Why Trump freed the jailed Democrat Rod Blagojevich – the true story behind Netflix’s Trial by Media

Brand new Netflix series Trial by Media has put the spotlight back on Rod Blagojevich

Trial by Media

Rod Blagojevich is a journalist’s dream. That’s exactly the problem new docu-series Trial by Media sets out to explore.

Advertisement

The disgraced former politician is the centre of an episode in Netflix’s latest foray into the true crime world.

RadioTimes.com sifts through the facts to bring you the true story of Blagojevich, his flamboyant celebrity presence, his sweeping media influence, and how a TV stint with Donald Trump led to a life-changing decision in 2020.

Blagojevich’s colourful upbringing ranged from a short amateur boxing career in Northside Chicago to training at law school in Malibu, California. By the time the 90s rolled around, he had started his rise to the top.

The Democrat climbed the ladder from prosecutor to federal legislator. In 1997 he travelled out to war-torn Yugoslavia to negotiate the release of American prisoners of war with President Slobodan Milosevic, thus was the range of his activities before landing the Governor of Illnois role in 2002.

Blagojevich’s slogan “ending business as usual” would prove to be correct, though perhaps not in ways he would anticipate by the end of his political career. He crept beyond Republican opponent Jim Ryan with 52 per cent of the vote. Despite a turbulent first term and tumbling approval ratings, Blagojevich was the Democrats’ man of choice ahead of the next election, endorsed by a host of leaders including then-Illnois Senator Barack Obama in 2005.

Several of the governor’s associates were involved in corruption trials during the campaign, though Blagojevich’s team spent a whopping $26 million in a bid for re-election, compared to Republican Judy Baar Topinka’s campaign which cost a relatively tiny $6 million. Blagojevich steamrolled his way through the election.

He signed off on numerous progressive legislation including death penalty reform, bans on smoking, laws prohibiting discrimination against sexual orientation in employment and he also pushed for stricter gun control. He garnered huge popularity for a time, and his style – both in politics and fashion – captured plenty of media attention. He would jokingly insist his aides carried a hairbrush known as the ‘football’, an allusion to the nuclear football launch codes never to be out of reach for a sitting president.

Then came the arrest.

Blagojevich was charged with corruption in 2008. He was allegedly involved in several “pay to play” schemes “to obtain personal gain… through the corrupt use” of his authority to replace Obama as senator following his election as president. Blagojevich was alleged to have been recorded expressing demands in exchange for an appointment to the position. Pay to play. US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald described the situation as an auction – the highest bidder would effectively land the senator role.

Trial by Media

An FBI taping of Blagojevich picked up his words: “I’ve got this thing, and it’s ****ing golden. I’m just not giving it up for ****ing nothing.”

A month after his arrest, Blagojevich embarked on a media tour of Today, Good Morning America and The Early Show to name a selection in a bid to raise his profile and sway public opinion. He was everywhere. News stands bore his image, TV screens beamed his defensive interviews, Blagojevich was big news.

Two days after his TV stints, late in January 2009, he was removed from office and banned for life from running for a post in Illnois again. Two votes were held, both returned with 59-0 results unanimously in favour of ridding him from the seat.

It wasn’t the end of Blagojevich in the public eye. In a quest to find money, he tried to cut a deal to feature on the US edition of I’m A Celebrity! Get Me Out Of Here! but travel restrictions barred him from travelling to Costa Rica. His wife Patricia was signed up instead.

He quickly struck out with a book deal, performances in an amateur dramatics group with a performance named Rod Blagojevich Superstar, he anchored a radio talk show, appeared at Comic Con, featured in Esquire, the list simply goes on, all while awaiting a formal trial. The Esquire interview landed Blagojevich in even hotter water after claiming to be “blacker than” Obama due to his blue collar, working class background, a term which he quickly sought to retract.

Blagojevich landed a place on The Celebrity Apprentice, the show being hosted and produced by Trump at the time. The now-president was full of praise for Blagojevich, commending his “tremendous courage and guts”. His stint lasted just four episodes, but little did he know, he had pocketed a literal Get Out Of Jail card.

His trial began in April 2009 with most charges revolving around the glitzy headline that he was ready to auction off Obama’s vacated senator position. On 17th August 2010, 23 of the 24 federal charges were struck off as a mistrial following disagreement of charges on the jury, though within 15 minutes, a retrial was ordered for just six days later.

By this point the media storm was whipped into a frenzy, the personality, the charisma, the story, the man, the trial had everything. In 2011, the ordeal drew to a close with Blagojevich found guilty on 17 of 20 charges, including guilty verdicts on all counts relating to the Senate seat among other issues. He was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison, starting in March 2012.

Blagojevich would have been eligible to apply for early release in March 2024, but for his Get Out Of Jail card…

In February 2020, President Trump announced that Blagojevich’s sentence would be commuted – in essence, shortened.

He told the media: “I don’t know him very well, I’ve met him a couple of times, he was on for a short time on The Apprentice years ago, seemed like a very nice person, don’t know him, but he served eight years in jail, there’s a long time to go.” Reports claim Trump donated personal funds to Blagojevich’s original 2002 governor election campaign.

Trump went on to tweet: “Rod Blagojevich did not sell the Senate seat. He served 8 years in prison, with many remaining. He paid a big price. Another Comey and gang deal!”

Technically he was correct, Blagojevich failed to sell the senate seat as he was caught before he could find a ‘buyer’. His insinuation that Blagojevich was framed as part of a plot by former FBI chief James Comey is not a widely supported view due to the fact that Comey was never assigned to the case.

Now a self-professing ‘Trumpocrat’, Blagojevich whipped up another media circus upon his release: “I’m returning home today from a long exile a freed political prisoner.

“I want to say again to the people of Illinois who twice elected me governor: I didn’t let you down. I would have let you down if I gave in to this. But resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”

Donald Trump (Getty, EH)
Donald Trump (Getty, EH)

In another interview he claimed: “This is the larger fight that is before all of us as Americans. Some of these same people again have tried to do at the Major League-level to a Republican president what they were able successfully to do to a Democratic governor.

“They are threatening to take away from all of us our rights to choose our own leaders through free and fair elections.”

We’ll leave the final words to former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer who worked on the case at the time. In response to Blagojevich and Trump’s claims, he said: “Everyone is trying to morph those facts. These prosecutors who investigated and convicted Blagojevich have been out of the US Department of Justice for about 10 years.

Advertisement

“When you have to go through these legal gymnastics, maybe the best answer is the most simple one, which is Rod Blagojevich is the poster child for public corruption in Illinois. And that is a pretty high bar.”

Trial by Media will be available to stream on Netflix from 11th May. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.