Donald Trump extended clemency to several high-profile white-collar criminals on Tuesday, commuting the sentence of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and pardoning others including financier Michael Milken.
Mr Milken, known as the “junk bond king”, was sentenced in 1990 to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to racketeering and securities fraud charges. He ultimately served 22 months in jail, after co-operating with federal investigators. The Securities and Exchange Commission permanently barred Mr Milken from securities trading, and the financier has spent the three decades working as a prominent philanthropist.
Mr Milken’s pardon was backed by a gaggle of high-profile figures in politics, media and finance, according to the White House. They included: Sheldon Adelson, the Republican donor; Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul; Elaine Chao, the US transport secretary; Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump’s personal attorney; David Rubenstein, chairman of The Carlyle Group; and Sean Parker, the Facebook investor.
Mr Milken said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon that he and his wife, Lori, were “very grateful to the president”.
Mr Blagojevich, a Democrat, was impeached and removed from office for corruption in 2009. He was later convicted by a federal jury on 17 counts of bribery, wire fraud, attempted extortion and conspiracy, and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Mr Trump told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that he had commuted Mr Blagojevich’s sentence, saying: “He served eight years in jail, a long time.
“He seems like a very nice person, don’t know him,” the president added, although Mr Blagojevich had appeared as a contestant in 2010 on the Celebrity Apprentice television programme, which Mr Trump hosted.
Some of the charges against Mr Blagojevich related to him looking for money in exchange for an appointment to replace Barack Obama in the US Senate. Mr Obama, who was the junior US senator from Illinois from 2005 to 2008, vacated his seat when he was elected president.
The Blagojevich case was part of a long-running drive by federal prosecutors to clean up Chicago’s notoriously corrupt politics.
Commuting Mr Blagojevich’s 14-year prison sentence means the former governor will be released from jail, but his criminal record will not be expunged.
Mr Blagojevich had been prosecuted by Patrick Fitzgerald, who was the US attorney in Chicago at the time. Mr Fitzgerald, now a partner at law firm Skadden, is a friend of James Comey, the former FBI director, and represented Mr Comey after he was fired by Mr Trump.
The president referenced Mr Fitzgerald and Mr Comey in his remarks to reporters, saying: “It was a prosecution by the same people — Comey, [sic] Fitzpatrick — the same group.”
Mr Fitzgerald and the other prosecutors from the Blagojevich case said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon: “The fact remains that the former governor was convicted of very serious crimes. His prosecution serves as proof that elected officials who betray those they are elected to serve will be held to account.”
Mr Trump also commuted the sentences of three other people, and pardoned seven more, including Mr Milken; Bernard Kerik, former New York City police commissioner; and Edward DeBartolo, a real estate magnate who owned the San Francisco 49ers football team for more than two decades.
Mr Kerik served four years in jail for tax fraud and making false statements. He was an associate of Mr Giuliani, who was previously mayor of New York City and was more recently at the centre of the president’s impeachment scandal. Mr Kerik was indicted in 2007 and sentenced in 2010.
He said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon: “There are no words to express my appreciation and gratitude to President Trump . . . Going to prison is like dying with your eyes open. Its aftermath of collateral consequences and the permanent loss of many of your civil and constitutional rights are personally devastating.
Earlier on Tuesday, Hogan Gidley, deputy White House press secretary, announced that Mr Trump had pardoned Mr DeBartolo, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 1998. Mr DeBartolo did not go to prison, but was given two years probation, paid a $1m fine and was suspended for a year by the National Football League.
Jim Brown, widely considered to be one of the greatest NFL players of all time, spoke to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, saying: “I take my hat off to Donald Trump for what he did.”
Additional reporting by Claire Bushey in Chicago