OP-ED: Rod Blagojevich, Donald Trump and the circle of sleaze

Eric Zorn
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
FILE - In this March 14, 2012, file photo, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich speaks to the media outside his home in Chicago as his wife, Patti, wipes away tears a day before reporting to prison after his conviction on corruption charges. President Donald Trump is expected to commute the 14-year prison sentence of Blagojevich. The 63-year-old Democrat is expected to walk out of prison later Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

How can anyone be surprised? America’s swampy, self-dealing, scofflaw, narcissist president has commuted the prison sentence of Illinois’ swampy, self-dealing, scofflaw, narcissist former governor.

I thought President Donald Trump might wait until after the November election to spring Rod Blagojevich from federal prison, which he did Tuesday, given that such a wink to unapologetic political corruption is a bit on the nose given all the accusations that have swirled around Trump. But he’s clearly feeling emboldened by how stoutly his party and his political base stayed with him through his impeachment travails and no longer has any qualms at all about whimsically yanking on the levers of federal justice.

Blagojevich was a spectacularly venal public official and an odious hypocrite. He abused his power by holding back state funds for children’s health care to try to squeeze a campaign contribution from a hospital CEO, by refusing to sign pending legislation favorable to the horse racing industry unless a track owner gave him a contribution and, most famously, by trying to use his constitutional authority to appoint a U.S. senator as a means to advance his personal interests.

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And every time I heard the oily pleas for mercy from Blagojevich and his wife I was reminded that, when he was governor, he routinely ignored such pleas from others. His failure to act on routine requests for commutations and pardons got so bad that the Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic sued him in federal court for ducking his responsibility to act. He won that suit and continued to delay, refusing to spend even a dime of political capital on the issue. And by the time he was removed from office in early 2009, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board estimated the number of petitions piled up on his desk at more than 3,000 — by far the largest such backlog in the nation.

When arrested and put in the dock, Blagojevich insisted he’d done nothing wrong, and that what looked to federal investigators like corruption was just zealous “political horse-trading.” On the day he reported to prison nearly eight years ago, he ostentatiously performed his Nelson Mandela of Ravenswood Manor act, telling reporters he had a “clear conscience” because everything he did “was on the right side of the law.”

Blagojevich’s inability — his failure — to grasp the dimensions of his betrayal of the public trust and his refusal ever to admit to what he did was positively Trumpian, even before we understood the dimensions of that adjective.

It was no wonder that Trump seemed to identify with Blago, dismissing his scheming caught on wiretap recordings as mere “braggadocio” and describing his crimes as simply “being stupid and saying things that … many other politicians say.”

Trump’s lack of familiarity with the case was revealed not only by his glib summaries of the evidence but by how, when talking to reporters he mispronounced the former governor’s last name as “Bla-goya-vick” and overstated the length of his prison sentence, saying it was 18 years instead of 14 (he actually would have been eligible for release after a little more than 12 years).

Was that prison sentence too long? After all, he never got a dime out of his fetid little plots. No one was injured.

I heard that argument a lot, especially after May 2018, when Trump told reporters he was considering a commutation for Blagojevich because “plenty of other politicians have said a lot worse. He shouldn’t have been put in jail.”

The way I’ve seen it all along, though, is that even feckless political corruption at that level is a grave offense that must have severe legal consequences if we have any hope of deterring it. And that Blagojevich’s failure to show contrition in effect renewed his offense every day he was in prison. After a while, the justification for keeping him locked up was mostly that he refused to acknowledge that he ever should have been locked up.

Blagojevich’s release under these circumstances all but guarantees a nauseating rerun of his pious, pretrial media blitz. Now, a former governor who can never admit he did anything wrong will make the rounds crowing about his innocence based on the judgment of a president who can never admit he did anything wrong.

It’s the circle of sleaze.

— Eric Zorn is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.