Leading elected Illinois Republicans recoiled Thursday at the prospect that President Donald Trump would commute disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s 14-year prison sentence and warned it could put the GOP in a deeper hole in trying to fight one-party Democratic control of the state in next year’s elections.
Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs said that in considering relief for the former Democratic governor, the Republican president was acting out of his own political self-interest and was attempting to make Blagojevich a “folk hero” while continuing to grind a personal ax against a federal Justice Department that investigated Trump and his former 2016 campaign.
And in Washington, the five GOP members of the state’s congressional delegation issued a joint statement saying a Trump commutation would set a “dangerous precedent and goes against the trust voters place in elected officials.”
The statement was signed by GOP Reps. Darin LaHood of Dunlap, John Shimkus of Collinsville, Rodney Davis of Taylorville, Mike Bost of Murphysboro, and the Chicago area’s only Republican congressman, Adam Kinzinger of Channahon.
The statements came after Trump on Wednesday night told reporters aboard Air Force One that he was “very strongly” considering issuing a commutation to Blagojevich, who is scheduled to be released from federal prison in 2024.
As he did just over a year ago, though he took no action then, the president said Blagojevich, a former contestant on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” TV show, had been unfairly sentenced for displaying “braggadocio” in a secretly recorded government tape.
“I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly,” Trump said.
Blagojevich served as governor from 2003, was re-elected in 2006 despite a swirl of federal investigations, and was impeached and removed from office in 2009.
He was convicted in December 2011 and sentenced to 14 years on corruption charges, including offering the former U.S. Senate seat of then-President-elect Barack Obama in return for a prosperous job or campaign funds and of attempting to shake down executives from a children’s hospital and the horse-racing industry for campaign contributions in exchange for official acts in office.
In response to Trump’s comments, leading elected Republicans in the state sharply criticized the GOP president’s consideration of commuting Blagojevich’s sentence to time served in a Colorado federal prison.
“It’s a Republican president who’s going to provide executive relief to a disgraced, corrupt former Democratic governor,” said Durkin, who was the lead GOP member in the decade-old House impeachment proceedings.
“When you have these actions at the top of the ticket, that come right home here in Illinois … people are going to question Republicans up and down. It just doesn’t help our jobs,” Durkin, a former prosecutor, said.
Releasing Blagojevich, Durkin said, sends “the wrong message nationally, but here in Illinois it’s particularly sad about what that means about the integrity of our jury system and what this president thinks about the state of Illinois.”
Durkin’s counterpart in the Illinois Senate, Senate GOP leader Bill Brady of Bloomington, said he believed Trump recognizes “the pain” Blagojevich caused to his family, “however, based on the evidence we were presented during our successful impeachment proceedings, and then at his subsequent fair trial, I believe the sentence should stand.”
Among Democrats, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the state’s senior senator and the No. 2 ranking Democrat in the chamber, last year supported a commutation for Blagojevich. He called Blagojevich’s sentence “outrageous” and added, “if there is a way to reduce that sentence for him and his family, I would support it.”
But Pritzker told reporters at the opening of the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, that Blagojevich should serve his time.
“You know, I think President Trump has some pretty important things he ought to be dealing with. Not the least of which is these mindless killings over the past week, and gun safety, I wish he’d focus on that,” Pritzker said. “Gov. Blagojevich should remain in prison.”
Chicago Tribune’s Jamie Munks contributed from Springfield and Gregory Pratt contributed to this story.
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