BRIAN: This is Brian (ph) from Tennessee, currently at Disney's Magic Kingdom in line with my son to meet Donald Duck. This podcast was recorded at...
KELSEY SNELL, HOST:
2:13 p.m. on Thursday, February 20.
BRIAN: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, including the fact that my son and I met Donald Duck - maybe.
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SNELL: I want to know how long it takes to meet Donald Duck versus, like, a different character, like a princess or something.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: I think Donald Duck's still probably pretty popular, right?
SNELL: I mean, I don't know.
RASCOE: It's Donald Duck.
SNELL: I mean, but how often are you seeing Donald Duck verses, like, Cinderella? Come on.
RASCOE: Well, that's true. Yeah.
SNELL: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
SNELL: In last night's Democratic debate in Nevada, all eyes were on former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was his first time on the debate stage, and the rest of the candidates on stage made up for lost time when it came to trying to take him down. But Bloomberg is back on the trail in Utah. And Ayesha, you are with him, and you saw him speak this morning, right?
RASCOE: Yeah. So I'm here in Salt Lake City. There are beautiful mountains outside my hotel windows. It's very nice.
RASCOE: But yes, I saw him speak this morning, and he did kind of reference the debate last night. He had a little - kind of quips about it.
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MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: So how was your night last night?
BLOOMBERG: Look - the real winner in the debate last night was Donald Trump...
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes.
BLOOMBERG: ...Because I worry that we may very well be on the way to nominating somebody who cannot win in November. And if we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base, like Senator Sanders, it will be a fatal error.
SNELL: All right, to rewind just a little bit about what happened last night - if you want to hear more all about that, you can listen to last night's pod just about the debate. But, Mara, can you remind me a little bit about what happened between Bloomberg and Sanders and, well, Bloomberg and everybody?
LIASSON: The most important thing about last night - it was Michael Bloomberg's debut and the first time that Democrats had a chance to see him as a candidate, not just a campaign commercial. So the big question was, how would he perform? Turns out he's pretty rusty. He hasn't been on a debate stage for a very long time, and he got a tremendous amount of incoming from all the other candidates, who decided that he was their most immediate obstacle. So instead of Bernie Sanders, who's the front-runner and who many elected Democrats worry about if he's at the top of the ticket, Bloomberg took most of it.
And what I was told by the Bloomberg people before the debate was that he had a bunch of goals for the night. He had to somehow introduce himself and share his biography with people who don't know him. He had to look presidential so people could imagine him as the guy to stand on stage and beat Donald Trump. He had to defend himself against attacks and also attack Bernie Sanders at the same time. That was a tremendously long to-do list, and he had a hard time doing it.
SNELL: He - based on that list, we didn't really hear him do much of any of that. But in that clip that Ayesha played, we heard him start to kind of come back to those points that you're saying he was supposed to make last night in the debate. Ayesha, what are you hearing from voters? Are they receiving this as a helpful message? Are they interested in him?
RASCOE: Well, they were definitely interested in him. So this - there were about a little over 600 people at this event in Utah. This is one of the Super Tuesday states. And so the people that I talked to, many of them kind of said they were moderates or independents, and they were looking for someone who could unify, bring out, you know, maybe disaffected Republicans, and they felt like Bloomberg was the person to do that. He has the money and the resources. But they did say, a lot of them, they saw the debate last night, and they did have some concerns, but they were kind of cutting him slack because it was his first debate.
I talked to this woman Karen Balich (ph), and she attended the rally today, and this was she had to say.
KAREN BALICH: Well, I think he could have been better prepared for the onslaught. Surely he should have known that he was going to be the one that they were going to go after. I thought Elizabeth Warren landed a pretty hard punch.
RASCOE: You know, she says that right now she's not locked in for Bloomberg, but she does like him. She's still making her final decisions. So even she was saying that he has to have a better answer to some of these issues about the way he dealt with women and things like that. She said she doesn't think he needs to apologize, but he needs to have a way to come back from that.
LIASSON: He's going to get another chance pretty soon because there's another debate next week. And the Bloomberg campaign even acknowledged that his performance was lacking last right when they issued a statement saying, quote, "He was just warming up tonight, and he will build on his performance at the next debate." So they know he has to do better.
And it's worth pointing out that for some candidates who don't have resources, debates can be make-or-break events - like Amy Klobuchar vaulted herself into third place over Elizabeth Warren, who came from the neighboring state of Massachusetts, in the New Hampshire primary because of her performance in the debate. For Michael Bloomberg, he's got a safety net under him. Even if he doesn't do that well in a debate, he's got gazillions of dollars to keep on going to fund his organization and his advertising.
SNELL: And that safety net is basically how most of these people know who he is in the first place.
SNELL: I mean, he is running a major ad blitz. And we were seeing today, even after the debate performance, that he is kind of remaking the image of what happened in that debate through ads and through videos he's putting out on Twitter.
SNELL: There's one that's getting a lot of criticism, where he asks a question, and they kind of cut together a bunch of silent responses to completely unrelated questions to make it look like the entire field had no way to respond to Bloomberg.
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BLOOMBERG: I'm the only one here that I think that's ever started a business. Is that fair?
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SNELL: So we know how he's spending his money and...
LIASSON: And we know that because today, we got from the Bloomberg campaign the report that they're about to file with the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, where they explain what they have spent money on. And what we know is that up until January 31, they have spent over $300 million on advertising - digital, plus television. That is an eye-popping number, and it doesn't account for anything they spent in February.
SNELL: That is not just eye-popping; that is a number that none of these other candidates can keep up with. It is game-changing.
LIASSON: It's game-changing. And even though Bernie Sanders has a tremendous amount of money because he gets his money from the grassroots and small donations - he's built a real machine for that - nobody can match this. And it's one of the reasons that Bloomberg has been able to go kind of from zero to 60, you know, to accelerate his campaign and get up in the polls, you know, into at least in the NPR/Marist poll, our latest poll - he was in second place.
SNELL: Yeah, that's big dollars.
SNELL: Ayesha, do you get a sense that the voters there are seeing the Bloomberg ads? Do they know him from these ads?
RASCOE: Yes. I mean, I asked them about, you know, were they seeing the ads? And they were saying, yes, yeah, we're seeing the ads. They mentioned that ad where Bloomberg had Obama almost sounding like he had endorsed him, when obviously former President Obama has not endorsed Bloomberg. So, I mean, his ads are definitely making an impression on people. And in places like Utah, where they get some candidates, you know, stopping by but not all the time, that could make a big difference.
SNELL: All right, Ayesha, we're going to let you go and get back to reporting in Salt Lake City. Thank you.
RASCOE: All right, see you guys later.
SNELL: We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we're going to talk about the sentencing of one of President Trump's closest allies, Roger Stone.
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SNELL: And we're back. And now we're joined by Justice Correspondent Ryan Lucas. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.
SNELL: Ryan, you were in the court today where Roger Stone, a longtime ally of the president, was sentenced just a couple of hours ago. Tell us about what that sentence was.
LUCAS: Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison in total for the charges that he was convicted of last year - that would be obstruction, witness tampering and lying to Congress. Stone was in the courtroom. It was a packed courtroom. There were supporters of his there. There were people who certainly have more negative feelings for Stone who were there as well. And you could actually see that in the courthouse when he stepped out after he'd been sentenced, and there were chants of both, lock him up and, also, pardon Roger Stone.
SNELL: So 40 months, that is a lot less than what the prosecutors originally suggested should be his sentence, but it is potentially a lot more than what the president has said he wanted for Stone.
LUCAS: It is. It falls in the middle of those two. But yes, the sentencing recommendation from the prosecution has been, really, a source of great controversy over the past week and a half. It started about a week and a half ago, when the government submitted its sentencing memo to the court asking for seven to nine years for Stone in this case. Shortly after that, the president tweeted saying that he thought that that was unfair, that this was a miscarriage of justice.
A few hours after that, the Justice Department came out and said that, you know what? This was too much in this original sentencing memo, and they filed a supplemental memo that calculated how much time they thought Stone should ultimately spend in prison to something far less than seven to nine years. They left the ultimate call to the judge. But they said yes, it should be far less than the seven to nine years. And this raised a whole bunch of questions about possible political interference, the credibility and integrity of the Justice Department, which we've seen kind of the cascading effects of over the past week, week and a half.
That all aside, for anyone to spend three and a half years in a federal penitentiary, judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors who I speak to say that is not chump change; that is real time. It's not pleasant. So while it is, yes, less than the original guidelines range of seven to nine, it's still serious time. And there was never serious consideration - certainly I did not think that whatever sentence Judge Amy Berman Jackson came down on would be in that seven to nine range. I was expecting something below that, even before the Justice Department intervened and kind of reversed course.
LIASSON: Right. Just to give you an example of that it's a real sentence - Bernard Kerik, who's one of the guys the president pardoned, recently said going to prison like this is like dying with your eyes open.
LIASSON: So it's tough. Now, I have a question for Ryan. Roger Stone is asking for a new trial.
LIASSON: And he wants this whole trial voided. Is that the idea?
LUCAS: So Roger Stone has...
LIASSON: He's not appealing; he's asking for a new trial, yeah.
LUCAS: He's not appealing yet. He has submitted a motion to the court - this is actually the second motion like this that he has done - to ask for a new trial. The judge denied his first motion for a new trial. He has submitted a second one. The judge decided earlier this week that we would proceed with sentencing today, and she would rule on his motion for a new trial in the days, perhaps weeks, to come. But she would defer the execution of the sentence until after she had ruled on that motion.
Now, Stone in court today declined to speak. Often a defendant can give what's known as an allocution - say, you know, I'm sorry for my crimes. I - you know, I accept responsibility. Stone was asked to address the court today. He declined. What that likely signals is that, yes, there will be an appeal filed in this case if the motion for a new trial is denied, as many people expect it will be. Now, as this process plays out, Stone will be free. He's not going to be locked up.
SNELL: Mara, do we know if the president is responding to any of this?
LIASSON: Yes. And, you know, this - one of the reasons this became such a big story is because the president has been tweeting about this case for a while. Roger Stone, of course, is a very old friend and associate of the president's. The president has been very frustrated and upset by the way he thinks Stone has been mistreated. He didn't like the original recommendation of seven to nine years. Today, he tweeted saying, they say Roger Stone lied to Congress. Oh, I see. But so did Comey, and he also leaked classified information for which almost everyone, other than crooked Hillary Clinton, goes to jail for a long time. And so did Andy McCabe, who also lied to the FBI. Fairness?
He went on later to say the decision not to prosecute Andy McCabe is utterly inexplicable. That also happened during all of this. So the president - and this - not today, but the president has tweeted against Judge Amy Berman Jackson, accusing her falsely of being the judge that decided that Paul Manafort should be in solitary confinement, which is not true. Right, Ryan?
LUCAS: No, it's not. The thing that hangs over all of this, of course, is the possibility of pardon. That hangs in the air in conversations at the courthouse about this. It hangs in the air in conversations with attorneys. There is that possibility. The president has been asked about it repeatedly. You've certainly talked about this. And as far as I'm aware, every time he says, I don't want to necessarily discuss it now.
LIASSON: Right. He hasn't ruled it out.
LUCAS: But he's not ruling it out, yes.
SNELL: So pardons - there's a lot more that we could be saying in the future about Roger Stone, but for right now we're going to wrap things up for today. And we'll be back tomorrow with our Weekly Roundup. Until then, head to npr.org/politicsnewsletter to subscribe to a weekly roundup of our best online analysis. It'll show up in your inbox every Saturday to let you know what happened that week and what it all means.
I'm Kelsey Snell, I cover Congress.
LUCAS: I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.
LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
SNELL: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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