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Ex-Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich Is Among People Pardoned By Trump

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump granted clemency to 11 people, including the former Democratic governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who walked out of prison last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROD BLAGOJEVICH: He's got, obviously, a big fan in me. And if you're asking me what my party affiliation is, I'm a Trump-acrat (ph).

KING: The president cut short the 14-year term that Blagojevich got after he was convicted on several counts of political corruption. NPR's Cheryl Corley is following this one from Chicago.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: President Trump hinted in the past that he would consider taking some action when it came to Rod Blagojevich, saying that the former governor had been treated unfairly. It's a notion he stressed when he announced his decision to cut his sentence short.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So he'll be able to go back home with his family after serving eight years in jail. That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence, in my opinion.

CORLEY: The commutation ends a political saga that played out in Chicago for years. In 2008, federal prosecutors accused the then-governor of turning Illinois government into a moneymaking operation for himself, trying - among other things - to shake down a children's hospital and racetrack owners. They also charged him with trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat once held by former President Barack Obama. As evidence, they presented a profanity-filled Blagojevich telephone conversation secretly recorded by the FBI.

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BLAGOJEVICH: I mean, I've got this thing, and it's [expletive] golden. And I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing.

CORLEY: Blagojevich argued that he simply engaged in political horse-trading, and he went on a nationwide publicity tour to proclaim his innocence. In 2010, he appeared and was booted off Donald Trump's reality TV show, "Celebrity Apprentice."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CELEBRITY APPRENTICE")

TRUMP: And, Governor, I have great respect for you. I have great respect for your tenacity, for the fact that you just don't give up. But, Rod, you're fired.

CORLEY: But this time around, the president made clear that he saw similarities between the investigations into Blagojevich and his own impeachment. It's a comparison that the former governor's wife, Patti Blagojevich, made, too, as she appealed to the president for her husband's release on Fox TV and other outlets. Sam Adam Jr., an attorney for Blagojevich, says her influence was instrumental.

SAM ADAM JR: Under these circumstances, to see a father that is reunited with his two children, they can be in their lives, and then to have him home with Patti is thrilling to me.

CORLEY: Not so thrilled - former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and the lead prosecutors in the case. In a joint statement, they said despite the commutation, Blagojevich remains a felon, convicted of multiple acts of serious corruption, and there's evidence that the courts described as overwhelming. The state's current governor, J.B. Pritzker, said setting Blagojevich free was a mistake. And Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, agreed, saying the president was thumbing his nose at a valid court ruling.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: Undermining the rule of law, as he has repeatedly done, and unfortunately, a fear that he will continue to do throughout his term - it sends exactly the wrong message.

CORLEY: And many Republicans agree, including the state's GOP chairman, who said that in a state where corrupt machine-style politics is all too common, it's important that those found guilty serve their prison sentence in its entirety. Shortly after his release, talking to reporters, Blagojevich called the criminal justice system both broken and unfair.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.