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Blagojevich declares himself ‘a freed political prisoner,’ thanks Trump

Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted on corruption charges in 2011, thanked Trump on Feb. 19 for commuting his 14-year prison sentence. (Video: Reuters)
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CHICAGO — An unrepentant Rod Blagojevich expressed "everlasting gratitude" Wednesday to President Trump for commuting his 14-year prison sentence and declared himself "a freed political prisoner" as he spoke to reporters outside his home in Chicago.

“From the beginning to the end, this was persecution masquerading as prosecution,” the former Democratic governor of Illinois said of his legal ordeal, which resulted in a conviction on corruption charges in 2011 related to trying to sell President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat, among other campaign finance violations.

Blagojevich, who had been serving time in a federal correctional facility in Colorado, appeared alongside his wife and two daughters at a news conference in which he frequently dabbed his chin, explaining that he was bleeding from his first “normal” shave in about eight years.

“We want to express our most profound and everlasting gratitude to President Trump,” Blagojevich said, suggesting that the Republican president had nothing to gain politically by granting clemency to a Democrat.

Trump grants clemency to high-profile individuals, including Rod Blagojevich, Michael Milken and Bernard Kerik

Blagojevich, who quoted scripture and Martin Luther King Jr. at various points, described himself a “Trumpocrat” and said he would vote for Trump if he can — seemingly uncertain as to whether his time in prison would permit that.

Blagojevich was greeted by cheers of “Welcome home, governor!” and “love you.” A banner ran below the family’s front porch, signed by neighbors, saying, “Thank you Mr. President.” Reporters and TV cameras surrounded the house, and helicopters could be overheard on a 24-degree, sunny day.

Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, apologized for his tardiness, blaming it on her newly returned husband not being able to find his socks.

Trump on Tuesday pardoned or commuted the sentences of seven convicted white-collar criminals at the center of federal anti-corruption and tax fraud cases spanning decades, and an additional four women whose cases were not as well known. Others to benefit from the president’s clemency powers included convicted junk bond king Michael Milken and former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik.

Blagojevich was caught on FBI wiretaps talking about trying to sell Obama’s vacated Senate seat, saying it was a “valuable thing” and “you don’t just give it away for nothing.”

After he was indicted, but before he was convicted, Blagojevich was a contestant on Trump’s NBC reality show, “Celebrity Apprentice,” in 2010. Trump praised Blagojevich at the time for having “a lot of guts” to appear on the program.

Trump has used his sweeping clemency powers largely on behalf of high-profile offenders who have connections to him or his supporters.

But Trump had wavered over whether to commute Blagojevich’s sentence because Illinois Republicans in Congress were very much against it. He first mentioned it as a possibility in 2018, saying he believed the punishment was excessive.

He even polled a group of donors last year at Chicago fundraiser on whether he should grant Blagojevich clemency, people familiar with the event said.

If not for Trump’s intervention, Blagojevich was not set to be released until 2024. Instead, he went home Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, Blagojevich said he plans to draw upon his experiences to help people who’ve been wrongly incarcerated or given unduly harsh sentences.

“It is a broken criminal justice system, and it has been for a long time,” Blagojevich said, crediting Trump with doing more to fix it than other presidents.

Blagojevich, at times emotional, talked about his “long and unhappy journey” and the toll it took on his family.

His oldest daughter, Amy, now 23, graduated high school, attended Northwestern University and got a master’s degree in marketing while he was gone. His youngest daughter, Annie, was 8 when he left and is now driving, he said.

Blagojevich described his first prison cell as “cold and dark . . . like a tomb.” He said he was confined to 6-by-12-foot space in which he slept on the top bed of bunk beds. He recalled looking out a small window at night and thinking of his wife and children, saying to himself, “One day I will make it back to you.”

As Blagojevich spoke, Trump took to Twitter, writing: “He served 8 years in prison, with many remaining. He paid a big price.”

Wagner reported from Washington. Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.