Rod Blagojevich really wants to get out of prison. Since the former Illinois governor was sentenced to 14 years in prison on corruption-related charges in 2011, he’s pursued two appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices rejected his most recent attempt in April. Now he’s seeking a new path to freedom: a pardon from President Donald Trump.
Trump has shown no qualms about pardoning his conservative political allies since taking office. But wiping away the conviction of a disgraced Democrat convicted of soliciting bribes in exchange for a vacant Senate seat would be a tough sell for Trump, to say the least. So Blagojevich and his allies have embarked on a slick image-rehabilitation campaign to recast his corruption trial as a precursor to what Trump could face from special counsel Robert Mueller.
“Some in the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation are abusing their power to criminalize the routine practices of politics and government,” Blagojevich wrote last week in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “I learned the hard way what happens when an investigation comes up empty after the government has invested time, resources and manpower. When they can’t prove a crime, they create one.”
The deeply cynical strategy appears to be working. After pardoning conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza last week, Trump told reporters on Air Force One that he was mulling similar actions for Blagojevich and lifestyle doyenne Martha Stewart. There’s no guarantee that Trump will follow through, but Blagojevich has good reason to think his courtship of the president might work: Trump is the world’s most powerful rube, and everyone knows it.
Elected officials are supposed to be somewhat receptive and responsive to persuasion from outside sources. But Trump appears to be unusually suggestible for someone in his position. White House staffers often remark to reporters about how the president is most likely to take the side of the person with whom he last spoke. In one notable episode in January, Trump held a nationally televised White House summit on immigration where he tried to agree with each of the lawmakers present in turn. The result was a wildly contradictory set of stances on one of his core issues.
Chronicles of the Trump presidency have often described a West Wing that’s constantly trying to manage a president’s mercurial whims—and harness them to their own advantage. In the administration’s freewheeling early days, White House aides would try to curry favor and influence by passing along fake news to the president that would send him into a frenzy, or provide positive clippings that would buoy his mood. (John Kelly, the president’s second chief of staff, reportedly cracked down on this influence jockeying.) Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, likened the White House to an “adult day-care center” last year.
Other world leaders have also tried to manipulate Trump to their own ends. French President Emmanuel Macron successfully wooed his American counterpart with deferential displays of French grandeur, including a Bastille Day parade in Paris last year that Trump now hopes to emulate in Washington. Vox’s Zack Beauchamp noted that even adversarial leaders like China’s Xi Jinping managed to insulate their countries from Trump’s policies with a close personal relationship, and that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un could attempt similar maneuvers at the upcoming summit in Singapore.
All of this only works because Trump makes it so easy. He is not well read and appears to make little effort to become more informed about the world around him. He avoids in-depth preparation on foreign-policy matters, reportedly skipping the written presidential daily briefing for a simplified oral presentation. He campaigned without offering details about his policy programs and now shows little interest in them as president, even on major initiatives like health care and tax reform.
In theory, Trump sits atop the most expansive intelligence-gathering apparatus in history. As president, he could seek the counsel of virtually any living person with a single phone call. Instead he reportedly relies on a steady diet of Fox News broadcasts for information and a small coterie of longtime friends for advice. All of this makes Trump essentially the perfect mark: a man who’s easily flattered, short-tempered, quick to blame others, intellectually incurious, brimming with self-assurance, and unwilling to reflect on his own misjudgments.
That’s an extraordinary stroke of luck for Blagojevich, since any other president would probably have seen right through the ex-governor’s plea for mercy. Even a casual effort to scrutinize his claims shows their weakness. In the Journal op-ed, for example, Blagojevich offers an impressively misleading description of the case against him and the crimes for which he was convicted.
“The jury in my case was instructed to infer a quid pro quo even though no favors were offered or exchanged,” he wrote. “The prosecutor told the jurors that if they felt I’d had a belief, expectation or hope that I might receive a campaign contribution because of actions I took as governor, they had to convict me. It didn’t matter that no evidence existed that explicit promises had been made.” (Emphasis his.)
Blagojevich’s description makes it sound like he was somehow convicted of bribery even though no bribes or explicit promises for bribes were exchanged. That would indeed be odd. In reality, he was convicted of attempted extortion, attempted bribery, conspiracy to commit extortion, and conspiracy to solicit bribes, among other charges. It’s akin to suggesting you were wrongly convicted of murder when you’re serving a prison sentence for aggravated assault.
In 2015, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals also rejected what they described as Blagojevich’s “magic-words requirement” that an explicit promise be made to count as a corrupt bargain. “Few politicians say, on or off the record, ‘I will exchange official act X for payment Y,’” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote. “Similarly, persons who conspire to rob banks or distribute drugs do not propose or sign contracts in the statutory language. ‘Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you know what I mean’ can amount to extortion under the Hobbs Act, just as it can furnish the gist of a Monty Python sketch.”
That Blagojevich failed to successfully exchange his honest services as Illinois’s governor for cash and favors doesn’t make his behavior less corrupt. John Chase and Bob Secter, who covered the trials for The Chicago Tribune, noted last week that most of the evidence that felled him came from Blagojevich’s own comments in wiretapped conversations. “The portrait that emerged from that up-close observation was of a leader sublimely self-righteous, comically vain, untrustworthy, uninterested in the process of governing, unsophisticated in the arts of policy and deal making and not particularly discriminating in whose counsel he sought,” they wrote.
Aiding Blagojevich’s campaign is a sympathetic conservative media that’s defending Trump against Mueller’s investigation. If those overzealous prosecutors in the Justice Department would topple a Democratic governor of Illinois on dubious grounds, the logic goes, why wouldn’t they do the same thing to a Republican president? Blagojevich’s allies are more than willing to aid this narrative to free the ex-governor.
“It’s almost like Yogi Berra said: ‘It’s deja vu all over again,’” his wife Patti Blagojevich told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in early May. “Ten years ago, these same people—Comey, [former federal prosecutor Patrick] Fitzgerald, Mueller—used these out-of-control prosecutors and FBI agents [and] came after my husband with their unchecked power to undo an election by the people.”
There’s an irony of sorts to Trump being treated like a mark: He’s faced no shortage of allegations that he’s a swindler himself, first by his Republican rivals and then by his Democratic opponents. They often point to dubious business practices like Trump University, which faced a multi-state lawsuit, which Trump later paid $25 million to settle, for allegedly defrauding customers out of tens of thousands of dollars. There’s an old saying that you can’t con a con man, but Trump’s presidency is putting that aphorism to the test.