There are times when Donald Trump tries to distract us from his criminal scandals by doing something horrible and dangerous, such as targeting members of Congress with racist rhetoric, and we feel compelled to comment on it. There are other times when Trump tries to distract us from his criminal scandals by simply saying random stupid things, and – unless we need the catharsis of making fun of him for it – we try not to lose the plot.
When it comes to Donald Trump’s sudden threat to commute the prison sentence of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, it would be easy to write it off as a mere attempt at a cheap distraction. In general, the more time we spend talking about why Trump might go through with doing something weird, the less we talk about Trump’s criminal scandals. But there may be something a little different at play here.
Yes, Trump and Blagojevich have a shared personal history from The Apprentice. But there’s more at play here. Rod Blagojevich is arguably the most famous example in modern history of a high ranking elected official going to prison for the felony corruption he committed while in office. Now that it’s become clear that Trump will be criminally charged and put on trial as soon as he’s no longer in office, there’s a lot at stake here.
If Donald Trump can convince the public that Rod Blagojevich’s fourteen year prison sentence is far too harsh for the crimes he committed while in office, Trump might be able to set the precedent – at least in the court of public opinion – that he shouldn’t face a harsh prison sentence for the crimes that Trump has committed while in the Oval Office.
If this sounds like a stretch, consider that it now appears to be part of a larger pattern. Donald Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio in 2017, which most people assumed was due strictly to their personal relationship. But consider that Arpaio was on his way to being convicted for contempt of court – something that Trump could also end up charged with once the impeachment process reaches the point where he begins trying to defy court orders.
Donald Trump isn’t just pardoning and commuting the sentences of his friends. He’s trying to lay the groundwork for the argument that elected officials shouldn’t go to prison for committing crimes like contempt of court and financial fraud while in office. Trump’s threat to commute the sentence of Rod Blagojevich may be more than just a random distraction. It may in fact be part of Trump’s admittedly flaky plan for trying to get himself off the hook when his time comes.