Op-Ed: Trump honestly thinks Blagojevich did nothing wrong. That’s terrifying

People assume Donald Trump commuted Rod Blagojevich’s sentence and pardoned former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo, ex-NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik, junk bond king Michael Milken and lobbyist David Safavian because they granted him political favors. Or because they were his friends. Or because he loves white men. Or because he fears jail is unsafe for people with funny last names.

But Trump was simply doing what he thought was right.

Blagojevich is not even a member of Trump’s party. He’s a Democrat, and members of both parties hate him, so there’s not much political gain in freeing him. There was also no advantage for Trump to tweet on Feb. 8 that Pete Rose, who was thrown out of baseball for gambling, should be in the Hall of Fame. But Trump’s overriding belief is that cheating is irrelevant. What matters is winning. This is the ethos of New York real estate, multilevel marketing, reality television and all of his marriages.

Trump believes these men did what everyone else does. They just got caught. Sure, they broke the law, but everyone speeds. Everyone leaves the cash they were paid off their tax forms. Everyone tells a children’s hospital that funding will be cut off if their CEO doesn’t contribute $50,000 to his campaign, which is what Blagojevich did. Everyone would try to get some cash if they got to appoint a senator after Barack Obama left his seat to become president, which is what Blagojevich tried to do.

Selling political appointments, Trump is certain, happens all the time. He first floated the idea of commuting Blagojevich’s prison term in 2018, when he told reporters “plenty of other politicians have said a lot worse.” He was speaking of FBI recordings in which Blagojevich said Obama’s Senate seat was “a f— valuable thing. You just don’t give it away for nothing.”

George McGovern was beloved by young, idealistic Democrats, and he lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon. Take note, Bernie Sanders supporters.


Trump believes that the only reason people are prosecuted for corruption is that corrupt politicians on the opposing side are picking on them for their own gain. As Blagojevich wrote in a 2018 Wall Street Journal column, “I’m in prison for practicing politics. When they can’t prove a crime, they create one.” After Trump commuted his sentence, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro tweeted her approval, writing, “Political persecutions have no place in this country.”

But selling political offices for money is not something American officials do all the time, not even in Chicago.

The notion that America is corrupt is both widely accepted and widely wrong. In 2015, we were the 16th least corrupt out of 176 countries, but in Gallup polling, 75% of Americans said corruption in our government was “widespread.” That’s a dangerous sign. Once people assume corruption is widespread, they stop objecting to each incident. Soon we’ll actually become one of the 100 most corrupt countries, where the government acts like the mafia, requiring you to pay off cops, bribe inspectors and play a vastly inferior version of the lottery.

Acting jaded about corruption and lying seems brave, authentic and worldly, but it’s merely the lie kids tell to justify insane demands. It’s the “all my friends are allowed to play Fortnite” of debate tactics.

Jimmy Carter warned about this in his “crisis of confidence” speech in 1979. “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”

But the path to fragmentation and self-interest is a useful one for the strong men trampling democracy around the globe. If everyone is corrupt, you go with the toughest corrupt guy on your team.

In his first debate appearance, Michael Bloomberg will face tough questions on his record as former mayor of New York City and as a media company owner.

Last week, I went to the Nixon Library because my father was visiting and we’d already gone to the Reagan Library, and L.A. doesn’t have an Every Fact He Ever Read and Needs to Tell Me About Library, other than the actual library, which was not an option because it discourages loud, constant talking.

Even though he’s a Democrat, my dad enjoyed pointing out that all the presidents starting with Franklin Roosevelt secretly recorded their White House conversations. He also talked about how lots of other presidents used dirty tricks to win elections. In fact, John Kennedy hired a prankster political consultant named Dick Tuck, whose real name was Dick Tuck, demonstrating that his parents were even better at pranks than he was.

My dad is an intelligent, happy, optimistic man who nevertheless believes that everyone will exploit any advantage to get more power. In fact, he admires people who figure out how to get away with things.

His worldview, the one Carter warned us about, is now dominant. In 1960, 58% of Americans believed “most people can be trusted,” but by 2014, that number dropped by nearly half. And in a Pew Research Center poll last year, 58% of respondents said that people “would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance.” To believe in altruism is now considered naive. We see the world as an episode of “The Sopranos.”

The first step the next president should take in ending our culture of corruption is to ask for a constitutional amendment to get rid of the presidential pardon. Releasing people from prison for no reason is the flip side of putting people in prison for no reason. It’s an undemocratic power that came from kings. Plus it would mean ending that stupid animal rights charade we put up with every Thanksgiving. Those turkeys clearly knew somebody high up somewhere.

Joel Stein is the author of “In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You And You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book.”