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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

President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort surrendered to the FBI Monday, a seminal moment in the sprawling Russia probe that was captured live by the cable news networks.

Manafort’s appearance entering the FBI field office in downtown Washington, D.C. just after 8 a.m. ET, followed the first charges from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, The New York Times reported Monday.

The charges against Manafort and his business partner — which were unsealed Monday — include 12 counts of conspiracy against the U.S., conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act) statements, false statements and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, according to a Mueller spokesperson.

One of Manfort’s business associates, Rick Gates, also turned himself in Monday, according to CNN. The pair were indicted by a federal grand jury on Friday. Gates is linked to Manafort’s business dealings with politicians and corporations in Eastern Europe.

The special counsel has taken a broad approach to its probe into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller has been investigating Manafort for months, looking at Manafort’s foreign business dealings and whether he properly disclosed his foreign lobbying. Manafort has previously denied financial wrongdoings in his various real estate dealings and use of offshore tax shelters. He came under scrutiny and was fired from the Trump campaign for a $12 million payment the Ukrainian president sent Manafort.

The former campaign chairman is the first person to be charged in the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the election. Mueller and his team of prosecutors have taken interest in the Trump campaign, as well as the financial transactions of members of Trump’s team.

The FBI conducted a pre-dawn raid at Manafort’s home in Virginia in July, taking financial and tax documents.

Watch the clip of Manafort arriving at the FBI field house on Monday morning, via CNN:

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Two top congressional Democrats want to know why a small power company, from a Trump administration official’s hometown with Trump campaign-friendly financiers, is in charge of restoring power to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The ranking Democrats on the House Committee on Natural Resources and House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which oversee FEMA, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general Friday. They requested a probe into whether the $300 million contract Whitefish Energy Holdings reached with the Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority (PREPA) is an “appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”

“Normally, after a disaster that affects the electrical grid, the owner of the grid relies on mutual aid agreements to restore electricity. … In this instance, instead of activating mutual aid agreements, PREPA chose to contract with an intermediary to hire workers to restore electricity to the island,” Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) wrote in the letter to Inspector General John Roth.

Among several things, the representatives want to know why a private company — which is only two years old and only had two full-time employees at the time the contract was awarded — was hired instead of a mutual aid group.

“Given that funding for this contract is envisioned to come from FEMA’s Public Assistance program, the American taxpayer must be assured that costs associated with this contract are eligible, fair and reasonable, especially given the availability of workers through a mutual aid agreement,” the letter said.

The two Democrats claimed threats made by a Whitefish spokesperson on Twitter,  after the San Juan mayor criticized the contract, were “inappropriate conduct” and the comments were “insensitive to the citizens of San Juan and all of Puerto Rico, many of whom are still suffering without electricity, drinking water and other necessities.” The company later apologized on Twitter for its remarks.

Grijalva and DeFazio also asked the IG to look into whether there was any “political impetus” behind the agreement. Not only is Whitefish located in Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s hometown, Zinke’s son worked for Whitefish at one point. The financial backers of the power company are also major donors to the Republican National Committee and Trump’s campaign.

The two Democrats aren’t the only public officials who have raised concerns over the agreement.

Earlier this week, both the governor of Puerto Rico and the mayor of the U.S. territory’s capitol city spoke out about the contract. Friday morning, FEMA issued a statement saying it had “significant concerns” about the deal and said it would review how the contract was procured.

Read the letter below:

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is looking into how a contract between Puerto Rico and a tiny power company — whose CEO and partner are friendly with the Trump administration — was procured, according to a statement.

A small utility company in Montana signed a $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to restore electricity to the U.S. territory. The deal raised eyebrows after the Weather Channel reported that the company, Whitefish Energy Holdings, is reportedly financed by major donors to President Donald Trump and has ties to the Trump administration.

In its statement Friday, FEMA clarified that it was not involved in hiring the company to restore power to the island and hasn’t provided any reimbursement to the PREPA yet for its contract with Whitefish.

“Based on initial review and information from PREPA, FEMA has significant concerns about how PREPA procured this contract and has not confirmed whether the contract prices are reasonable,” the statement said. “FEMA is presently engaged with PREPA and its legal counsel to obtain information about the contract and contracting process, including how the contract was procured and how PREPA determined the contract prices were reasonable.”

FEMA officials said it is “important for all applicants for FEMA Public Assistance to understand and abide by” federal regulations for the funding, otherwise they risk not getting a reimbursement from the federal government.

“FEMA continues to focus on the expedited restoration of essential service in support of the governor’s recovery goals,” FEMA said.

Whitefish Energy is based in Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s hometown, and Zinke is friendly with the company’s CEO. A partner at Whitefish was also a major Republican donor. He gave a total of $74,000 to various Trump groups and another $30,700 to the Republican National Committee, the Daily Beast reported.

Both the governor of Puerto Rico and the mayor of the U.S. territory’s capitol city have spoken out about the contract, with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz calling for an investigation into the contract, sparking a Twitter war with the company, which later apologized for its comments.   

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello on Wednesday asked the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general to conduct a review of the contract procurement and told ABC News there would be “hell to pay” if any corruption is uncovered in the audit.

Just two years old, Whitefish only had two full-time employees before being awarded the contract, ABC News reported.

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Democrat donor Tom Steyer’s $10 million impeachment campaign is getting under President Donald Trump’s skin.

Steyer’s one-minute advertisement — which asks voters to call Congress about filing articles of impeachment — has aired on cable news multiple times a day for the past week, including “Fox and Friends,” Trump’s favorite show.

That’s likely where the President saw the advertisement. He tweeted “Thank you @foxandfriends. Really great job and show!” just minutes after he criticized Steyer, calling the California billionaire activist “wacky” and “totally unhinged.”

Trump’s claim that Steyer “never wins elections” isn’t totally unfounded. The former hedge fund manager spent more than $70 million in support of Democrats in the 2014 election cycle with little success. He gave $80 million-plus to Democrats in 2016, according to The Atlantic. Steyer has said he’s not ruling out a 2020 presidential run or a 2018 California gubernatorial bid, but he claims the new advertisement is a just a way to raise awareness, not gain publicity.

In the video, Steyer outlines all of Trump’s “dangerous” moves as President thus far, and said that a Republican Congress “once impeached a President for far less.”

“Yet today people in Congress and his own administration know that this President is a clear and present danger who’s mentally unstable and armed with nuclear weapons, and they do nothing,” he said.

Watch the advertisement below:

 

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A third woman has come forward accusing former President George H.W. Bush of groping her, and making the same joke that other women have reported, during a photo with the former President.

Author Cristina Baker Kline and her husband were invited to a fundraising event for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in 2014. She said when she was posing for a picture with Bush, he asked her if she wanted to know what his favorite book was.

She, of course, said yes to the former President, according to a personal essay she wrote that Slate published Thursday evening.

“David Cop-a-feel!” he said as he squeezed her behind and the photographer took the photo, she said, repeating the same joke that at least two other women have said he used when he groped them.

After the photo, Kline and her husband left the event and were driven back to their hotel by a friend of the Bush family, Kline said.

Once we were on our way, I told David what had happened. I was still so surprised that it didn’t occur to me to keep it secret. His mouth fell open. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” she said, recalling the conversation with her husband. “Our driver, who was stopped at a light, sat there for a moment, then leaned back and looked at us. ‘I do trust you will be … discreet,’” she said.

Kline remembers thinking that the family friend’s comments made it clear that Bush had done this before.

Here’s an excerpt from her Slate piece:

“Now, with two women talking about the same behavior—even the same crude joke—I feel compelled to step forward. Three and a half years ago President Bush might not have been as mentally acute, but over the course of the weekend I saw him actively engaged in conversation and to all appearances controlling his impulses. He made a choice to do what he did to me.

This is what’s most galling: I was at that event as a guest author, alongside three male authors. I was groped. As far as I know, they were not. What happened to me at a literary luncheon with a former president would never have happened to them. At the very moment when I was feeling honored to be recognized for my work and to raise money for this important organization that I believe in, President Bush made clear to me that because I am a woman, I can be objectified, sexualized, reduced to a body part.

In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens writes, “It’s in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.” That’s why I’m sharing this experience today. I wasn’t traumatized. I’m not angry. But it shouldn’t have happened. I hope all these stories that women are finally sharing about their experiences will begin to effect change.”

Two other women have said the former President groped them during a photo and made the same joke. A spokesperson for the Bush family issued the following statement after the second woman came forward.

“At age 93, President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures. To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke — and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”

The accusations against the former President follow reports from women across the globe who are speaking out against sexual harassment and assault, sharing their personal stories and using the hashtag #metoo. The movement started after reports came out that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein had been sexually assaulting and harassing more than 50 women for decades.

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Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) doesn’t think his ability to get things done in Congress hinges on his relationship with President Donald Trump.

Commenting on a feud that’s been building for “a long time,” and recently escalated when Corker called the White House an “adult day care,” the senator said his testy relationship with Trump is “irrelevant to me carrying out the responsibilities” he has during his last 14 months in office.

“I’m constantly in touch with (Rex) Tillerson, with (Mike) Pence, with (Steven) Mnuchin, who was just in my office recently on the tax issues,” Corker said, appearing on MSNBC Thursday, answering questions about whether his severed relationship with Trump would be detrimental to his work leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

To be honest, my relationship with the President is not relevant. I’m dealing with the principals who conduct foreign policy, and I hope more and more he’ll leave these issues to them,” he said. “The way we feel about each other, which is obviously not particularly positive, is irrelevant to me carrying out the responsibilities I have here. Totally irrelevant.”

After announcing his retirement last month, Corker has not held back in criticizing the President. On Tuesday, the same day that Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) delivered a blistering speech from the Senate floor about Trump, Corker made several comments saying he would not support Trump in the future and that he doesn’t think the President is a role model for children.

Corker said the public disagreements are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his frustrations with Trump.

“This has been building for a long time. I had a private dinner with the President, I’ve played golf with the President, I’ve intervened when the staff has asked me to intervene, when he’s getting ready to go off the rails, which happens, as you know, often,” he said. “ Look, I’ve done a lot of things privately. This has just continued to build.”

Corker said Trump’s public “kneecapping” of his secretary of state is what pushed him to go more public with his irritation, but he doesn’t want his comments to continue to be part of the news cycle.

“Typically presidents try to be aspirational in what they do, they try to bring out the best in our country,” he said. “That, to me, is not happening, and I’m going to continue to rail against that in an appropriate way. I don’t want to have an ongoing, quote unquote, feud. … One thing I don’t get up in the morning and think about is what’s happening at the White House relative to outbursts.

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Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) did not return to Washington this week after receiving a barrage of threats, according to her D.C. office spokesperson.

“We have received a lot of threats and rude phone calls since President Trump started this feud with her,” Wilson’s spokeswoman Joyce Jones told TPM Thursday.

Because of her absence, Wilson has missed at least 20 votes in the House since Monday, a move the congresswoman doesn’t take lightly, Jones said.

“Voting is extremely important to her. That’s how she expresses the views of her constituents and she wouldn’t miss votes if not for extraordinary circumstances,” she said.

The Miami Herald first reported that Wilson had been home in Florida all week instead of in Washington due to threats, after speaking with source close to Wilson and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL). The threats follow Wilson’s public criticism of Trump and the way he handled a conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, an American soldier who was killed in Niger earlier this month.

“She’s home,” Hastings told the Herald. “I have not spoken with her about it, but I’ve heard that she’s received substantial death threats and I think she is doing everything she can to ratchet down and let some of us, including me, take over.”

Capitol police are investigating some of the threats made against Wilson and the congresswoman plans to return to Washington next week, Jones said.

Wilson got entangled in a war of words with Trump last week, after Wilson told reporters that Trump couldn’t remember the Johnson’s name during a condolence call with his widow and suggested that Johnson knew “what he was signing up for.”

On Twitter, Trump claimed Wilson “fabricated” the story and accused her of lying and “SECRETLY” listening in on a “very personal” phone call.

Wilson stood by her story, which the widow later confirmed, and said she was in the car with Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, because she has been a close mentor to the fallen soldier since he was young.

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While Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) once described President Donald Trump as a “jackass” and an “idiot,” the South Carolina senior senator has recently become rather chummy with Trump, bonding over their shared efforts to repeal Obamacare with the Graham-Cassidy bill. The pair even played golf together twice in the same week.

The newly forged friendship may have something to do with Graham’s lukewarm reaction to Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Corker’s (R-TN) highly critical and public condemnation of Trump, his behavior and his policies in recent days.

Saying he likes Flake “a lot” and his impending retirement will be a “loss to the Senate,” Graham admitted he does share Flake’s “concerns about what the President said, about the way he behaves,” according to Vanity Fair’s Hive.

The election is over. I’m focused on results, and that’s why I’m here. I’d rather not be a constant critic. I’ll stand up when I need to, but I’m trying to get taxes cut,” he said.

Graham also said repealing Obamacare and “win(ning) a war we can’t afford to lose” are why he won’t take Flake’s advice on standing up to Trump.

Earlier this week, Graham told The Washington Post that it’s important to “keep talking” to Trump and “keep him close.”

Flake announced his retirement during a scathing speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, saying his party needs to stop “pretending” like Trump’s behavior is normal. Corker has been highly critical of Trump for weeks now — ever since announcing his retirement — saying he would not support Trump again and calling the White House an “adult day care.”  

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President Donald Trump is very smart, OK? It’s the press than makes him seem “uncivil.”

That’s the message Trump was trying to spread Wednesday, answering a variety of questions from reporters before boarding Marine One to head to Dallas, Texas.

“You know, people don’t understand. I went to an Ivy League college. I was a nice student. I did very well,” he said, responding to a question about whether he should be more civil.

It’s not the first time Trump has boasted of his intelligence by bragging about graduating from Wharton, University of Pennsylvania’s business school, in 1968. During the campaign he brought it up a few times to defend his smarts and the fact that he has “the best words.” 

I’m a very intelligent person. You know, the fact is, I think, I really believe, I think the press creates a different image of Donald Trump than the real person,” he said.

The question about Trump’s civility is likely in reference to the way he has treated the widow of a soldier who was killed in Niger earlier this month, publicly refuting her claims that she felt disrespected by the President during a condolence phone call because Trump didn’t remember her husband’s name and suggested her husband “knew what he was signing up for.”

Responding to a different question about claims that he didn’t remember the soldier Sgt. La David Johnson’s name, he said he has “one of the great memories of all time.”

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Calling Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) decision to retire — and publicly blast President Trump — a “personal decision,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) claimed on Wednesday that there’s not “some crisis in the Republican party.”

His remarks come after two Senate Republicans were highly and publicly critical of President Donald Trump on Tuesday, with Flake saying he couldn’t run for reelection because it would mean he’d had to “pretend” like Trump’s behavior is normal.

Despite the unprecedented move for a senator to lash out on the sitting President of his party from the Senate floor, Kennedy said he doesn’t think the remarks are indicative of a larger problem.

“I’m not going to say Jeff’s right or wrong. You know, those are his feelings. And he’s entitled to express them. But I don’t think there’s some crisis in the Republican party,” Kennedy told CNN Wednesday. “There’s certainly no crisis in the conference among senators, who happen to be Republican. We are focused on tax reform and we’re going to get it done, hopefully, by Thanksgiving.”

Kennedy said if there’s any issue within his party, it’s the fact that Congress hasn’t been able to accomplish many of its goals, like Obamacare repeal.

“I think what Americans want right now are some results. I think that’s the biggest problem with my part, at least in the Senate on Capitol Hill,” he said. “We’ve been here nine months and a lot of people are frustrated, including me, that we haven’t done more.”

Kennedy said he tries to not comment on Trump’s tweets and doesn’t like to get involved in the “drama” of political “namecalling.”

The things that kids do in a junior high cafeteria, it makes for interesting television, but I don’t think that’s what Americans are focused on. It doesn’t bother me. I believe in the First Amendment,” he said. “Just because some people like drama doesn’t mean I have to attend the performance.”

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