CHICAGO, Ill. – When Patti Blagojevich made repeated public pleas for her husband's release from federal prison, there was no mistaking her intended audience: President Donald Trump.
For nearly two years, the wife of disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich made Trump's own travails, including special counsel Robert Mueller's long Russia investigation and Trump's impeachment, the centerpiece of the strategy to free her husband.
Appearing on Fox News — the one network she knew Trump watched religiously — she was careful to say not only that her husband was being mistreated, but that he was being mistreated in the same way Trump complained about being treated, and by the same cast of characters.
Those lobbying efforts that began in 2018 came to fruition Tuesday, when Trump commuted her husband's 14-year prison sentence, allowing him to return home after serving eight years behind bars.
“I see these same people who did this to my family, these same people that secretly taped us and twisted the facts and perverted the law that ended with my husband in jail. These same people are trying to do the same thing ... just on a much larger scale,” she said during a May 2018 Fox News broadcast. “They were emboldened. They took down a governor and now they've got their sights much higher.”
Patti Blagojevich's campaign began soon after her husband lost a string of legal appeals that seemed to doom him to remain behind bars until his projected 2024 release date. His wife, who comes from an influential family of Chicago Democrats, soon went on a media blitz to encourage Trump to step in. She flattered and heaped praise on the president and likened the case against her husband to the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — a probe Trump long characterized as a “witch hunt.”
Using many of the same words that Trump tweeted and said, she threw out names, including former FBI Director James Comey and former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who oversaw Blagojevich's prosecution. She also mentioned Mueller, the former FBI director who was appointed to investigate the president, and described the investigation into her husband as an attempt to to “undo an election by the people.”
Comey was not FBI director when Blagojevich was prosecuted. Mueller was. And Fitzgerald was not involved in the Trump probe. But as Fox viewers were reminded, Fitzgerald and Comey are close.
Patti Blagojevich appeared on a program where Fox host Laura Ingraham compared the “predawn raid” that resulted in Rod Blagojevich's arrest to similar raids at the homes of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Dave McKinney, a reporter for Chicago public radio station WBEZ who hosted a 2019 podcast about Rod Blagojevich called “Public Official A,” said he does not doubt that Patti Blagojevich was pursuing a strategy that she and the former governor discussed during their many phone conversations.
“I think they had a very simple approach to try to get to Trump, and the easiest path was to go through his news channel of choice,” McKinney said.
The couple eventually learned that their quest for backing from the White House had started to pay off. Following one of her television appearances, Trump tweeted about “how brave Patty Blagojevich is,” McKinney said.
At one point, Trump told reporters on Air Force One that he thought Rod Blagojevich had spent “enough” time behind bars and called his wife “one hell of a woman.”
Trump's sympathy seemed to build. The president said repeatedly over many months that he was considering taking executive action in Blagojevich's case, only to back away from the idea. Until Tuesday.
Blagojevich had made sure that his daughters and the fact that he was missing much of their childhoods were a big part of his plea for leniency. They spoke in court. Camera crews captured them crying.
Trump talked about the couple's children after his clemency decision.
“They're growing older. They're going to high school now,” the president said. “They rarely get to see their father outside of an orange uniform. I saw that, and I did commute his sentence.”
Robert Grant, the former FBI agent in charge of the Chicago office during the Blagojevich investigation, also recognized the effectiveness of including the children in the family's appeal.
“There's probably someone in the same prison system as Rod Blagojevich who's also got a wife and who's also got children, but he doesn't have the benefit of being a celebrity on Fox News,” Grant said on Chicago radio station WGN.
One question now is what Trump hopes to gain from securing the freedom of a man who became a national laughingstock after his 2008 arrest and the release of now-infamous tapes in which he can be heard hatching various schemes, including one in which he sought to sell an appointment to Barack Obama's Senate seat after Obama was elected president.
One of the first things Blagojevich did upon his release from prison was to declare himself a "Trumpocrat.”
“If I had the ability to vote," he told reporters Wednesday in front of his Chicago home, "I would vote for him.”