Nicole Lafond

Nicole Lafond is a news writer for TPM based in New York City. She is also currently earning a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and previously worked as an education reporter at The News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill. Follow her on Twitter @Nicole_Lafond.

Articles by Nichole

The picture is slowly becoming more clear.

This week, layers of the ongoing saga surrounding a prominent evangelical couple, a “pool boy,” racy photos, President Trump’s ex-lawyer and a climactic 2016 endorsement were peeled back.

The Miami Herald and The New York Times both published substantial reports outlining the details of a South Beach, Florida hostel ownership dispute that culminated in a lawsuit against Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife. The details of the suit give us a clearer picture of what exactly went down when Michael Cohen, as he claims, was tasked with destroying some allegedly “terrible,” “personal” photos for the Falwells.

There’s a lot going on here. Here are five points to catch you up on how the story’s unfolding:

The Alleged Pictures Are Of Becki Tilley, Falwell’s Wife

When Cohen first divulged his role in the ordeal to comedian Tom Arnold, in a call Cohen didn’t know was being recorded, he was vague in his descriptions of the photos.

Cohen characterized them as “terrible” and “personal” — the kind typically kept between “husband and wife,” according to a Reuters report on May 7. The new Times piece this week revealed Cohen joked “the evangelicals are kinkier than Tom Arnold” and explained his motivation was to protect Becki Tilley, Falwell’s wife.

“Even though she has a very nice figure, nobody wants their private photos published,” Cohen said, suggesting that at least one of the photos in question was a private image of Tilley. He also said that he still had one of the photos of Tilley in his possession (perhaps not in his possession currently, as he is in prison for hush money payments he made to a porn star for President Trump and lying to Congress).

The Miami Herald reported Wednesday that it reviewed three of the photos: “They are images not of Falwell, but of his wife in various stages of undress,” in the Herald’s words. The newspaper said it was not able to independently authenticate the images and it was unclear when they were taken — but it appears that two images were captured at the family’s farm in Virginia and another a Cheeca Lodge, a vacation spot in Islamorada, Florida.

The revelation lines up with Falwell’s initial denial: “This report is not accurate,” Falwell told a Fox Radio station after the Reuters report dropped in May. “There are no compromising or embarrassing photos of me.”

A Promising ‘Pool Boy’

While the Falwells were on vacation in 2012 at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach — known for its topless sunbathing and eccentric nightclubs — they struck up conversation with a pool attendant named Giancarlo Granda. The couple was reportedly impressed with Granda’s ambition to get into Florida real estate, a friend told the Times. Soon Granda was embarking on hiking and skiing trips with the couple and flying on their private jet. At some point after their initial meeting, Granda traveled to the Cheeca Lodge with the Falwells, according to the Miami Herald, the same resort where Tilley is reportedly seen in at least one of the photographs.

The relationship led to a business venture when the couple offered to help Granda cut his teeth in Florida real estate. Granda reportedly consulted with a friend and his friend’s father about what to make of the Falwells’ offer. The pair, Jesus Fernandez Jr. and Jesus Fernandez Sr., pointed Granda to a youth hostel in South Beach, Florida. The Fernandezes, Granda and the Falwells reportedly all met around June 2012 to discuss the purchase, according to the Herald. The meeting took place at the Loews Miami Beach.

The Falwells ultimately agreed to finance the purchase of the hostel, which also included a restaurant and a liquor store. As negotiations progressed, the couple invited Granda to visit Liberty University to meet then-citizen Trump when he delivered a speech at the school in 2012. The Times obtained a photo of Granda shaking Trump’s hand while the couple looms in the background.

The hostel was purchased in February 2013 by the Falwells for $4.7 million. Granda, Tilley and the couple’s eldest son, who goes by Trey, each had a stake in the property. The Falwells’ son and Granda worked as co-managers of the property. The two worked together to upgrade the facility and get it up to the code.

A Lawsuit

The business relationship between the Falwells, Granda and the Fernandezes ultimately grew tense. The Fernandezes filed a legal complaint against the Falwells in June 2015, and a lawsuit a couple of years later. The Fernandezes allege in the suit, described in detail by the Times and the Herald, that during negotiations with the Falwells, ownership shares were promised to them. The Falwells deny the claims.

According to the Times, the ongoing court battle over the Fernandezes’ ownership stake in the hostel devolved into a back-and-forth over the alleged possession of the compromising photos — a battle that Cohen claims he helped resolve. According to people involved in the case who spoke to the Times, either Granda or the Fernandezes were in possession of “personal” photos that were being used as a means of leverage against the Falwells.

Both the Fernandezes claimed they had to change their names to Gordon Bello and Jett Bello, respectively, over the litigation because they received threats. The name change reportedly took place after Cohen got involved.

Cohen Tries To Save The Day

Most of what we know about Cohen’s involvement as fixer for the Falwells comes directly from Cohen’s mouth.

Earlier this year, comedian Tom Arnold started tweeting his suspicions about the Falwells and Granda, suggesting that the couple had a sexual relationship with the young entrepreneur. There’s no evidence of that. But that’s when Cohen, just months away from heading to prison, called Arnold to correct the record.

“There’s a bunch of photographs, personal photographs, that somehow the guy ended up getting — whether it was off of Jerry’s phone or somehow maybe it got AirDropped or whatever the hell the whole thing was,” Cohen told Arnold, according to the Times. Cohen never revealed the name of “the guy” he was referring to, but he does make reference to a “pool boy” in the call.

“I was going to pay him, and I was going to get the negatives and do an agreement where they turn over all the technology that has the photographs or anything like that, any copies,” he reportedly said, adding that the payment never actually happened and “the guy” just ended up deleting the pictures himself.

As the Times notes, it’s still unclear how many photos are or were in existence.

And the Falwells have denied having any relationship with Cohen outside of a friendship. In the conversation with Arnold, Cohen alleges he used to be friends with the Falwells but lamented they don’t talk to him anymore.

“We never engaged or paid Cohen to represent us in any legal or other professional capacity,” Falwell said in that same Fox radio interview.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in January, Cohen in 2015 hired an IT firm, whose owner is the chief information office of Liberty University, to rig online polls in Trump’s favor and build him a “@WomenForCohen” Twitter account.

Timing Of That Trump Endorsement

While there is still no evidence that any deal was arranged between Cohen and Falwell over the Trump fixer’s handling of the photo crisis, the timing of the ordeal and Falwell’s surprising endorsement of Trump for president is notable.

Cohen was reportedly busy handling the photo ordeal in the months leading up to Falwell’s endorsement, and Cohen has previously said he was the architect behind the endorsement. The endorsement from one of the most prominent evangelicals in the country was momentous for Trump’s campaign and widely credited as the catalyst that shifted the white evangelical vote away from candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who announced his presidential campaign at Liberty University in 2015, and toward Trump.

The timing becomes especially puzzling given assertions from Cruz’s former spokesman, who told the Herald that Falwell assured him prior to his Trump announcement that he wouldn’t back a primary candidate, in part because the Liberty University school board wouldn’t allow him to. But Falwell announced his support for Trump in January 2016, just one week before the Iowa caucuses.

“You have the chancellor of the largest Christian university in the world in South Beach, which is not exactly a hot spot for evangelicals to take a vacation, [who buys] a piece of property for someone with no business experience. There is something odd there,’’ Rick Tyler, the ex-Cruz spokesman, told the Herald. “Clearly, something changed that led him to endorse Trump, and I would like to know what that was.”

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In recent press interviews, President Trump has offered up a litany of takes on the Democratic primary field. He’s maintained his penchant for physical insults against Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), but offered a meager, yet surprising, compliment to a foe he’s taken to mocking over her handling of her Native American heritage — or lack thereof.

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“Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough offered an impassioned defense of former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday morning, launching into his comments with the caveat that he knew his opinion wouldn’t be popular among the other hosts.

Biden’s been hit by Democrats, including his 2020 opponents, for remarks he made earlier this week about his past efforts to work with documented segregationist senators from the South. Responding to Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) critique, that Biden was coddling segregationists, Scarborough shot back.

“First of all, I love Kamala (Harris), but Joe Biden didn’t coddle any segregationist in anything he said,” Scarborough said. “In fact, I think he called one of them one of the meanest people he ever met. If that’s coddling, please, stay away from each other, don’t hug me, don’t coddle me. That’s not coddling. Also, he didn’t speak with adoration about these segregationists.”

“(He) picked the people who were the most repugnant to them, who he disagreed with the most and said I could even work with them,” he continued, comparing Biden’s remarks to efforts by former presidents and even evangelist Billy Graham to work with the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

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It was a blast from the past.

President Trump officially announced his 2020 campaign on Tuesday evening with a raucous rally in Orlando, Florida, where Trump treated 20,000 of his most loyal fans with a production more reminiscent of his 2016 shock-jock performances than a new and improved reelection bid.

TPM watched the affair so you don’t have to. Here’s what you missed:

Don Jr. kicks things off by mocking Biden for not curing cancer

Donald Trump Jr. was sent out to warm up the crowd of Make America Great Again groupies, who are apparently entertained by cancer jokes about Trump’s Democratic rivals.

During his opening remarks, Trump Jr. mocked former Vice President Joe Biden for announcing last week that if he’s elected, he’d find a cure for cancer.

“If government failed you then maybe you’re the problem Joe Biden. It’s not rocket science,” Trump Jr. said. “What was the good one last week? Remember he comes out, well, if you elect me president, I’m going to cure cancer. Wow. Why the hell didn’t you do that over the last 50 years?”

Biden’s son, Beau Biden, died in 2015 of brain cancer at the age of 46.

Crowd size will always be crucial

The Trump campaign went above and beyond to ensure there was no question about how much Florida loves President Trump.

According to the New York Times, the campaign rented buses to bring in supporters from across the state to fill the 20,000 seat venue and an overflow crowd outside. Aides also made sure to tell the Times that the crowd was bigger than any seen at Democratic candidates’ announcements.

While the arena was filled to the brim, the Times pointed out that many of the supporters didn’t stay for the entire speech.

Familiar foes are still a crowd-pleaser

The President didn’t take many risks in riling up the crowd, repeatedly turning to familiar sources of his ire to incite angst.

The Russia investigation — which he claimed he “won” — was a favorite target for the MAGA-clad clan.

“The Democrats do not care about Russia. They only care about their own clinical power. They went after my family, my business, my finances, my employees, almost everyone I’ve almost known and worked with, but they are really going after you. That’s what it is all about. It’s not about us but you. They tried to erase your vote, erase your legacy of the greatest campaign and the greatest election probably in the history of our country.”

While Trump’s rants about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation were sprinkled throughout the entire speech, his former foe and favorite punching bag, Hillary Clinton, was mentioned just as frequently. In one 30-minute span of diatribe, Trump mentioned her name seven times.

And throughout the evening, the mere mention of her name incited “Lock Her Up!” calls from the crowd.

CNN took a small stand

Predictably, four minutes into the show, Trump attacked the media, pointing specifically to the press pen in the back of the room as the crowd booed.

As he bragged about his historic 2016 win, Trump dragged reporters and the press at large for not predicting he would take the presidency over Clinton.

“2016 was not merely another four-year election. This was a defining moment in American history. Ask them right there,” he said, pointing at reporters as the crowd expressed its disdain. A group then began chanting “CNN sucks” as Trump turned to look at the crowd, offering only a shrug and a few eyebrow raises as encouragement.

“By the way, that is a lot of fake news back there. That’s a lot,” he said.

CNN then cut away to host John Berman, who pointed out that Trump did at least mention the economy within two minutes of taking center-stage.

Trump still thinks he’s draining the swamp

Despite getting regular bearhugs by some of the most senior members of the Republican establishment — like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)  — Trump coddled his base on Tuesday evening by going after the “Washington insiders” and establishment politicians.

“The people trying to stop our movement are the same Washington insiders who spent their careers rigging the system so your losses will be their gains, you know that,” he said. “These are the same career politicians who presided over decades of lost wages, the loss of our manufacturing jobs … a growing wealth gap and one ruinous trade deal after another.”

Rubio wants everyone to know: It’s not weird that he showed up

As a sidebar: Rubio got dragged for getting so defensive on Twitter about his attendance at the campaign kickoff.

“The Daily” host Michael Barbaro noted in a tweet how “strange” it was to see Rubio, a fierce former opponent of Trump in 2016, “smiling and chuckling” in the audience when the bad blood between the two has barely chilled in the past two years.

Rubio responded with sarcasm and several reporters pounced on the “disingenuous” remark.

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