Daily Briefing

10 things you need to know today: February 19, 2020

Harold Maass
Rod Blagojevich after leaving prison
Scott Olson/Getty Images


Trump grants clemency to Blagojevich, Milken, Kerik

President Trump granted clemency to seven high-profile white-collar criminals on Tuesday. Trump commuted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 14-year prison sentence for corruption, calling the length of the term "ridiculous." Trump also pardoned former New York Police commissioner Bernie Kerik, convicted of tax fraud; financier Michael Milken, who served two years for insider trading; and former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., convicted of gambling fraud. Trump drew similarities between investigations that targeted him and the prosecution of Blagojevich, saying it was "by the same people — Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group." Political opponents immediately condemned the clemency blitz. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) said "the pardoning of these disgraced figures should be treated as another national scandal by a lawless executive." [The Associated Press]


Sanders takes double-digit lead in national poll

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has taken a double-digit lead over his nearest rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday. Sanders was backed by 27 percent of the Democratic primary voters surveyed, trailed by Vice President Joe Biden with 15 percent. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) followed with 14 percent. Former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg had 13 percent and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) 7 percent. Sanders' wider lead came as his numbers were unchanged from the last NBC/Journal poll, but Biden plunged by 11 points while fellow moderates Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar gained. Democrats meet Wednesday for a Las Vegas debate with Bloomberg on stage for the first time. [NBC News, CNN]


Judge says Stone sentencing to proceed Thursday as scheduled

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson confirmed Tuesday that Roger Stone's sentencing hearing would be held Thursday as scheduled, despite President Trump's call for a delay. Trump said that recently discovered tweets by the jury forewoman suggested "significant bias." Trump also has repeatedly attacked Jackson's handling of the case, but Jackson said any further delay in Stone's sentencing wouldn't be "prudent." Last week, Trump complained when federal prosecutors recommended Stone spend seven to nine years in prison for lying to Congress and witness tampering. Attorney General William Barr and other top Justice Department officials overruled the recommendation, leading the case's four prosecutors to withdraw from the case. The Federal Judges Association held an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss concerns over Barr's intervention. [CBS News, USA Today]


Ghani declared winner 5 months after Afghanistan's election

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has won re-election to a second term with 50.6 percent of the vote, according to results released Tuesday. Afghans voted five months ago but concerns of fraud and mechanical error forced recounts, delaying the results. Ghani's rival Abdullah Abdullah also declared victory, and said he would form an alternative government. The September vote was marred by Taliban attacks aimed at destabilizing the election. The lingering uncertainty is considered a possible threat to efforts to finalize peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. Negotiators for the two sides said they reached a conditional deal a few days ago. [The Washington Post, The New York Times]


Campaign adviser says Bloomberg will sell media company if elected president

Mike Bloomberg will sell his financial media business if he wins the presidency this November, an adviser to his campaign, Tim O'Brien, said Tuesday. Bloomberg, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and the former Republican mayor of New York, founded Bloomberg L.P. in 1981; the company has estimated annual revenue of roughly $10 billion, and could be worth $40 billion, CNBC reports. The official said Bloomberg L.P. would be put into a blind trust for "eventual sale." O'Brien said Bloomberg would be "180 degrees away from where Donald Trump is on these issues" and avoid "blurring the line between public service and personal profiteering." Trump's critics have accused him of profiting when foreign dignitaries book rooms at his Washington hotel and other properties. [CNN, NBC News]


Hundreds allowed to leave ship in Japan as coronavirus quarantine winds down

About 500 people started disembarking Wednesday from a cruise ship quarantined in Japan over an onboard outbreak of the coronavirus. The flu-like virus infected more than 540 people on the ship — including 88 new infections announced Tuesday — in the biggest concentration of cases outside China. More passengers will be released from the vessel, Carnival's Diamond Princess, over the next two days as a 14-day quarantine ends. The United States evacuated more than 300 American passengers over the weekend. They are now isolated on U.S. military bases. The coronavirus death toll on mainland China rose above 2,000 on Wednesday but the number of new cases fell for the second consecutive day, boosting hopes that China's travel restrictions were helping slow the spread of the disease. [Reuters]


Barr reportedly tells Trump insiders he might quit over tweets

Attorney General William Barr has warned people close to President Trump that he might quit if Trump doesn't stop tweeting about Justice Department criminal investigations, The Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing three administration officials. Barr also has publicly called for Trump to stop commenting on Justice Department matters, saying his tweets "make it impossible for me to do my job." Trump has responded with more tweets and other public remarks, saying he has every right to weigh in as "the chief law enforcement officer of the country." Last week, Trump tweeted a complaint about the proposed sentence for his longtime adviser Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering. On Tuesday, Trump suggested Stone should receive a new trial. [The Washington Post]


U.S. brands 5 Chinese media companies as parts of Beijing's government

The United States is designating five major Chinese media companies as parts of China's government, a State Department official said Tuesday. Effective immediately, Xinhua, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily, and People's Daily will be considered "foreign missions," which means they will have to get U.S. government approval to secure office space, and register new hires and staff departures with the State Department, as diplomatic missions do. "They are part and parcel of the People's Republic of China propaganda machine," the official said. "The fact of the matter is each and every single one of these entities does in fact work 100 percent for the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party." China's embassy did not immediately comment on the move. [CNN]


SpaceX strikes deal to send 4 space tourists into orbit by 2022

SpaceX on Tuesday announced a deal with a company called Space Adventures to fly up to four private citizens into orbit in late 2021 or early 2022. Space Adventures has helped seven space tourists visit the International Space Station. They made the trip in Russian spacecraft. Under the new deal, the four passengers will travel in a version of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. They are expected to take two or three trips around the Earth at up to three times the 250-mile-high path of the space station. SpaceX has been working on and testing the Dragon spacecraft for years. It also will be used to shuttle astronauts to the space station. A cargo version of the spacecraft already is in use. [CNBC, The Verge]


Jury starts deliberations in Weinstein rape trial

The jury in Harvey Weinstein's rape and sexual assault trial started its deliberations on Tuesday. Earlier on the trial's 29th day, Judge James Burke denied a request by the Oscar-winning Hollywood producer's lawyers to dismiss one of the jurors because she had read a book about child abuse. Prosecutors had objected to the defense request, saying: "She has done nothing wrong. We never instructed this jury that they not be allowed to read books." The judge urged the jury to "discuss the evidence, consult with one another," and "reason together respectfully." "You and you alone are the judges of the facts," Burke said. Weinstein has pleaded not guilty, and said his encounters with the accusers were consensual. [The Hollywood Reporter]