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Trump shows soft side toward crimes of rich and/or famous

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his wife,

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his wife, Patti, in Chicago in 2011. Credit: AP / M. Spencer Green

Trump wields absolution power

They are billionaires who committed crimes and former officials who went to prison for corruption. President Donald Trump has decided they also are good people. He issued a slew of pardons and sentence commutations on Tuesday to prominent federal felons whose advocates included the president's allies in business, politics and conservative media.

Or, as in the case of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, Trump seems to have been convinced that they shared the same enemies. In lobbying for clemency, the ex-governor's wife, Patti, pointed out on Fox News that his prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, was a friend of former FBI Director James Comey, who wasn't even in government at the time. She also laid on the flattery, saying, "It takes a strong leader like President Trump to right these wrongs.”

Trump told reporters that Rod Blagojevich was targeted by "the same gang, the Comey gang and all these sleazebags." He also knew Blagojevich, though not well, as a contestant on his "Celebrity Apprentice" show between the former governor's indictment and trial.

Blagojevich has served 8 years of what Trump called a "ridiculous" 14-year sentence. He was caught on FBI wiretaps talking about trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008, saying it was a “valuable thing” and that “you don’t just give it away for nothing.” He also was convicted of trying to shake down executives from a children’s hospital and the horse-racing industry.

Former NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik, who served just over 3 years for tax fraud and lying to the White House while being interviewed to be Homeland Security secretary, "had many recommendations from a lot of good people" for his pardon, Trump said. They included his former boss, Rudy Giuliani; Geraldo Rivera; and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who told Newsday that while Kerik was “not perfect … he served the city well." Kerik also shows up often on Fox News as a pro-Trump commentator.

Another pardon went to Michael Milken, the financier who became a poster boy for criminal Wall Street greed in the 1980s and served 2 years in an insider-trading case brought by — wait for it — then-U.S. Attorney Giuliani. Trump cited Milken's post-prison work for cancer research. Backing for his pardon came from Giuliani and Trump allies, such as billionaires Sheldon Adelson, Robert Kraft, Richard LeFrak and Rupert Murdoch and Fox Business Network host Maria Bartiromo.

Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, as well as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, helped win a pardon for Edward DeBartolo Jr., a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers. DeBartolo pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony when he paid then-Gov. Edwin Edwards $400,000 for a riverboat gambling license in Louisiana. For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

Trump changes channels

King told Newsday he got a call from Kerik on Tuesday morning, urging him to co-sign a letter with other supporters calling for his pardon. King said Kerik’s attorney told him “we think we can get it done by noon today.”

It was a further indication that Trump did not rely on the Justice Department vetting process that traditionally guides presidents in using their constitutional authority to wipe away convictions or commute a sentence, as The New York Times described it.

Instead, Trump told reporters that he followed “recommendations” in making his decisions. Those recommendations, a White House statement indicated, came from people with influence from his circles outside the administration.

Bloomberg's debate debut

Michael Bloomberg's vault to second place in a new national poll released Tuesday landed him a spot in Wednesday night's Democratic debate from Las Vegas. NBC News, MSNBC, Noticias Telemundo and The Nevada Independent are hosting the two-hour event, which begins at 9 p.m.

Bloomberg may be rusty — he last debated in 2009 during his third New York City mayoral race — but he's been trying out a familiar tone on the campaign trail: dismissive of his rivals.

Joe Biden as vice president made “speeches that somebody writes for him,” Bloomberg said in a Reuters interview earlier this month. Pete Buttigieg is a former “mayor of a town.” Of the Democratic field at large, he said, “None of them would know how to run a big organization.”

The five other qualifying candidates have all signaled they are ready to attack Bloomberg. While the multibillionaire has been outspending rivals by 10 to 1 and more, Amy Klobuchar said a debate provides a level playing field. "I can't beat him on the airwaves, but I can beat him on the debate stage," she said on NBC. Elizabeth Warren promised "a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire.”

Bloomberg's campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, maintained on a conference call with reporters that the Democratic contest is now just a two-person race between Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders, with Biden "collapsing" after Iowa and New Hampshire.

Training his fire on Sanders, Sheekey tweeted that there is "opposition research" on the Vermont socialist senator that "is very damaging, perhaps even disqualifying.” Sheekey didn't offer backup.

Balk the vote

 In the last presidential election, more people chose not to cast a ballot than those who voted for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, because they had less faith in the electoral system than voters did, a new study found. 

But even if they had voted in the 2016 election, it might not have changed the outcome, the study, called "The 100 Million Project," concluded, as reported by Tom Brune of Newsday.

Opinions of these nonvoters reflected most national polls in their views of Trump, and they would add nearly an equal share to the votes for Trump or the Democratic candidate.

The study by the nonpartisan Knight Foundation sought to determine why as many as 100 million Americans eligible to register don’t vote.

Sanders' higher ceiling?

The case for moderate Democrats to coalesce around one candidate is based on a belief that there are enough like-minded primary voters to deny leftist Sanders the nomination. Hypothetical matchups in a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll show that's not necessarily so.

In a two-person race between Sanders and Bloomberg, the Vermont senator leads 57% to 37%. Against Buttigieg, Sanders' advantage was 54% to 38%. The poll did not test the other Democrats head-to-head against Sanders.

With the current candidate lineup, Sanders came in first with 27%, followed by Biden, 15%; Bloomberg and Warren, 14% each; Buttigieg, 13%; and Klobuchar, 7%.

The poll also found Trump's job rating is 47%, which ties his all-time high. But he trailed Democrats in general-election matchups — Biden by 8 points; Bloomberg, 7 points; Sanders, 4 points; and Klobuchar and Buttigieg by smaller margins.

Sanders also led in the PBS NewsHour/Marist/NPR poll that clinched Bloomberg's debate appearance: He had 31%; Bloomberg, 19%; Biden, 15%; Warren, 12%; Klobuchar, 9%; and Buttigieg, 8%.

Janison: Perversion of justice

Trump's latest efforts to bend the nation's justice system to favor his pal Roger Stone is a new scandal all its own, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. The stench of self-serving official action is growing as pungent as it did in the Ukraine uproar.

Trump took his meddling down to a new level by aiming Twitter abuse at the forewoman of the jury that convicted Stone. "Juror bias," and whether it tainted the outcome, is a relevant strategy for Stone's lawyers to pursue, but Trump is trying to move his case against her to the court of public opinion.

The prosecution had a pretty clear-cut case. Stone's own texts showed him tampering with a witness and seeking to obstruct Congress.

It also looks like Trump and Attorney General William Barr are trying to get former national security adviser Michael Flynn off the hook despite his guilty plea. When a politician faces special interests, no interests are more special than those of your friends and acquaintances.

Stone judge keeps date

Rejecting an effort by Stone's lawyers, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Tuesday she will stick by her plan of sentencing him as scheduled on Thursday. But she'll hold off on carrying it out, pending resolution of his request for a new trial.

Still disregarding Barr's plea to stop tweeting about the case, Trump renewed his attacks on the prosecutors, judge and jury forewoman and demanded a new trial. Trump retweeted comments aligned with that position from Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano, who less than a month ago supported Trump's removal from office during the impeachment trial.

Trump said he had "total confidence" in Barr and acknowledged: “I do make his job harder.” The president also called himself “the chief law enforcement officer of the country,” a job description usually reserved for the attorney general.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday night that Barr has told people close to Trump that he is considering resigning if the tweeting doesn't stop.

Ukraine probes on a leash?

The Justice Department has assigned Brooklyn-based U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue to coordinate Ukraine-related investigations, according to a memo released Tuesday to Congress.

The move to involve the Eastern District of New York, which includes Long Island, brings a new layer of Washington supervision to an area of interest that has become a political minefield, CNN reported. It potentially gives Barr a way to keep tighter reins on investigations that could be politically sensitive.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman is investigating Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, along with associates who worked on efforts to dig up political dirt on Trump's foes in Ukraine. The Southern District prosecutors traditionally have enjoyed a degree of independence.

Though Giuliani is under scrutiny, Barr has opened up a channel to look at the information he says he's dug up.

What else is happening:

  • It's only February, but Bloomberg is already the highest-spending presidential candidate of all time, according to Advertising Analytics. His $338.7 million spent on traditional media surpassed Obama's 2012 record of $338.3 million.
  • Unlike Trump, Bloomberg is prepared to shed his business, if elected president, campaign adviser Tim O'Brien told The Associated Press on Tuesday. He would put Bloomberg LP into a blind trust, and the trustee would then sell the company, with proceeds from the sale going to Bloomberg Philanthropies.
  • White House spokesman Hogan Gidley rejected claims of "censorship" by former national security adviser John Bolton, whose much-awaited book's publication could be delayed by a review for classified material.
  • Trump said Tuesday he knows the identity of the author known as “Anonymous,” the senior administration official who wrote an inside-the-White House account that painted the president as inept and dangerous. But he won't say who he believes it is.
  • A 1,640-foot brick wall has been erected hastily in India’s Gujarat state ahead of a visit next week by Trump, with critics saying it was built to block the view of a slum area inhabited by more than 2,000 people.
  • Rush Limbaugh said Trump called him with the advice to "never apologize" for his comments on Buttigieg's sexuality. The radio host said on his show last week that “America’s still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage."

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