President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that he has commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced former Illinois governor who is currently serving 14 years in prison on political corruption charges, demonstrating the influence Fox News holds on the president.
Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 on 17 corruption charges. Some involved soliciting bribes in exchange for the U.S. Senate seat vacated upon President Barack Obama’s inauguration, while others dealt with schemes in which he demanded campaign donations in exchange for signing racetrack legislation, approving a transportation project, and approving funding for doctors at a hospital. After exhausting the appeals process, he sought to rehabilitate himself by claiming he had been the victim of overzealous investigators and prosecutors.
Blagojevich’s team followed in the footsteps of other would-be pardon-seekers by pursuing a Fox-centric PR strategy. His wife, Patti Blagojevich, made the rounds on Fox beginning in April 2018, appearing at least seven times on the network’s programming to date. She received a sympathetic platform from Fox hosts including Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Martha MacCallum, and Jeanine Pirro. These segments were not subtle -- Carlson asked her directly, “If you could speak to the president, what would you say?” And as she responded, the caption “Will Trump intervene in Blagojevich case?” flashed across the screen.
As that strategy played out, Trump hinted to White House correspondents that he was considering commuting Blagojevich’s sentence, saying in May 2018 he was sent to prison merely “for being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know that many other politicians say.” Fox’s pro-Blagojevich stance continued into 2020. And on Tuesday, Trump formally commuted Blagojevich’s sentence -- then told reporters that he had “watched [Blogojevich’s] wife on television," a clear reference to her Fox appearances.
Blagojevich’s commutation marks the 10th time Trump has granted executive clemency due to his Fox News obsession. It likely won’t be the last; network personalities have called for pardons for several Trump associates convicted in cases begun by then-special counsel Robert Mueller, including his longtime adviser Roger Stone and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. And as Trump becomes increasingly successful in politicizing the Justice Department, there is every reason to suspect he will follow the advice of his Fox cabinet.
As I noted in a piece for NBC News Think over the weekend, Fox hosts now have an unrivaled influence on the workings of government because the president listens to them:
But unlike other people who start their weekdays with the “Fox & Friends” gang, end them with Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, and spend their weekends with Pete Hegseth, Jesse Watters and Jeanine Pirro, Trump is the president. And he turns to the folks from his television set not just for the “news,” but also for advice on how to manage the extraordinary challenges that come with his position. A disturbing fusion between the Trump administration and Fox News has been the result.
The problems here are obvious and plentiful. Fox personalities may be skilled at whipping up hysteria among their audiences, but they certainly shouldn't be providing advice to the president. Legislative priorities and federal contracts should not be up for grabs based on whose on-air commentary is most flattering.
Neither should pardons, but here we are.