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Recently, US President Donald Trump suggested that he has considered commuting the sentence of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Personally, I'm a bit confused by this suggestion for a few reasons:

  1. While the two have had some past interactions (like Blagojevich appearing on The Apprentice) Blagojevich is a Democrat, from a traditionally blue state.
  2. Blagojevitch is widely disliked, even in Illinois where his approval rating leading up to his 2006 reelection was as low as 36%, and dropped to near zero about two months before he was arrested in 2008.
  3. Any leniency on Blagojevich would appear to be in direct conflict with Trump's campaign rhetoric in favor of 'Draining the swamp' or 'Locking her up' with respect to Hillary Clinton. I have to assume it would be difficult to convince the Republican voter base otherwise, and that can't make other Republicans happy in the run up to the mid-term elections.
  4. It's not as if Blagojevich could ever help Trump with enforcing policy or state-level politics. Even if Blagojevich could hypothetically win an election (which is doubtful) the Illinois Senate not only removed Blagojevich from office, but banned him from ever holding public office in Illinois again.

Some media outlets, including this article from CNN, have suggested various reasons that Trump might have sympathy for Blagojevich, or might like the narrative that Blagojevich presented in his own op-ed piece from the Wall Street Journal where he argued that the FBI was undermining the rule of law. Still, even if Trump wanted to commute Blagojevich's sentence for personal reasons, I can't see any scenario where doing so, or even suggesting it, would do anything but harm him and his administration. So... what am I missing?

How could commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, or even suggesting it, benefit Trump or his administration?

  • I don't think there will be any sources on this less speculative than the CNN article. – user9389 Jun 6 '18 at 23:28
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    I don't think we've ever had a president use pardons the way Trump has used them. I'm tempted to put that into a new question but I'm not sure how to word it, or if it would be quantifiable enough to be a question, but I've never seen anyone use Pardons as a way to slap the other side in the face the way Trump has. – userLTK Jun 7 '18 at 0:24
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    Everyone answering seems to have never seen Trump before. Otherwise, the answer would start with 2 words: "entertainment value" – user4012 Jun 7 '18 at 2:03
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    Re #3, not pardoning Blagojevich due to "Drain the Swamp" is one possible narrative. But an alternate narrative that would be very cherised by Trump is "the FBI/deep state is framing innocent politicians". To those who already give some credence to that, the pardon is coherent, and allows the "reasoning" (for lack of a better word) of "You see, it is not only that Trump is bad, the FBI has framed the good Democrats too." Or "Trump is not abusing his pardon power by using it only for Republicans." – SJuan76 Jun 7 '18 at 7:43
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    It seems this is primarily opinion-based, as we would need to look into Trump's head to give a good answer. – Thern Jun 7 '18 at 10:23
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I can't see any scenario where doing so, or even suggesting it, would do anything but harm him and his administration. So... what am I missing?

Doing so may harm his administration in the court of public opinion, but it sends a very different message to people related to Trump that have problems being resolved in actual courts right now.

For example, the pardon of Scooter Libby sends a very clear message that "loyalty" in the form of perjury committed in defense of the administration can be rewarded. This is very relevant to people like Cohn, Roger Stone, Carter Page, Manafort, Gates, Flynn, and others who are being asked very hard questions about things they know and have done.

A pardon of Blagojevich would go even beyond that because it would reward "loyalty" even further. Many of Trump's associates relating to his campaign have committed white collar crimes that were directly quid pro quo like Blagojevich. Off of the top of my head I know that Flynn, Manafort, and Cohn definitely fall into this group with their crimes being completely unrelated to the Trump campaign (note that this does not preclude them knowing or participating in crimes related to the campaign).

Talks of pardon that involve crimes related to associates of Trump is a way to communicate to those associates that "loyalty" will be rewarded and serves as a way to encourage their silence.

The effectiveness of this may be mitigated by the fact that Trump is surrounded by habitual criminals who committed crimes that aren't exclusively under federal jurisdiction so pardons only go so far.

The effect on public opinion is also unclear since such a pardon is consistent Trump's narrative of persecution and the message sent to his associates is much louder and clearer than to the general public.

  • This only makes sense if Blagojevich has shown loyalty to Trump though. Has he done that? (Did he even have the opportunity to do so?) – tim Jun 7 '18 at 9:01
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    @tim Neither has Libby, yet he still got his perjury pardoned. Trump can pardon someone like Flynn right now, who he has repeatedly claimed has been treated "unfairly". The political consequences of that is obviously much greater than for pardoning people who no longer matter like Libby or Blagojevich. The point is that the crimes are direct reflections of things his associates are currently facing, it's a way to send them a message without having to deal with (more) accusations of obstruction of justice, and providing more ammunition for political opponents. – Teleka Jun 7 '18 at 9:16
  • @tim The point is not whether they themselves were are loyal to Trump. The point is to allow Trump to demonstrate his ability to undermine the law to those around him, in order to get those people to maintain their loyalty in the face of criminal investigation. – Tal Jun 7 '18 at 13:46
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Publicity for Trump

Many of Trumps actions appear like the plot of a reality TV show. He adds more tension and surprise than is necessary in his announcements. Controversial pardons like this one work to keep Trump in the news and increase his ‘ratings’.

Sending a Message

Trump may want to send a message to people who are worried that they could be prosecuted as part of the Muller investigation. These people could be tempted to work with Muller in return for immunity. If Trump issues several high profile and controversial pardons then these people could conclude Trump will pardon them also.

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    This is a reasonable interpretation of how this could benefit Trump, or anyone in Trump's position, without delving into rank speculation. – K Dog Jun 7 '18 at 19:43
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There's two reasons that I can see why Trump would pardon/discuss pardoning Blagojevich.

Reason One:

Friendship/Relationship.

If Trump likes him and/or has some connection to him, friend of a friend. Pardoning a friend of a friend is easy enough to understand.

They met on celebrity apprentice but Trump says that beyond that, they don't really know each other and I think that's a fair statement. Both men were busy and lived in different parts of the country and there would have been little reason for them to maintain a relationship after the show. Trump, for example, seems to have made very relatively friends prior to his inserting himself into the political arena. There was Michael Cohen who's been a lawyer and business partner, but all his "friends" appear to be either business related or family. There's no reason to expect that he and Rod would have been close. Trump runs a family business.

People who work for law firms or big companies or wall street tend to work as part of a team and they know a lot of people. (I worked on Wall Street and I saw that as part of my Father's law firm. Lawyers have clients for example). Those kind of careers require meeting lots of people. Trump's business was more insular. There would have been little reason for him to have an extended relationship with Blagojevich even after they spent time doing a show together briefly. I tend towards believing Trump when he says that they met, but didn't maintain a relationship after doing the show together.

Reason two (and I think this is the more likely explanation).

Overzealous prosecutors and distraction.

Blagojevich reached out to Trump, so let's get that out of the way and Trump has said he would "consider" a pardon. He hasn't granted one. That's a key difference. If Trump is considering it, he can appear to be weighing the evidence. He can appear thoughtful. That's what "considering" implies.

Blagojevich has also been very critical of overzealous prosecution. He claims (incorrectly) to have been imprisoned for being stupid and saying things that many other politicians say. That's of course, bunk. Blagojevich did accept payments for state contracts and he didn't just say "this is a gold mine", he tried, more than once, to get something in return". But given that he's serving 14 years, and because a few other politicians have, occasionally been on the take* (citation needed), Blagojevich is seen by some as an example of overzealous prosecution, even if he's guilty, others who are just as guilty aren't serving time.

By considering Blagojevich's request, Trump touches on a couple things he likes. He exposes what is to some an example of overzealous prosecution against a politician and he appears thoughtful by considering something. It's a win for Trump to discuss the unfair treatment of Rod Blagojevich because it puts "unfair treatment" out there.

As to whether it's a win for him to issue the pardon, that's harder to say. Obviously some will cheer, others will boo, but we should cross that bridge when/if the pardon happens. For now, Trump gets something by saying he's considering it.

If I was to guess (and I know I shouldn't do that here, but I can't help myself because it's fun to guess what Trump will do). I think Trump will pardon him, but upon leaving office, not now. By putting it out now, but pardoning him in 2020 with a bunch of other pardons, then it's not a big surprise. If he pardons him soon, he opens himself up to both criticism as well as praise.


And let me add, while he was clearly guilty, Rod Blagojevich was also a first time offender and no more guilty than Bob Mcdonnell, who got off with being forced out of office and a scolding from the supreme court but no jail time. Bob was smarter and he said in court that the gifts were given to his wife, but I think it's fair to say that he was equally guilty.

I always thought that the 14 year sentence was too harsh. I realize that might be unnecessary commentary but since I hammered down the point that Blagojevich was guilty, I wanted to add this. 14 years is a lot.

  • if you want an example of someone who's not in jail for corruption but should be, check out New Jersey. – user4012 Jun 7 '18 at 2:01
  • @user4012 That one works too and I'm sure there are others. The honest truth is, I'd not remembered that. McDonnell's "My wife took the gifts" stuck in my mind for some reason. That's why I remembered him. – userLTK Jun 7 '18 at 2:27
  • The last 538 podcast discussion of Menendez was... hilarious. Falling all over themselves to try to sound nice to him. – user4012 Jun 7 '18 at 3:48
  • @user4012 you know that this isn't about Menendez, right? You can make a question about him if you want. The fact is, the Supreme court re-imagined the law with the McDonnell rulling, even the conservative NY Post said as much: nypost.com/2017/11/19/… I've not heard the 538 podcast. You can post a link if you like, but we seem to be getting pretty far off the subject of Trump and pardons. – userLTK Jun 7 '18 at 7:07
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This answer relies on a large number of assumptions. Many of the assumptions I disagree with personally. Especially (me being from Illinois) the idea that Blago deserves any sort of leniency, compassion, or fresh air.

Doing the right thing is not about how it benefits you. Sometimes doing the right thing because it is the right thing, is reason enough. Trump and his friend Mark Burnett have ties to the Blagojevich family through a number of Celebrity reality television shows, including the Apprentice. It could be that the president believes that there is a wrong being perpetrated on his friend, and that he can right that wrong.

Rod is a very charismatic fellow, and has a large base of very powerful and connected friends. Having him owe you a favor, is something a political player could find very useful. And let's face it Trump is willing to use gray colored morals when it comes to getting things done. And Blago is very connected in the world on the gray moral politics. I can see how Trump could leverage that power for himself to great advantage.

  • You might be able to turn this into a good answer, but as it is, it just seems too vague and generalized. – userLTK Jun 7 '18 at 0:26
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I was wondering the same thing... Blago is a Democrat, and has absolutely zero political pull these days. Why would Trump pardon him?

Rod Blagojavich was a product of the Chicago Democratic machine, one of the most corrupt organizations in US government over the last hundred or so years. Even the Chicago Tribune calls the city the 'corruption capital of the nation'. Someone else is also a product of that same machine... Barack Obama. You don't come through that machine without getting some manure on you.

It might well be that Blago has committed to release some incriminating or otherwise very embarrassing information on Obama in return for a get out of jail free card. Would certainly be in character for him to do something like that.

However, remember that Trump is only 'considering' a Blago pardon. This could be a veiled threat to the Dems... back off, or I'll turn your world upside down.

If in the coming months the Dems back down, and Blago doesn't get pardoned, that's probably what's going on. Or if Blago does get pardoned, and some nasty stuff comes out just before midterm elections...

This is probably not what the founding fathers had in mind when they came up with the presidential pardon.

However... remember that Bill Clinton pardoned incarcerated billionaire Marc Rich on Clinton's last day in office, and got some fat speaking fees from business associates of Rich not long after, plus a hefty donation to the Clinton presidential library, so a president using pardon powers for less than altruistic reasons is not without precedent.

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    Do you have any source for “information against Obama”, or is that pure speculation on your part? Without some hint that he has such information, there’s no reason Democrats would see this as a threat. – Bobson Jun 7 '18 at 3:53
  • Blago is a Democrat, and has absolutely zero political pull these days - You underestimate the power of the Chicago machine. – SoylentGray Jun 7 '18 at 4:49
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    Everything in this answer appears to be conjecture based on wild speculations. – Philipp Jun 7 '18 at 7:48

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