Attempting to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Tax fraud. Gambling fraud. Securities fraud. Making false statements to authorities.
These are some of the various crimes and misdeeds that landed several wealthy or powerful people in jail or on probation. Some of them served their time and had been released, and some of them were still in jail when this week began. But on Tuesday, they all were either pardoned or had their sentences commuted by President Donald Trump.
It’s no surprise to see executive pardons and commutations go to well-connected people — in this case, the list includes a former NFL franchise owner, a former New York City police commissioner, a former Wall Street executive, and a former governor. With this action, president Trump isn’t doing anything that previous presidents haven’t done using the power granted to them in the U.S. Constitution. And it should be noted that not all of the grants of clemency announced by the White House on Tuesday went to the rich and powerful.
But these acts of clemency — particularly for disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was in jail on corruption charges — come at a questionable time and only deepen the well-founded concerns that the president excuses corruption rather than tackling it.
Blagojevich, a Democrat and former contestant on the Apprentice, was convicted on 18 counts (five of which were successfully appealed) and was caught on tape discussing how to profit personally from the opportunity to appoint someone to the vacant Illinois U.S. Senate seat after Barack Obama became president.
Blagojevich’s crimes, for which he was sentenced to 14 years in prison and had served 8, were a serious violation of the public trust. And he was punished accordingly.
“When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired. You did that damage,” Judge James Zagel told Blagojevich in 2011 when sentencing him, according to the Chicago Tribune.
That sentence sent a strong message that those in power cannot abuse public office for private gain. Trump is sending the opposite message with this commutation, and he is doing so just after he was impeached, and acquitted, on charges that included abuse of power.
Trump said Tuesday that he found Blagojevich’s sentence to be a “tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence” and had previously normalized Blagojevich’s actions as “being stupid, saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say.” But a group of Republican congressmen from Illinois didn’t see it that way.
“We are disappointed by the president’s commutation of Blagojevich’s federal sentence. We believe he received an appropriate and fair sentence, which was the low-end of the federal sentencing guidelines for the gravity of his public corruption convictions,” Reps. Darin LaHood, John Shimkus, Adam Kinzinger, Rodney Davis and Mike Bost said in a joint statement. “Blagojevich is the face of public corruption in Illinois, and not once has he shown any remorse for his clear and documented record of egregious crimes that undermined the trust placed in him by voters.”
“As our state continues to grapple with political corruption, we shouldn’t let those who breached the public trust off the hook. History will not judge Rod Blagojevich well,” the Congressmen added.
The same can be said about Trump’s decision to commute the former governor’s sentence.