But after a day of pushback from conservatives and the Illinois delegation of House Republicans, Trump was having second thoughts, people close to him said. On Thursday night, he said on Twitter that the matter was simply being reviewed.
White House officials had said the move could come as early as this week, but the president began to face mounting blowback given that Blagojevich’s crime has long been seen as the epitome of the kind of pay-to-play that Trump has claimed he wanted to stop when he took office.
Trump disclosed his initial plans aboard Air Force One on Wednesday after a day of highly critical news coverage that focused on the reception toward the president as he traveled to the sites of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 dead.
Describing the incriminating phone call in which Blagojevich, a Democrat, was taped discussing selling the seat as mostly a minor offense, Trump told reporters that it was something “many” politicians have done.
“I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly; he was given close to 18 years in prison,” Trump said. “And a lot of people thought it was unfair, like a lot of other things — and it was the same gang, the Comey gang and all these sleazebags that did it. And his name is Rod Blagojevich. And I’m thinking about commuting his sentence.”
The men have crossed paths before. Before reporting to federal prison in 2012, Blagojevich appeared on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” a spinoff of the reality TV show that Trump starred in for 14 seasons.
The president decided this week that he would commute the sentence, according to two people with knowledge of the talks, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser who has internally championed pardons and commutations, had suggested Blagojevich be pardoned, according to one administration official. Another official said that Kushner had merely favored a commutation. While Kushner said it would appeal to Democrats, this official said, he pointed to some high-profile figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who wrote a letter to the president supporting a commuted sentence and “a full pardon.”
Other aides told Trump that a pardon would be politically unwise given the nature of Blagojevich’s conviction; instead, commuting the sentence was what had been settled on, despite the lingering reservations of some aides.
In May 2018, Trump suggested that he was considering commuting Blagojevich’s sentence. A month later, official paperwork was filed requesting the commutation.
Speaking on the plane Wednesday, the president noted: “He’s been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens — over a phone call which he shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio you would say. I would think that there have been many politicians — I’m not one of them by the way — that have said a lot worse over the telephone.”
Trump referred to Blagojevich’s wife, Patti Blagojevich, who has personally appealed to the president on Fox News to relieve her husband’s prison term.
“His wife, I think, is fantastic, and I’m thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly. I think it’s enough, seven years,” Trump told reporters.
But Thursday, House Republicans from Illinois said in a statement to the president that commuting the sentence, given the charges involved, “sets a dangerous precedent and goes against the trust voters place in elected officials.”
They wrote, “It’s important that we take a strong stand against pay-to-play politics, especially in Illinois where four of our last eight governors have gone to federal prison for public corruption.”
Shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday, Trump issued remarks that were more muted than those aboard Air Force One: “Many people have asked that I study the possibility of commuting his sentence in that it was a very severe one,” he said. “White House staff is continuing the review of this matter.”
Aides had hoped to keep Trump from announcing such a move for as long as possible, the people briefed on the discussions said. Instead, the president, who often tries to shift the focus of the news media when he does not like its coverage of him, shared the possibility with reporters covering his trip Wednesday, days after two mass shootings over the weekend.
Blagojevich was captured on an FBI recording discussing the seat that Obama was about to vacate for the presidency. “I’ve got this thing, and it’s” golden, Blagojevich said, using an expletive. “I’m not just giving it up for” nothing, he added. He was impeached and removed from office, and ultimately convicted after his first trial ended in a mistrial.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.