By Karl Plume
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Rod Blagojevich, a former Illinois governor forced out of office for trying to peddle Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat, thanked President Donald Trump on Wednesday for commuting his prison sentence and again proclaimed his innocence.
The 63-year-old Democrat was impeached and removed from office in 2009, and convicted two years later of wire fraud, extortion and soliciting bribes while serving as governor.
One of more than a half-dozen people pardoned or granted clemency by Trump on Tuesday, Blagojevich was released on the same day after serving eight years of a 14-year sentence.
“We want to express our most profound and everlasting gratitude to President Trump,” Blagojevich told reporters and curious onlookers as he stood outside his home on Chicago’s North Side, flanked by his wife and two daughters. Nearby was a sign reading “Thank You Mr. President” and a heart balloon swaying in the breeze.
Trump on Tuesday called Blagojevich’s sentence “tremendously powerful, ridiculous.” The president’s decision was criticized by both Democrats and Republicans, including some who said that those convicted of political corruption ought to be held accountable.
Speaking to the crowd of about 200 on Wednesday, Blagojevich recited a poem, quoted from scripture and talked about the difficult living conditions in prison.
“I am returning home today from a long exile, a freed political prisoner,” Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich referred to himself as a “Trumpocrat.”
“It’s been a long, long journey,” he said.
One of the onlookers, Thurgood Papadopalous, held a large poster of Blagojevich’s face but disparaged the former governor to a reporter.
“He’s a crook. Probably should have stayed in jail,” Papadopalous, 33, said.
Blagojevich appeared on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality television show in 2010 while awaiting trial.
“He didn’t take any money. He’s a good guy,” said supporter Milan Kostic, 65.
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Writing by Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)