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The inside story on Trump and Blagojevich’s stalled bid for clemency: Kushner the key player

How did Blagojevich’s clemency prospects get resurrected in 2019? “It was Jared,” I was told.

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President Donald Trump speaks to the media aboard Air Force One — including about ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich — while flying between El Paso, Texas, and Joint Base Andrews in Maryland this week.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, President Donald Trump said he was poised to cut short the sentence of imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, but the quick emergence of critics after Trump signaled his move means clemency for now is up in the air.

“A lot of people are against it,” a senior administration official told the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday, with one big exception, the source said.

That’s Blagojevich’s main advocate in the White House, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

Trump first raised the possibility of giving Blagojevich a break from his 14-year sentence on May 31, 2018, with critics in and out of the White House able to block any action.

Giving Blagojevich a presidential break roared publicly back to life when Trump on Wednesday told reporters on Air Force One, “I’m thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly. I think he was — I think it’s enough: seven years.”

How did Blagojevich’s clemency prospects get resurrected in 2019?

“It was Jared,” I was told.

Kushner has no known personal connections to Blagojevich, though Trump does. Blagojevich got to know the former reality show star when he was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice.”

After raising the possibility that Blagojevich could be free right away — on Thursday afternoon a commutation seemed only hours away — by Thursday night Trump suddenly decided to put on the brakes.

Trump said in a tweet, “White House staff” is still reviewing his case.

What happened?

Trump dangling the likely Blagojevich commutation in advance provided opponents in and out of the White House time to act, with the same critics from 2018 quickly resurfacing, including the five Illinois Republicans who serve in the House.

In 2018, the Illinois GOP members — then numbering seven — banded together to ask Trump to keep Blagojevich’s punishment untouched.

The Illinois House members alone were not significant factors in stalling Trump. Their protests were “not going to be compelling enough for Donald Trump. It’s just not. There is always going to be somebody who thinks you should not be doing what you are doing,” the source said.

Moreover — and this argument may have had more impact — “It’s hardly draining the swamp to commute the sentence of someone who was selling his Senate seat and a lot of people are against it, which is how it got knocked down in the first place,” the senior administration official said.

Trump “has gotten pushback about Blagojevich before. He’s going to get it again” with the question put to Trump, “why are you rewarding this guy?”

Kushner, for all his pushing to get a break for Blagojevich, also did not have everything lined up before Trump on Wednesday all but announced the commutation — that is, getting all the paperwork signed off in the White House counsel’s office.

And on Thursday, no one seemed in a hurry as “the normal channels for examining possible pardons and commutation fired back up,” the source said. Even though Blagojevich’s file was submitted to the White House in 2018, it was only “discussed,” and “ultimately not reviewed.”

That slow walking in terms of getting the legal paperwork together — my phrase here — made it relatively easy, I was told, to get Trump to agree to slow things down.

Though the Blagojevich crime is often referred to as the attempted “selling” of the Illinois Senate seat vacated when then Sen. Barack Obama was elected president, there was more to the case.

Blagojevich was also convicted of trying to shake down the CEO of Children’s Memorial Hospital for $25,000 in campaign contributions and threatening to hold up a bill to benefit the racetrack industry for $100,000 in campaign contributions.

But it is also true that Blagojevich never ended up personally profiting from his schemes, a point his attorney, Leonard Goodman, underscored in an interview on Friday.

Goodman, an investor in Sun-Times Media, said, “there is a lot of misinformation going around about Blagojevich. The fact is he never took a bribe, never took a kickback, never took a penny from his campaign fund, never promised anyone anything in exchange for a campaign contribution, period.”

Blagojevich, 62, reported to prison on March 15, 2012. According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, his release date is March 13, 2024, meaning with good conduct time already calculated, Blagojevich is on track to serve 12 years.

Will Blagojevich get a break? I’m told, “it could go either way.”

Connecting the dots

On May 31, 2018, Trump first raised the possibility of clemency for Blagojevich and Martha Stewart while taking questions about a pardon he gave that day to conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza.

There were a few threads tying the three together besides all being high-profile public personalities. Blagojevich was the only one still in prison.

Preet Bharara, who became a Trump critic after the president fired him as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, prosecuted D’Souza.

Stewart was prosecuted by James Comey, who years later Trump would fire as FBI director, the action triggering the Mueller probe.

Blagojevich’s prosecution was done under the direction of Chicago based former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, a longtime Comey friend. The news broke April 24, 2018 — just days before Trump mentioned clemency for Blagojevich — that Fitzgerald had been representing Comey since he was fired.