Updated Feb 18, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump pardons the swamp

Rod Blagojevich in 2010. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

President Trump announced Tuesday that he would commute former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 14-year prison sentence for extortion, bribery and corruption — as well as issue full pardons for former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., former NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik and financier Michael Milken.

The big picture: The president's clemency spree largely benefitted white-collar criminals convicted of crimes like corruption, gambling fraud and racketeering, undercutting his message of "draining the swamp."

Blagojevich, a former contestant on Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice," attempted to exchange an appointment to Barack Obama’s Senate seat for campaign contributions after the 2008 presidential election and was eight years into his sentence.

  • The Illinois Legislature impeached and removed Blagojevich, a Democrat, for abuse of power and corruption in 2009. He was found guilty of 17 charges in 2011.
  • Blagojevich first asked the president to commute his sentence in 2018, and Trump in 2019 said he was considering the commute, claiming the governor was "treated unbelievably unfairly" by federal prosecutors.
  • The Illinois GOP urged Trump not to grant clemency, saying in a letter that it would "send a damaging message on your efforts to root out public corruption in our government."

DeBartolo was convicted of gambling fraud in 1998. Under his ownership, the 49ers won five Super Bowls, establishing a dynasty during the 1980s and 1990s. He avoided prison time, but faced a $1 million fine and a yearlong NFL suspension — ultimately relinquishing control of the team to his sister, Denise York, in 2000.

Kerik, the head of the NYPD during the Sept. 11 attacks and a nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security by George W. Bush, pleaded guilty to tax fraud and other charges in 2009 after accepting a $250,000 "loan" from an Israeli billionaire during his tenure as interior minister of Iraq immediately after the U.S. invasion. He served more than three years in prison.

Milken pleaded guilty in 1990 to extensive securities law violations, serving almost two years in prison alongside a $600 million fine. Since his release from prison, the billionaire has become known for his charitable giving, especially toward medical research.

Between the lines: "Trump has also raised the prospect of commuting the sentence of Roger J. Stone Jr.," the NY Times reports.

Other recipients:

  • Paul Pogue (pardoned)
  • Ariel Friedler (pardoned)
  • David Safavian (pardoned)
  • Angela Stanton (pardoned)
  • Tynice Nichole Hall (sentence commuted)
  • Crystal Munoz (sentence commuted)
  • Judith Negron (sentence commuted)

Go deeper

Freed Blagojevich says he's "profoundly grateful" to Trump

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich arrives home in Chicago from prison after his sentence was commuted by President Trump on Tuesday. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich thanked President Trump from Denver International Airport Tuesday before catching a flight back to Chicago following his release from prison — hours after Trump commuted his 14-year prison sentence for extortion, bribery and corruption.

What he's saying: "I'm profoundly grateful to President Trump and it's a profound and everlasting gratitude," said the former contestant on Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice," who was eight years into his sentence for crimes including seeking to sell an appointment to former President Obama's old Senate seat, to WGN-TV. "He didn't have to do this, he's a Republican president and I was a Democratic governor."

Go deeper: Trump pardons the swamp

CNN's Cooper scolds Blagojevich in heated exchange over criminal justice reform

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper grilled Rod Blagojevich, who had his prison sentence commuted by President Trump this week, when the former governor of Illinois said on air Friday evening that he supports criminal justice reform after his time in prison.

Why it matters: These heated interactions have grown more common on cable news "in an era of intense political polarization and in an administration defined in part by its overt hostility to the news media. Rarely does a host of Cooper’s stature use such blunt language to criticize a guest, and interviewees seldom respond in kind," the Washington Post writes.

Trump pardons former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr.

Edward DeBartolo, Jr. speaks during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech in 2016. Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

President Trump pardoned former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., a billionaire convicted in 1998 on gambling fraud charges, in a surprise decision on Tuesday, the AP reports.

The big picture: Under DeBartolo's ownership, the 49ers won five Super Bowls, establishing a dynasty during the 1980s and 1990s. He avoided prison time, but faced a $1 million fine and a yearlong NFL suspension — ultimately relinquishing control of the team to his sister, Denise York, in 2000.