Trump goes on clemency blitz: sentences commuted, convicts pardoned
Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich grateful to Trump, says he 'had no inkling it was coming'
U.S. President Donald Trump has gone on a clemency blitz, commuting what he called a "ridiculous" 14-year prison sentence for former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and pardoning former New York Police Department commissioner Bernie Kerik, among a long list of others.
Others who got a break from Trump include financier Michael Milken, who served two years in prison in the early 1990s after pleading guilty to violating U.S. securities laws, and Edward DeBartolo Jr., the former San Francisco 49ers owner convicted in a gambling fraud scandal after building one of the most successful NFL teams in history.
In all, Trump took clemency actions related to 11 people, his latest interventions in the justice system as he is under growing fire for weighing in on the cases of former aides. Trump made clear that he saw similarities between efforts to investigate his own conduct and those who took down Blagojevich, a Democrat who appeared on Trump's reality TV show, Celebrity Apprentice.
Blagojevich was convicted on charges of political corruption, including seeking to sell an appointment to Barack Obama's old Senate seat and trying to shake down a children's hospital. But Trump said the former governor had been subjected to a "ridiculous sentence" that didn't fit his crimes.
Blagojevich landed at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago early Wednesday after walking out of a Colorado prison where he served eight years, and promised to work for judicial and criminal justice reform while maintaining his innocence.
"I didn't do the things they said I did and they lied on me," Blagojevich, a one-time contestant on Trump's reality TV show Celebrity Apprentice, told WGN-TV as he walked through the airport greeting travellers who welcomed him home.
"I'm profoundly grateful to President Trump and it's a profound and everlasting gratitude," Blagojevich told WGN. "He didn't have to do this. He's a Republican president and I was a Democratic governor."
Blagojevich, 63, said he heard about his commutation when other inmates told him they saw it on the news, he said. He "had no inkling it was coming," he said.
Some in Illinois, including the current governor, said Tuesday that setting Blagojevich free was a mistake.
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," Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a written statement.
Tim Schneider, chair of the state Republican Party, concurred.
"In a state where corrupt, machine-style politics is still all too common, it's important that those found guilty serve their prison sentence in its entirety," said Schneider.
Trump made clear that he saw similarities between efforts to investigate his own conduct and those who took down Blagojevich.
"It was a prosecution by the same people — Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group," Trump said. He was referring to Patrick Fitzgerald, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich and now represents former FBI director James Comey, whom Trump fired from the agency in May 2017. Comey was not at the FBI or anywhere in the Department of Justice during the investigation and indictment of Blagojevich.
'Somebody has to stick up for the people,' Trump says
The clemency actions come as an emboldened Trump continues to test the limits of his office now that impeachment is over. The actions drew alarm from Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr., who accused Trump of using his unfettered pardon power "to shield unrepentant felons, racists and corrupt scoundrels"
Trump also pardoned Kerik, who served just over three years for tax fraud and lying to the White House while being interviewed to serve as homeland security secretary. Trump's White House lauded Kerik for having "courageously led the New York Police Department's heroic response to the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001" and said that, "Since his conviction, he has focused on improving the lives of others, including as a passionate advocate for criminal justice and prisoner reentry reform."
The White House hailed Milken for having "democratized corporate finance by providing women and minorities access to capital that would have been unavailable to them otherwise."
Trump said he had yet to think about pardoning his longtime confidant Roger Stone, who is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday, or granting clemency to several former aides who have ended up in legal jeopardy, including his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and disgraced former national security adviser Mike Flynn.
"Somebody has to stick up for the people," Trump said.
As for Stone, in particular, he added: You're going to see what happens. I think he's treated unfairly."
As for Tuesday's actions, Pascrell said "the pardoning of these disgraced figures should be treated as another national scandal by a lawless executive." He was referring specifically to the actions involving Blagojevich and Milken. And he predicted that, following Trump's acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate, "outrageous abuses like these will accelerate and worsen."
Many of the pardons announced Tuesday were advocated by well-heeled friends of the president, including Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate; the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani; Tom Barrack, the chairman of Trump's inaugural committee; and Fox News personality Maria Bartiromo.
Convicted for 'being stupid'
But Trump also commuted the sentences of several people more typical of the flood of requests that presidents receive. They include Crystal Munoz, who has spent the last 12 years in prison after being convicted on marijuana charges. Her case was championed by the Texas A&M Criminal Defence Clinic, the Clemency for All Non-Violent Drug Offenders Foundation, as well as Alice Marie Johnson, whose life sentence Trump commuted in 2018 and whose story his campaign featured in a recent Super Bowl ad.
Earlier Tuesday, the White House held a surprise press conference with a slew of football greats to announce that Trump had pardoned DeBartolo Jr., who was involved in one of the biggest owners' scandals in the sport's history. In 1998, DeBartolo pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony when he paid $400,000 US to former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards in exchange for a riverboat gambling license.
Ohio Pastor Darrell Scott, who had advocated for DeBartolo Jr.'s pardon, said that when he first brought DeBartolo Jr.'s case to the White House, the administration was consumed with other matters, including the Mueller investigation. Now that impeachment is over, he said, he expects Trump to move forward with additional pardons.
"We finally get to breathe for the first time before something else comes," he said. "I think they're trying to play catch up."
With files from CBC News