapped FBI conversations.

Pritzker was recorded discussing potential African American politicians to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by then-President elect Barack Obama, with Pritzker referring to Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White as “the “least offensive” who would cover the governor on “the African American thing.” Pritzker also dismissed former state Senate President Emil Jones as too “crass” for the appointment.

Pritzker repeatedly acknowledged he made a mistake, saying his “intentions were good” but that he “didn’t use the right words.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Blagojevich “disgraced his office” and urged the president not to act on a “whim.” Lightfoot, too, called Trump’s repeated mention of commutation for Blagojevich “dangling the carrot in front of the Blagojevich family which, frankly, is pretty cruel given how both the wife and daughters have been devastated by the incarceration of the former governor.”

“The governor disgraced his office. He’s one of the few governors in the history of the country that’s been impeached. And he didn’t take seriously the incredible magnitude of power in which he held. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard any contrition on his part,” Lightfoot said. “I would like for the president not to be ruling on these very important decisions on whim. Basically, somebody he knows, something he thinks wasn’t fair, because that really does undermine the rule of law. There’s a very specific process for which these decisions have, historically, been made and he needs to follow that process.”

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said Blagojevich was “deservedly convicted,” saying his attempt to shakedown a Children’s Memorial Hospital head for campaign contributions is “as low as one can get.”

Durkin, R-Western Springs, served as the leading Republican in the Illinois House of Representatives Special Investigation Committee, which impeached Blagojevich in 2008. And he’s never been in favor of a pardon or commutation.

The five Republican U.S. House members from Illinois issued a joint statement protesting a break for Blagojevich. In June 2018, the GOP delegation, then numbering seven, issued a letter urging Trump not to grant clemency.

“It’s important that we take a strong stand against pay-to-play politics, especially in Illinois where four of our last eight governors have gone to federal prison for public corruption. Commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, who has a clear and documented record of egregious corruption, sets a dangerous precedent and goes against the trust voters place in elected officials. We stand by our letter and urge the President to not commute Rod Blagojevich’s sentence,” the GOP lawmakers said.

The five GOP members are Reps. Darin LaHood, John Shimkus, Adam Kinzinger, Rodney Davis and Mike Bost.

Trump’s commutation would come in the midst of a federal investigation into wide-ranging political corruption in Illinois.

“I guess it just sends a message that if you’re a kind of character and you’ve been turned into a folk hero by the president and other groups within the United States, that you have a good shot at not serving your sentence and paying your debt to society,” Durkin said of Trump’s potential clemency.

Durkin, too, noted the timing of Trump’s remarks, at the heels of a weekend of mass shootings: “Nothing surprises me. I think people are going to make their own judgment on it, but a lot of decisions are being made for politics at the moment and not for the good of society.”

In a statement, Senate President John Cullerton said: “With a unanimous vote the Illinois Senate removed him from office and barred him from ever serving here again, and there’s not a damn thing Donald Trump can do about that.”

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan did not immediately return a request for comment.

Not all of Illinois top Democrats oppose clemency for the former governor. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., last year said he supported a sentence reduction. Durbin’s office on Thursday declined to comment.

And in December 2017, 19 high-profile Illinois Democrats went to bat for Blagojevich in an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to take the case. The Who’s Who list of current and former Illinois Democratic congressional delegation members emphasized they took “no position on Mr. Blagojevich’s innocence or guilt on any of the counts of conviction.”

Instead, they wrote the nation’s highest court should hear his appeal to “distinguish the lawful solicitation and donation of campaign contributions from criminal violations of federal extortion, bribery, and fraud laws.”

Among the 19 going to bat for Blagojevich in 2017 were U.S. Reps. Danny Davis, Bill Foster, Luis Gutierrez, Mike Quigley, Bobby Rush and Jan Schakowsky. Former Illinois congressmen Bill Lipinski, David Phelps and Glenn Poshard were listed on the brief as well, along with former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, state Sen. Carol Ronen and Elmwood Park Village President Skip Saviano.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Blagojevich’s appeal for a shortened sentence in April 2018.

Blagojevich is not due out of prison until May 2024. Although an appellate court tossed five of his convictions in 2015, federal prosecutors say he remains convicted “of the same three charged shakedowns” for which he was first sentenced in 2011.

Contributing: Sam Charles, Lynn Sweet