DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is waking up a free man four years before he was eligible to get out of prison.
NOEL KING, HOST:
He can thank President Trump. The president granted clemency to 11 people yesterday. Earlier on Tuesday, he told reporters how he sees himself.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country.
KING: That actually is not true. That's Attorney General William Barr's job.
GREENE: All right. Let's turn to NPR's Cheryl Corley, who has been following this story from Chicago. Hi, Cheryl.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Hi.
GREENE: So Blagojevich is a name that was in the news so much for a period of time, then it's kind of disappeared...
GREENE: ...Because he's been behind bars. Can you just take us back and remind us what had him serving time in the first place?
CORLEY: Well, he's back. I'm sure we're going to hear more.
CORLEY: But it all had to do with public corruption and with money. Blagojevich was in his second term. And federal prosecutors said that while he was in office, he really turned state government into a big money operation for himself. And they accused him of lots of things - of shaking down a children's hospital, of shaking down racetrack owners. There were several counts of public corruption, but I think the best known, perhaps, is that they accused him of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by now former President Barack Obama.
And he was tried twice, ended up being sentenced to 14 years in prison. His appeals were denied, so President Trump was his last hope. And the president came through, said the sentence was ridiculous, too long and cut it short. So last night, Blagojevich, on his way home back to Chicago, talked to reporters at the airport. And he was unapologetic. And here's what he had to say.
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ROD BLAGOJEVICH: It's a broken criminal justice system. And it's an unfair criminal justice system. It's a criminal justice system with too many people who have too much power, who don't have any accountability. And they could railroad people and put innocent people in prison. And they are, generally speaking, virtually always prone to over-sentence people.
CORLEY: Blagojevich did thank the president. He is a Democrat. And he said his political affiliation now is Trumpocrat (ph).
GREENE: OK. Well, what do the people who helped put Blagojevich behind bars think of the president's decision here?
CORLEY: Well, we heard from the former U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, and the lead prosecutors in the case. And they issued a joint statement. They said that although the president did have the lawful authority to do this commutation, that Blagojevich remains a felon and that he remains convicted of multiple acts of serious corruption. And there's evidence that the courts described as overwhelming.
GREENE: And as I mentioned, I mean, the former governor of Illinois not alone. There were 10 other people the president granted clemency to. Just tell us a bit about the others.
CORLEY: Well, as you mentioned, 11 - there was former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, who was sentenced for tax fraud and lying to federal officials. There was Michael Milken, who's known as the junk bond king, who pleaded guilty for violating securities, and Edward DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers - owner who was convicted in a big fraud scandal in sports history.
GREENE: Did anyone see this coming from the White House?
CORLEY: Well, I mean, President Trump had talked about it a bit. As far as Blagojevich was concerned, he talked about it in 2018, actually, but had stepped back from it a couple of times. So yesterday, I guess he decided that now was the time to move forward.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago. Thanks so much.
CORLEY: You're welcome.
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GREENE: It is Nevada's turn. Their Democratic presidential caucuses are coming up this Saturday.
KING: And that makes it natural for Nevada to hold the next debate, which is tonight. A candidate who's getting a ton of attention isn't even on the ballot in Nevada. Michael Bloomberg qualified to be on stage tonight because he's polling well nationally. Now, obviously, in the debate, he's going to be trying to reach an audience far beyond Nevada.
GREENE: And NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid is going to be covering this debate in Las Vegas and joins us. Hi, Asma.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey there.
GREENE: OK. So six candidates on stage tonight. How are the other candidates reacting to the newcomer, (laughter) Michael Bloomberg?
KHALID: Well, it certainly doesn't appear that they're giving him a particularly warm welcome. Just for a start, let's take a listen to what Bernie Sanders had to say last night.
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BERNIE SANDERS: Today we say to Mayor Bloomberg...
SANDERS: ...We are a democracy, not an oligarchy. You're not going to buy this election.
GREENE: Not a warm welcome, indeed.
KHALID: Exactly. And both Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have made billionaires and income inequality key parts of their message. So in some ways, you know, Bloomberg is sort of a dream candidate for them to make that case. On Twitter yesterday, Warren said primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire...
KHALID: ...So some strong, strong words.
KHALID: And then, David, you know, there's the issue that Bloomberg has not been a longtime Democrat. You know, he was a Republican. And even in recent years, he's held views on the minimum wage and also on policing that are out of step with the current progressive Democratic Party. And, you know, some of these views and some of Bloomberg's own past comments have reemerged in recent days. And I would imagine some of that would likely spill over onto the debate stage tonight.
GREENE: OK. So Bloomberg's entry, one part of the narrative here, but the other has to be Bernie Sanders. I mean, he in recent polls, including ours, I mean, he seems to be really taking a front-runner's lead nationally. So what do you expect from him in that role tonight?
KHALID: You see, Sanders' strategic case is that his vision can get voters excited, can drive turnout. And that's sort of to push back on the notion that a self-avowed democratic socialist would be a liability at the top of the Democratic ticket. That is a threat that you've been hearing from some other candidates.
So it will be interesting to see how he parries expected criticisms about his progressivism from some of the more moderate candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, even Joe Biden - and then on the other side, how he might be on the attack himself against a candidate like Bloomberg and some of the big money that's been in this Democratic campaign so far.
GREENE: I mean, you mentioned Biden. You mentioned Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, some of these other candidates. I mean, what is at stake for them tonight? And what do we expect?
KHALID: I would say there's quite a bit, it feels like, at stake, because Nevada's just - its electorate is so fundamentally different than what we saw in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two voting states. Nevada is a majority minority state, meaning more than 50% of the state is not white.
So you've got candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar who have not yet proven that their message appeals to a more diverse electorate. Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden both need to have kind of more standout performances than they've had in order to essentially show that they have the longevity to take their campaigns onwards into Super Tuesday. So a lot to watch for.
GREENE: OK. NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid, look forward to hearing your reporting from Las Vegas. Thanks, Asma.
KHALID: My pleasure.
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GREENE: All right. There's really a political crisis right now in Afghanistan.
KING: Yeah. The country had a presidential election almost five months ago, but there was a fight over the results. So now the Afghan Election Commission says there is a winner, and it is the incumbent Ashraf Ghani. The man running against him, though, says he does not accept that result. And all of this is happening while the U.S. and the Taliban are trying to work out a peace deal.
GREENE: OK. NPR's Diaa Hadid is in Kabul and joins us. Hi, Diaa.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So much to talk about here. I mean, I want to get to that peace deal, but right now we have Ashraf Ghani announced as president. I mean, how is that playing out? How are people reacting?
HADID: So President Ghani is meeting today with members of security forces and local officials to discuss a way forward. His mandate appears to have been weakened from the get-go because there was such a low voter turnout for these elections, and the disputes and the ballot recounting took five months. So as you said, his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, announced his own parallel government. And today, one notorious warlord announced that he'd support it, which is worrying.
And Abdullah has already demanded that election commission officials be barred from leaving the country. He doesn't have a legal mandate to do that, but it does raise the tenor of this political crisis. And the Taliban also say they won't accept these presidential results and say it's going to complicate this pending deal between them and the United States.
GREENE: Can you feel this uncertainty, like, in the city, in Kabul, like in terms of what the mood is?
HADID: Oh, yeah. We took a drive around Kabul this morning - a quick drive, because as we realized when we stepped out of our door that security forces have been deployed throughout the city. I mean, Kabul is a city of checkpoints and blast walls, but this was far more than usual. There were police, army, intelligence guys all in their different camo uniforms holding their assault rifles.
And so we couldn't stick around for too long because it was simply too dangerous. We saw that even the bread shops, which are normally crowded with people, they were empty. The butcher shops hadn't hung out fresh pieces of meat, no customers. So it's best to hear from our producer in Kabul, Khwaga Ghani, explaining what's going on.
KHWAGA GHANI, BYLINE: Today, you see there are, like, not a lot of cars here. A lot of people are scared today, even my mother. Today she was like, take care of yourself, because the security situation today is not good. So people are scared now. There are going to be clashes. They're scared of Taliban, and they're scared of Abdullah Abdullah. People are scared of getting out of their houses now.
GREENE: Wow. OK. So a real feeling of preparing for possible violence. I mean, is the government saying anything reassuring?
HADID: Yeah. And President Ghani’s senior adviser, his name is Daoud Sultanzoy (ph), we spoke to him a bit earlier on a wobbly line. And we asked him, you know, do you think there'll be clashes? And he said, well, there's nothing to worry about.
DAOUD SULTANZOY: No, we are not worried about that because our military and our security forces have come a long way. Our security apparatus are fully capable to keep everything in order.
GREENE: OK. Diaa, let me get to the big question of this possible peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban. How does all this fit into those prospects?
HADID: So like the Taliban said, this complicates it. But let's go back to what the deal looks like. It's meant to start with the Taliban scaling back their violence for seven days. And then they're meant to sign a deal with the Americans. Now, the Taliban say that deal's meant to be signed by the end of the month.
Then negotiations are meant to happen between the Taliban and Afghans on the country's political future. You can see there's a lot of moving parts here, and that doesn't even get to the withdrawal of troops. American officials say that withdrawal will be condition-based, but they haven't offered further clarity on the process.
Now, those Afghan negotiations, they're meant to be led by President Ghani. But if other politicians and the Taliban say that he is not a legitimate leader, that does weaken his mandate and ability to negotiate. But we spoke to a spokesperson for the president. His name is Siddiq Siddiqi. And he says they do have a mandate. They did win the elections. And he says, for these negotiations, I'll have a small team. We spoke over the phone. He'd just left a meeting with the president.
SIDDIQ SIDDIQI: The number will be small, but with big goals. It will encompass all walks of our lives, including women. So it will be an inclusive and effective team. And they will negotiate with the Taliban.
HADID: He says once they come to an agreement with the Taliban, they'll put that to a broader loya jirga. That's a traditional Afghan council that's made up of representatives from all around the country and from special interest groups. He says they'll have to agree to it. So there's still plenty of tricky times ahead.
GREENE: Wow. All right. NPR's Diaa Hadid in Kabul covering all of that for us. Diaa, thanks.
HADID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.