The high-profile pardons and commutations doled out by President Trump may just turn out to be the smartest political operation he has conducted this year. While it is often treacherous ground to ascribe motivations without inside knowledge, the ramifications of this latest presidential largesse cannot be understated. In one fell swoop, Trump has crafted the blade he will wield in his 2020 campaign and created a whole new field of battle.
After eight years in prison for attempting to “sell” Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich will be a free man. Trump described the initial decision that would have seen the Democrat released in 2024 as a “powerful and ridiculous sentence.” Whether 14 years for what was essentially a phone call may or may not be harsh is, however, irrelevant. The pertinent matter is what the pardoning actually signals to the Illinois electorate and voters nationwide who may not be entirely comfortable with the ever-increasing madness on the political left.
These presidential pardons are a three-pronged trident designed to thrust into previously untapped voting markets and may just slay the Democrat dragon.
Prong One – A Timely Reminder
Once a Republican-leaning state, Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory flipped Illinois to a Democrat stronghold backing the last six Democratic candidates in nationwide elections. Hillary Clinton won the state with a convincing 17% margin, and the state’s senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth are very much a product of the party machine. This is a place that apparently holds little love for those of the red persuasion; even former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner was pro-abortion and for protecting illegal immigrants.
Modern-day Illinois has a record of corruption comparable to the days of Tammany Hall in NYC. Pay-for-play appears the norm and an atmosphere of deceit is prevalent. Of the last eight governors, four have been sent to prison; numerous state officials, aldermen, and even representatives of every political persuasion, have been locked up for offenses ranging from pilfering of campaign funds to sex crimes.
But what do the voters think of the rampant corruption?
If President Trump were to start targeting Illinois as a Palace of Dishonesty, it would be seen as electioneering and spun every which way possible. However, by commuting Blagojevich’s sentence, he can shine a light on the state’s history of corruption, force Democrats and the media to begin talking about it and start making headway to flipping the state back.
Democrat leaders, and even some Republicans, have decried this action and are attempting to use it as a cudgel. Senator Durbin wrote on his website:
“Former Governor Blagojevich betrayed the people of Illinois and engaged in a pattern of corrupt behavior for which he was held accountable and which cost him more than seven years of freedom.
At a time when corruption by elected officials is still in the headlines, Illinois and Washington should move quickly to establish stricter ethics requirements, including the full detailed disclosure of income, net worth, and income tax returns by all elected officials.”
And while this is a thinly veiled swipe at Trump and his as-yet-undisclosed tax returns, it appears the senator is already adding fuel to the fire in reminding Illinois residents that their cherished state is rife with corruption.
Prong Two – Prison? For That?
President Trump set the groundwork for Blagojevich’s release last year when he said:
“He’s been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens — over a phone call which he shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio, you would say… I would think that there have been many politicians — I’m not one of them, by the way — that have said a lot worse over the telephone.”
Punishment over a phone call, you say? The former governor’s situation has prominent echoes of the recent impeachment efforts by House Democrats, and this similarity will not be lost on the voting public. Is the president trying to create a working sympathy between those who support Blagojevich’s release and those who were never entirely convinced by the Senate trial?
Poll tracking on fivethirtyeight.com shows that support for the removal of the president from office through the impeachment process hovered around 47% nationally. This figure included 84% of Democrat voters and 42% of Independents. That indicates that around 15% of those who regularly favor Democrat candidates feel, if not some sympathy for the president, at least some misgivings about their own party’s position.
“Phone call, phone call, phone call” will be the mantra in the media fallout of this commutation; each time it’s said, a little bell will be ringing in the back of the mind of those who aren’t virulently anti-Trump. While Blagojevich’s crimes were certainly far more than just a single poorly made call, the narrative is everything. Already, most major media outlets are printing Trump’s comments about the phone call, and whether they intend it or not, are creating a subtle link between the two situations.
Prong Three – Pardons Aplenty
Along with the Blagojevich commutation, Trump doled out a series of pardons, some controversial, some not so much. But is he setting the stage for further largesse for those caught up in the Mueller investigation?
Should things go against Roger Stone and his appeal for a new trial be turned down, the former Trump campaign adviser will be a prime contender for clemency. But whether he gets it or not, either outcome can be spun as an advantage to the president. If Trump chooses to pardon Stone, he can highlight his reasons in comparison to former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe who has yet to be prosecuted for his own lack of candor with investigating agents. This will cast even more light on the self-serving Swamp.
Should he choose not to pardon Stone, the president can openly and honestly state that although he disagrees with the punishment, he is not one to do things for personal reasons. Already, news outlets are floating the idea that Trump is setting the stage for further pardons; if he lets the Stone situation slide, he can call out yet more Fake News.
Dragons to Slay
The real prize for President Trump would be to make enough of a dent in Democrat support in Illinois that limited resources are flooded into the state, taking money and time from riper fruits. As a safe state, the Land of Lincoln should be a location the party can safely ignore, but if dissent breaks out in the voting ranks, even the smallest rumor of loss would be a devastating blow nationally.
Democrats should be wary that they may be facing an invisible enemy, an attack that isn’t actually coming their way. As famed military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War:
“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
Read more from Mark Angelides.