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

Former federal prosecutor Joseph diGenova and his wife, Victoria Toensing, have not lost the President’s ear, despite conflicts of interest that blocked the couple from joining President Donald Trump’s legal defense against the Russia probe.

“Victoria and I are playing the roles of lawyers on television and real life,” diGenova told WBAL News Radio on Monday. “We’ve spoke with the President several times since our respective statements last week and we continue to chat with his lawyers and with him.”

The White House announced earlier this month that Toensing and diGenova would join Trump’s legal team, but days later the couple countered the White House, saying they couldn’t join the President’s defense because of conflicts of interest regarding previous clients.

DiGenova has been vocally opposed to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and has propagated theories of a rampant anti-Trump bias within the FBI.

On Monday, he called deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein a “disgrace” for the “unauthorized act” of appointing Mueller.

“I have no respect for the man,” he told WBAL. “He has taken away, from a dully elected President of the United States, over a year of his presidency, by his foolish and cowardly act— an unauthorized act of appointing a special counsel. … I think it is a disgrace.”

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A Colorado group, Alamosa Republicans, has apologized and accepted the resignation of a staffer who made a “regrettable post” on Facebook and Twitter claiming Republicans “hate poor people.”

“Out of self-respect— be Republican,” the tweet and Facebook post published Friday, which has reportedly been deleted, said. “Democrats love poor people because they think that poor people will vote Democrat. Republicans hate poor people because they think the dignity of man is above being poor.”

In a second tweet, the Alamosa Republican account said that “America is still the land of opportunity,” which they asserted was the embodiment of the “Republican ideal.”

The group asked followers to welcome its mea culpa on Saturday, labeling the post “inappropriate and offensive.” They said the author “acted independently and without the concurrence of any other member of the the Alamosa County Republicans,” but claimed the “regrettable post” was suppose to condemn poverty, “not persons affected by poverty.”

Hate has no home here. On behalf of the Alamosa County Republicans, and as the Chair of that organization, please accept…

Posted by Alamosa Republicans on Saturday, March 31, 2018

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Retaliating against comments that the ousted former head of Veterans Affairs didn’t resign, the White House on Sunday circulated a memo among veterans groups disputing David Shulkin’s claims, the Associated Press reported.

The White House maintains that Shulkin left his job willingly. The three-page memo obtained by the Associated Press, points out seven “lies” that Shulkin has shared, including his response to the ethics investigation into his use of taxpayer dollars to travel with his wife to Italy and his acceptance of free Wimbledon tennis tickets, according to the AP.

Shulkin made the rounds on cable news Sunday claiming he did not resign from the administration, a revelation that could hinder President Donald Trump’s ability to  pick an acting head, which he announced on Twitter last week. A president is allowed to appoint an acting head to temporarily fill a federal agency job if a person dies, resigns or is unable to perform the job, but it’s unclear what the President is allowed to do in the case of a firing. Trump announced on Twitter last that his physician Ronny Jackson would become the new secretary of Veterans Affairs and Defense Department official Robert Wilkie would serve temporarily.

A Veterans Affairs watchdog determined last month that Shulkin violated ethics rules with his European trip. The White House reportedly was also frustrated with Shulkin after he spoke with the media infighting within the department and his suspicions of political appointees within his department attempting to oust him.

In a New York Times op-ed the day after he was ousted from the White House, Shulkin said he felt he was let go because of his opposition to privatizing veterans’ heal care.

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While the stress of President Trump’s administration eventually pushed former ethics chief Walter Shaub out the door and into the arms of a partisan watchdog group, before he left, he took some enlightened steps to try to reduce tension in the Office of Government Ethics.

He meditated.

According to a new report from CNBC, Shaub and more than a dozen other ethics staffers would take 10 minutes out of each day to clear the conference room, dim the lights, close their eyes and listen to the smooth, sometimes sardonic voice of British former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe as he led the staff through a series of meditative breaths, using the Headspace app.

The deliberate daily reflection helped Shaub and his staff re-center and eventually became a practice that the regular participants grew to “hunger,” Shaub said.

“It kind of made us strong in weathering a very tumultuous storm at the time,” Shaub said. “Of the ones who came regularly, they loved it, and we all seemed to hunger for it.”

Shaub, who left the office after realizing he had reached the end of his rope dealing with the “chaos” of what he saw as rampant ethics violations within the Trump administration, said his office was not prepared for the “assault” they sustained at the beginning of Trump’s time in office. He said the daily meditation help him and staffers escape for 10 minutes and claimed it was “probably my best memory of 2017, at least in the work world … which was just a very hard year.”

“I’ll probably remember that more than the individual trials and tribulations in that year.”

Read the full CNBC report here.

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A 43-year-old Texas woman was sentenced to five years in prison Wednesday for voting in the 2016 election while she was still on supervised release for a felony tax fraud conviction from 2011, the Star-Telegram reported.

The woman, Crystal Mason, reportedly said in court that she did not know she was not allowed to vote and that no official involved in her felony case told her that she wouldn’t be able to vote until she had finished serving her sentence and supervised release. She had already served about three years in federal prison for a tax fraud crime.

Mason waived her right to a jury trial. She reportedly told the judge at her sentencing hearing that she was given a provisional ballot when she went to her usual polling place and realized that her name wasn’t on the voter roll, according to the Star-Telegram. She claimed an election official helped her fill out the form to get a provisional ballot, so she didn’t read it closely.

The judge, Ruben Gonzalez, argued that she had to sign an affidavit to get the provisional ballot and should have known there was a “legal connotation” to that document, according to the Star-Telegram. The county prosecutor reportedly reminded Mason that she had risked jail time by violating federal tax laws in the past.

Before Gonzalez sentenced her to five years in prison, Mason reportedly said that she would not have knowingly broken the law just to vote.

“I inflated returns,” Mason said, according to the Star-Telegram. “I was trying to get more money back for my clients. I admitted that. I owned up to that. I took accountability for that. I would never do that again. I was happy enough to come home and see my daughter graduate. My son is about to graduate. Why would I jeopardize that? Not to vote. … I didn’t even want to go vote.”

Mason’s defense attorney J. Warren St. John, told the Star-Telegram that an appeal had already been filed and he hoped to get Mason out on bond soon.

Warren St. John and the Tarrant County prosecutor Matthew Smid did not immediately return TPM’s requests for comment.

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A Democratic senator has asked the Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General to add new details about Administrator Scott Pruitt’s use of a security detail for personal trips to its ongoing investigation into Pruitt’s travel and round-the-clock security expenses, CNN reported Friday.

According to a letter obtained by CNN that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent to the EPA Inspector General, Pruitt used between two and three dozen different security agents over the course of six weeks. The agents reportedly accompanied him to the Rose Bowl, a family vacation to Disneyland and to a University of Kentucky basketball game, according to CNN’s review of the letter. 

Whitehouse told CNN that he had learned about the new details of Pruitt’s security detail through a confidential source, who provided documents and schedules to back up the allegations.

The EPA’s Inspector General is already probing Pruitt’s excessive spending. Pruitt has come under scrutiny for having a $25,000 sound-proof phone booth installed in his office, flying first class for official business and requiring round-the-clock security.

The EPA has defended Pruitt’s expensive travel and security detail, maintaining that Pruitt has received an unprecedented amount of threats to his personal safety, like people shouting “profanities” at him. Pruitt has racked up nearly $200,000 in travel expenses since taking office, according to multiple reports, including spending more than $30,000 for security detail on a trip to Italy in June and a $1,600 tab to fly first class from D.C. to New York last month.

“While I consider matters of personal security to be extremely serious, personal security should never be used as a pretext to obtain special treatment,” Whitehouse said in the letter, according to CNN.

Pruitt told CBS recently that there was “a change coming” in the way he travels and said he would start flying coach.

Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Pruitt used his security detail to travel to Disney World. It was actually Disneyland. TPM regrets this error.  

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White House physician Ronny Jackson was surprised when President Donald Trump tapped him to run the Department of Veterans affairs and hesitated to accept the nomination, the Washington Post reported Thursday.

Senior White House officials who spoke with the Post said that Trump’s aides talked with Jackson in recent days to gauge his interest, but he was wary about taking on “such a big job,” according to the Post.

But Trump was adamant about Jackson and told senior staff on Monday that his personal doctor was his No. 1 choice, according to the Post. The White House reportedly had planned to announce on Wednesday that Shulkin was leaving the department and would be replaced by Robert Wilkie on an interim basis, but Trump preempted everyone with his tweet, saying Shulkin was out and Jackson was in.

Shulkin’s ousting has been widely speculated for weeks after reports surfaced that Shulkin and his staff acted inappropriately in order to secure government funding for his wife to accompany him on a trip to Europe. The White House was also reportedly frustrated with Shulkin’s openness with the media and his claims that political appointees within his department were working against him.

The nomination of Jackson, an active-duty rear admiral who has served as the White House physician for the past three administrations, has been criticized because of Jackson’s lack of management experience. The VA is the second largest department in the administration, serving more than nine million veterans a year.

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The White House is pushing back on claims from a former official and the President about revamp efforts within the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to Politico.

During an infrastructure event-turned campaign rally in Ohio on Thursday, President Donald Trump addressed his firing of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, telling the crowd of supporters that he wanted to give veterans more choices when it comes to health care.

We’re going to have real choice,” Trump said Thursday. “That’s why I made some changes — because I wasn’t happy with the speed with which our veterans were taken care of. I wasn’t happy with it.”

Shulkin himself, in an op-ed in The New York Times Wednesday, wrote that he was removed from the department to clear the way for the privatization of veterans’ health care.

But the White House in a statement to Politico on Thursday contradicted both those claims: “No one is talking about privatizing the VA,” deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters told Politico.

Shulkin’s ousting has been widely speculated for weeks after reports surfaced that Shulkin and his staff acted inappropriately in order to secure government funding for his wife to accompany him on a trip to Europe. The White House was also reportedly frustrated with Shulkin’s openness with the media and his claims that political appointees within his department were working against him.

Trump announced in a tweet on Wednesday that he would replace Shulkin with White House physician Ronny Jackson.

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As newly appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton arrived at the Pentagon Thursday for his first meeting with Defense Secretary James Mattis, he was met with a bit of a sinister greeting.

“I heard that you’re actually the devil incarnate and I wanted to meet you,” Mattis told Bolton as the two shook hands and walked up the front steps, laughing.

Jokes aside, the two will reportedly not see eye-to-eye on many foreign policy issues. On North Korea, Mattis has been vocal about his support for diplomacy, while Bolton has advocated in his former gig as a Fox News contributor for a militant approach.

The two are also at odds over the nuclear deal with Iran — Bolton has called for the U.S. to walk away from the agreement.

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More than 200 retired diplomats have signed a letter urging the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to press Mike Pompeo on how he plans to “restore the power and influence of American diplomacy” during his upcoming secretary of state confirmation hearing.

The former diplomats said the State Department “needs to be more efficient and effective” and criticized the reforms that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump put in place to cut the department’s budget. The letter did not name the two men, but said the cuts lacked “strategic focus and have crippled capacity” at the State Department. They urged Congress to restore the nearly $20 billion in funding that was cut from the department’s budget this year.

“We ask that you explore with Secretary-designate Pompeo his plans to lead and manage the department and his vision for adequately funding the diplomacy required to promote and protect America’s sovereignty and prosperity,” the letter said.

The former ambassadors also urged Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) — chair and ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, respectively, to whom the letter was addressed — to push Pompeo to fill the eight vacant leadership positions within the department. They said it was a “crisis” that more than 50 diplomat positions are currently unfilled and criticized the department’s hiring freeze.

During his year as secretary of state, Tillerson was widely criticized for vacancies in high-level official positions within the department and his decision to restructure the agency caused a deep dip in morale, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Former ambassadors told the Post that they hope Pompeo’s close relationship with the President will give him leverage in securing more funding for the State Department. Tillerson’s pushback against many of Trump’s position eroded the pair’s relationship and eventually led to Trump firing Tillerson in a tweet.

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