IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump commutes sentence of former Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, pardons ex-NYPD commissioner Bernard Kerik

Blagojevich was released from federal prison after being sentenced to 14 years on corruption charges related to his solicitation of bribes in an attempt to "sell" Barack Obama's open Senate seat.
Image: Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich attends a press conference at Northern Illinois University on Feb. 15, 2008.
Rod Blagojevich, then the governor of Illinois, at a news conference at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb on Feb. 15, 2008.Amanda Rivkin / AFP via Getty Images file

President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he had commuted the prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached and removed from office in 2009 on corruption charges, and pardoned former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik.

A federal spokesman said Tuesday night that Blagojevich had been released and was no longer in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The news came hours after Trump signed an executive order granting a full pardon to former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. related to a decades-old corruption charge, one of nearly a dozen pardons and commutations the White House announced Tuesday.

Another big name on the list was that of Michael Milken, the former junk bond trader who pleaded guilty in 1990 to racketeering and securities fraud. The man who prosecuted Milken was one of the people who advocated for his pardon, according to the White House — Rudy Giuliani, one of the president's personal lawyers.

Giuliani also advocated for a pardon for Kerik, who was Giuliani's hand-picked police commissioner when he was mayor of New York. Kerik was sentenced in 2010 to four years in prison after pleading guilty to eight felony charges, including tax fraud.

Blagojevich, 63, was sentenced in 2011 to 14 years in federal prison on corruption charges related to his solicitation of bribes in an attempt to "sell" the Senate seat Barack Obama left open after he was elected president.

Trump, who has repeatedly floated the idea of pardoning Blagojevich, told reporters that he had received "a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence."

"He served eight years in jail, a long time," Trump told reporters at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. "I don't know him very well. I met him a couple of times. He was on for a short while on 'The Apprentice' some years ago. He seems like a very nice person. I don't know him."

Trump said "many people" thought the sentence was unfair. "He'll be able to go back home to his family," he added.

Blagojevich, a Democrat, had been at the low-security Federal Correctional Institute in Englewood, Colorado. He'd been a contestant on Trump's reality TV show "The Celebrity Apprentice" in 2010.

The president said in August that he was "very strongly" considering giving Blagojevich a reprieve.

"I'm thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly," Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One then.

"He's been in jail for seven years, over a phone call where nothing happens ... over a phone call where, you know, 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 telephones," he added.

In one wiretapped phone call, Blagojevich said of Obama's Senate seat: "I've got this thing and it's f------ golden. And I'm just not giving it up for f------ nothing."

The current Democratic governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, took to Twitter to blast the pardon.

"President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time," Pritzker tweeted.

Prosecutors said Blagojevich and others working for him began "a pattern of racketeering activity" soon after he took office in 2002, using the powers of the governorship in "exchange for financial benefits for themselves and others."

He was arrested in late 2008 on allegations that he had tried to profit from selling off Obama's open Senate seat, and he was impeached in January 2009 after he refused to resign.

Blagojevich was convicted in federal court in Chicago later that year on one of 24 felony counts — lying to the FBI about the extent of his involvement in campaign fundraising. Jurors deadlocked on the other counts.

At his 2011 retrial, he was convicted of three separate shakedown attempts — one involving a children's hospital, one involving a racetrack and one involving the Senate seat.

In between his trials, he tried to rehabilitate his image and signed up as a contestant on "The Celebrity Apprentice" in 2010. He was "fired" after four episodes after bungling a Harry Potter presentation.

Kerik, who was New York City's police commissioner during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2010 for offenses including failure to pay taxes and lying to the White House during his scuttled nomination to be secretary of homeland security.

Kerik tweeted a message of thanks after news of his pardon broke, writing that there "are no words to express my appreciation and gratitude to President Trump."

Among those who advocated for Kerik's pardon was Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murder in the death of a wounded ISIS prisoner but was convicted of posing for a picture with the dead prisoner's body. Kerik had worked as an adviser and advocate for Gallagher, whom Trump ordered restored to his previous rank after his conviction.

In the years since his release, Kerik has become a frequent presence on Fox News, where he has been a strong defender of the president. Besides Giuliani, two other Fox News personalities, Andrew Napolitano and Geraldo Rivera, had advocated for Kerik's pardon, the White House said.

The president's favorite TV channel also has a connection to Milken's pardon. Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo was one of Milken's advocates, as was Fox News and Fox Business owner Rupert Murdoch. Republican megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson also supported the bid, as did Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

A statement from White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham cited Milken's philanthropic work since his release, saying he "has been particularly influential in the fight against prostate cancer and has been credited with saving many lives."

Milken, who had been seeking a presidential pardon since Bill Clinton was in the White House, said he and his wife, Lori, "along with our children and grandchildren, are very grateful to the president. We look forward to many more years of pursuing our efforts in medical research, education and public health."

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

In 2018, in the weeks after he pardoned the conservative provocateur Dinesh D'Souza, Trump said he had been "thinking about" pardoning Blagojevich. Trump told reporters in May 2018 that Blagojevich had received a long sentence "for being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say" and that "he was treated unfairly."

The remarks were likely a reference to what Blagojevich was recorded saying on secret federal wiretaps about his authority to appoint someone to Obama's open Senate seat.

Blagojevich has argued that he was a victim of federal prosecutors run amok — an allegation that Trump himself levied at former special counsel Robert Mueller's team, which investigated the president and Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"Under the legal arguments that prosecutors used to convict me, all fundraising can be viewed as bribery," Blagojevich wrote in a 2018 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, which was widely viewed as a personal appeal to Trump for clemency.

Democrats — including Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and former Attorney General Eric Holder — have said in the past that they'd support efforts by Trump to commute Blagojevich's sentence.

Trump has issued numerous pardons and commutations.

In addition to the pardons Tuesday and in 2018 for D'Souza, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to violating campaign finance laws, Trump has pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who is a favorite of immigration hard-liners; I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted of obstructing justice and lying to authorities during an investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity; Kristian Mark Saucier, a sailor who kept classified materials; and Jack Johnson, the African American boxing legend who was convicted under a law that was used as a deterrent to interracial dating.

Trump also commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who was serving life in prison on drug charges, after reality TV star Kim Kardashian West lobbied the president in an Oval Office meeting to intervene.

Johnson, who was featured in Trump's Super Bowl campaign ad, paid it forward; she advocated for three of the commutations the White House announced Tuesday. The recipients, Tynice Nichole Hall, Crystal Munoz and Judith Negron, were all serving long prison sentences for nonviolent offenses.

In addition, Trump has hinted at pardoning the lifestyle and home merchandise mogul Martha Stewart, who was convicted in 2004 on charges related to insider stock trading and was sentenced to five months in prison.