Host Anderson Cooper grew increasingly agitated as the disgraced former Democratic governor of Illinois continued to paint himself as the victim. At the end of an acrimonious 12-minute interview Friday night, his frustration boiled over.
“You got out. You do have an obligation to at least admit what you did wrong,” Cooper told Blagojevich. “And you refused to do that, and you’re creating a whole new alternate universe of facts."
“And that may be big in politics today,” he added, “but it’s still, frankly, just bullshit.”
“It’s not bullshit. I lived it myself,” Blagojevich protested. “It’s not bullshit at all.”
Fiery exchanges and over-the-top rhetoric have become staples of cable news debates 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.
Blagojevich, who now calls himself a “Trumpocrat,” was convicted on corruption charges for trying in 2008 to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat and for shaking down a children’s hospital for campaign contributions. His refusal to express regret for those crimes, and his repeated insistence that he was persecuted for doing his job, rankled Cooper.
“Since you’ve been out, and the statements you’ve made, you’ve shown no remorse for the crimes you were convicted by a jury of, and you’re portraying yourself as a victim of persecution by prosecutors,” Cooper said at the beginning of the interview. “Just about everyone who has actually looked at the evidence against has said that is just false.”
“Well I don’t think they’ve looked carefully, as I am a political prisoner,” Blagojevich said. “I was put in prison for practicing politics.”
Cooper was taken aback by the claim.
“Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner,” Cooper said of the South African anti-apartheid leader who spent nearly three decades in prison. “Political prisoners have no due process and are unjustly jailed. You had a jury convict you. You had appeals courts look at your sentencing, and you even appealed to the Supreme Court twice, and they refused to hear you. So you are hardly a political prisoner.”
Blagojevich pushed back, saying Mandela “would say what I’m saying today.”
Cooper, who has reported from South Africa, called the assertion “offensive” and “just nuts.”
From there, Blagojevich attacked the prosecutors in his case, baselessly claiming that they duped jurors into convicting him. He likened the investigation to a “dirty cop planting a murder weapon to frame an innocent man.”
Blagojevich was convicted after being caught on FBI wiretaps discussing how he wanted to sell Obama’s vacated seat. It was a “valuable thing” and “you don’t just give it away for nothing,” he said in the recordings.
The conversation with Cooper also turned to Blagojevich’s pledge to advocate for criminal justice reform now that he’s out of prison. Cooper pointed out, as others have, that Blagojevich let clemency petitions languish while he was governor, taking action on less than 25 percent of the requests that crossed his desk. His successor inherited a backlog of roughly 3,000 petitions.
“It’s a little ironic and, frankly, a little sad and pathetic and hypocritical,” Cooper said. “You ignored a whole hell of a lot of people who were hoping you would give them clemency when you actually mattered.”
“That’s among my biggest regrets,” Blagojevich said in a brief moment of contrition. Then he again turned the focus on himself: “I didn’t know how corrupt the criminal justice system was until they did it to me.”
As recently as a few years ago, Cooper might have gotten in trouble for calling “bullshit” on a person whom he was interviewing. In 2015, his fellow anchor Don Lemon apologized on-air for quoting someone who had used the vulgar expression.
There was nothing of the sort after Cooper’s exchange with Blagojevich went viral Friday night. A post from his Twitter account read: “Things got a little heated.”
Reis Thebault contributed to this report.