Blagojevich praises, endorses Trump as justice reformer

National

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tries to get into his house as he arrives home in Chicago on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, after his release from Colorado prison late Tuesday. Blagojevich walked out of prison Tuesday after President Donald Trump cut short the 14-year prison sentence handed to the former Illinois governor for political corruption. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO (AP) — Former Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich gushed about Donald Trump a day after the Republican president set him free from a federal prison, delivering a 20-minute monologue Wednesday outside his Chicago home that sounded like an extended campaign commercial.

Standing before a crowd of more than 100 reporters and well-wishers at the steps of his house, the governor-turned-convicted felon even offered an endorsement of Trump’s bid for a second term.

“I’m a Trumpocrat,” said the one-time contestant on Trump’s reality TV show, “Celebrity Apprentice.” “If I had the ability to vote, I would vote for him.”

Felons in Illinois can vote once they leave prison, though they have to register again, according to the state Board of Elections.

The carnival feel of his first scheduled press event since going free included a giant photo of Blagojevich’s head, which the two-term governor signed for the person holding it. A banner draped over a stoop behind Blagojevich read, “Thanks Mr. President.” One man in the crowd wore a rubber Blagojevich mask and hoisted the former governor’s 2006 campaign sign.

Blagojevich, flanked by his wife and two daughters, effusively praised Trump after he commuted his 14-yearsentence after serving eight years. He cast the president as a reformer of a flawed criminal justice system.Trump did sign a sweeping criminal justice bill in 2018 that was praised by lawmakers and advocates of all political stripes. But critics have said Trump has undermined the justice system, including most recently by weighing in on the sentencing of his longtime confidant Roger Stone.

Blagojevich, 63, once was regarded as a rising political star for his Bill Clinton-like ability to connect with voters, but he has been radioactive in Illinois political circles for years. Political analysts in the state sounded doubtful that candidates would get much of a boost from the disgraced ex-governor hitting the campaign trail for them.

“Maybe Trump might,” said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and a respected political analyst. “But every other candidate in Illinois will run as fast as they can away from Blagojevich. … Most candidates don’t want to be endorsed by the poster child of corruption.”

Although there was no indication Trump would recruit him, Blagojevich as governor was comparatively popular in black communities — a constituency Trump recently has been courting.

Simpson, the political analyst, said some minorities might be open to political messages from Blagojevich, who helped expand health care coverage to more children. “But it’s a very small group,” he said.

Now that Blagojevich is out of prison, there was little sign of change in him other than his trademark jet-black hair turning white behind bars. Outside his home, the poetry-quoting Blagojevich demonstrated not even a hint of remorse for the multiple counts of political corruption jurors convicted him on.

Blagojevich took no questions after his remarks Wednesday, in which he echoed Trump by portraying himself as a victim of a federal justice system run amok.

“From the beginning,” he said about his case, “this was persecution masquerading as prosecution.”

Prosecutors and federal judges who have reviewed Blagojevich’s case have balked at those suggestions, which Blagojevich began making almost immediately after his arrest. They say there was overwhelming evidence that Blagojevich broke the law, including trying to squeeze a children’s hospital for campaign donations.

In a tweet he fired off while Blagojevich was still speaking in Chicago Wednesday, Trump hit on the same themes. As he has done before, Trump compared efforts to investigate his own conduct to federal prosecutors who took down Blagojevich.

Trump’s tweet described Blagojevich’s case as, “Another (James) Comey and gang deal!”

“It was a prosecution by the same people — Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group,” Trump also said earlier in the week. He was referring to Patrick Fitzgerald, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich and now represents former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired from the agency in May 2017. Comey was not at the FBI or anywhere in the Department of Justice during the investigation and indictment of Blagojevich.

Trump’s tweet also alluded to Blagojevich’s convictions for seeking to exchange an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by then President-elect Barack Obama for campaign contributions.

“Rod Blagojevich did not sell the Senate seat,” Trump tweeted.

Prosecutors have said, however, that they decided to arrest then-Gov. Blagojevich at his home on the morning of Dec. 9, 2008, so they could stop him before he could actually commit that crime.

A political science professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Jaime Dominguez, agreed that if Blagojevich could help Trump’s reelection bid any such help would be minimal.

“Blagojevich’s complaints could possibly resonate with Trump’s base about there being a deep state out to get … Blagojevich and Trump, that (federal prosecutors) go after people who speak their minds,” he said.

During the press event, Blagojevich continually dabbed a cut on his chin with a handkerchief as he spoke, apologizing for bleeding and explaining it was a consequence of living behind bars.

“It is a long time since I shaved with a normal razor,” Blagojevich said.

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Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mtarm

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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