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 Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak, said his conversations with former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn had been “transparent” and focused on U.S.-Russia cooperation.

“We only spoke about the most simple things … but the communication was completely correct, calm, absolutely transparent. In any case, there were no secrets on our side,” Kislyak said in a panel discussion broadcast by Russian state media, Reuters reported Saturday.

“There are a number of issues which are important for cooperation between Russia and the United States– most of all, terrorism. And that was one of the things we discussed,” he said.

Kislyak’s comments come after he was recalled back to Russia last month after spending nine years as his country’s ambassador to the U.S.

Flynn was forced out of President Donald Trump’s administration in February after it was revealed that he failed to disclose conversations he had with Kislyak about U.S. sanctions with Russia before Trump was inaugurated.

While he is no longer in Washington, Kislyak remains a key focus of the U.S. probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Read More →

A group of 50 Democratic U.S. House members sent a letter Friday to the heads of the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff requesting that they not comply with the President’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, and “at a minimum” not make any changes until a policy study has been completed.

“We write to not only express our strong opposition to President Trump’s recent tweets seeking to ban transgender individuals from the military, but to remind you not to comply with any unconstitutional directive which may ultimately be issued,” the letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, read. “We reject the premise that the presence of transgender troops interferes with the morale or combat readiness of our Armed Forces.”

The letter from House members, spearheaded by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), followed an announcement President Donald Trump made via Twitter last week banning transgender individuals from serving in the military in “any capacity.”

The measure reportedly caught the Pentagon and other members of the Trump administration by surprise. Several GOP senators came out against the ban as well.

Dunford sent out a memo shortly after the announcement saying no changes would be made to the military’s transgender policy until the Department of Defense received some guidance from the President.

A majority of Americans are opposed to the ban as well. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 67 percent of registered voters surveyed said transgender individuals should be allowed to serve in the military, while 27 percent said they should not be allowed to serve.

In the letter, House Democrats urged Dunford and Mattis to not make any policy changes, saying the ban is “unconstitutional on its face” for a number of reasons, including the President’s poorly constructed rollout.

“Instead of being grounded in a thoughtful deliberative process, the President’s policy was derived from a series of arbitrary and capriciously issued tweets,” the letter said.

The letter praised the current transgender service member policy developed in conjunction with “the full leadership of the armed services” during the Obama administration and based on data, including a Pentagon-commissioned study that estimated about 2,450 transgender people are among active duty troops.

That RAND Corporation study predicted it would cost the government about $2.9- $4.2 million a year to fund hormone therapy and surgeries.

“Instead of being developed based on any new quantitative data or policy input, the President’s proposal appears to be based on raw political calculation, with a Trump administration official claiming the President’s tweets ‘forces Democrats in the Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, to take ownership of this issue,’” the letter said.

“We believe any serious or credible review of the law and the facts in the present case make it clear that the President’s proposed ban on transgender people serving in the armed forces will weaken, not strengthen our military, and is blatantly unconstitutional,” members wrote in closing.

Read the letter to Mattis and Dunford below:

Read More →

The Interior’s Department’s Office of the Inspector General has launched a “preliminary investigation” into Secretary Ryan Zinke after he reportedly threatened Alaska senators last week in an attempt to get them to support an Obamacare repeal push.

Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) sent a letter to the Inspector General on July 27, asking the office to look into Zinke’s calls to Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK).

“The OIG is undertaking a preliminary investigation into this matter. We will advise you about what further action the results of this inquiry lead the OIG to take,” Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall said Thursday in a written response to Pallone and Grijalva.

Sullivan told the Alaska Dispatch News that Zinke called ahead of the Senate’s Obamacare repeal vote last week and threatened to sanction Alaska on energy policy if both senators didn’t vote in favor of repeal.

Murkowski had long expressed publicly that she was opposed to all the Senate GOP’s repeal proposals. She confirmed that she received a call from Zinke, but said he only told her that the President was unhappy with her vote against a motion to proceed to open up Obamacare repeal for debate on the Senate floor.

Zinke previously said claims of a threat were laughable, and on Thursday tweeted a photo of himself and Murkowski drinking a beer.

Read the letter from the Office of the Inspector General below:

Read More →

During a sit-down interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) said they didn’t worry about the consequences of their votes against Republican senators’ health care plans, despite a direct public attack from the President.

You want to vote to do the right thing. And so worrying about the consequences, are you fearful of repercussion from your party? A tweet from the President? A backlash from your leadership? I don’t believe that we should be motivated or discouraged from taking the positions that are important to the people that we represent in our respective states,” Murkowski said.

The two moderate Republicans have been called heroines and hypocrites for being the only Senate Republicans who opposed their party’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare from the get-go.

Among several issues they said they had with the bill, both felt they should protect their constituents from deep cuts to Medicaid expansion, which has helped fund opioid addiction treatment in both their respective states. They were also opposed to cuts to Planned Parenthood.

The issue of family planning services, cancer screening, well women care probably does resonate with us more than with our male colleagues, and to me it was so unfair to single out one medicaid provider and say to women in particular you can’t choose which health care provider you want to go to,” Collins said.

Murkowski said that the second time Senate Republicans were invited to the White House to meet with the President about Obamacare repeal plans, she stood up to President Donald Trump, despite his attempts to intimidate her. Trump specifically singled her out in a tweet in July for voting against a motion to proceed, saying she “let Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!”

“It was a very directed appeal, that we need to come together as Republicans. I made a statement to the President with my colleagues and with his team there that ‘I’m not voting for the Republican Party. I’m voting for the people of Alaska,’” she said.

“And I remember being so proud of you for saying directly to the President what your obligations were,” Collins said.

The two said they took comfort in each other throughout the debate, with Murkowski saying it was nice to have “another kindred soul close by” during that final vote last week, when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) ultimately decided to vote against so-called “skinny repeal,” effectively killing the bill.

“(After the vote) we had one of those conversations that you’ll think of years down the road where (McCain) said people might not appreciate what has happened right now as a positive, maybe our colleagues aren’t viewing this as a positive right now, but the time will prove that having a pause, having a time-out for us to do better is going to be good for the country,” Murkowski said.

Read More →

While he is a supporter of a merit-based immigration plan, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said he wouldn’t support the Trump-backed immigration bill that would favor green card applicants who can demonstrate skills because he’s concerned about how it would impact farm labor in his home state.

“I think you have to consider that we do want high-tech people, but we also need low-skilled people who will do work that Americans won’t do,” McCain told the Arizona Republic during a sit-down with its editors and reporters this week. “I wouldn’t do it. Even in my misspent youth, I wouldn’t do it.”

The RAISE Act, which was announced Tuesday by the President and Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA), would favor green card applicants who demonstrate skills, education and language ability over relations to people already here. It also seeks to cut legal immigration in half over the next decade.

“Immigration reform is one of the issues I’d like to see resolved,” McCain told the local paper. “I’ve got to talk to him (Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer) about when would be the best time. I think there are all kinds of deals to be made out there. I really do.”

Just before leaving Washington last week to undergo treatment for brain cancer, McCain said he spoke with Schumer (D-NY) about reviving immigration reform discussions. Together, the two lead an unsuccessful 2013 bipartisan reform effort, coined the “Gang of Eight.” Their legislation looked at border security and a path to citizenship, as well as visa reform.

“Basically it’s what we passed last time, brought up to date with the new challenges, like opioids,” he said. “It’s still there. We got 68 votes, I think, the last time. I don’t think that’s going to be any different next time.”

He said he isn’t against a border wall, but would rather see the U.S. use technology, drones and “rapid-reaction capabilities” to address the issue.

“To think that a wall is going to stop illegal immigration or drugs is crazy,” he said.

McCain is not the only Republican to come out against the merit-based immigration bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) released a statement Wednesday saying the cuts to legal immigration would be “devastating” to his state’s economy.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) made similar comments. 

Read More →

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) combatted the President’s negative comments about drug addiction issues in his state on Thursday, saying in a statement that President Donald Trump is “wrong” and that his state is already seeing results as it works to end opioid overdose related deaths.

Sununu’s statement:

“The President is wrong. It’s disappointing his mischaracterization of this epidemic ignores the great things this state has to offer.

Our administration inherited one of the worst health crises this state has ever experienced, but we are facing this challenge head on. We have doubled our resources to support prevention, treatment and recovery; dedicated millions to law enforcements efforts to keep drugs out of our state, increased the availability of naloxone, and are rebuilding our prevention programs for our kids.

We are already seeing positive signs of our efforts as overdoses and deaths are declining in key parts of the state. In spite of this crisis, New Hampshire remains the best place to live, work and raise a family.”

Sununu’s statement was prompted by Trump’s claims that he won New Hampshire during the primaries because the state is a “drug-infested den.”

The comments were made to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto during a phone call in January. The transcript of the conversation was obtained by The Washington Post and released Thursday.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) also shut down Trump’s comments on Twitter, calling his remarks about her state “disgusting.”

Read More →

During a January phone call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, President Donald Trump claimed he won the state of New Hampshire during the primaries because it is a “drug-infested den,” according to a transcript of the conversation obtained by The Washington Post.

That didn’t sit well with one New Hampshire senator.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) took to Twitter Thursday morning to express her disdain for the President’s comments, calling them “disgusting” and defending her state against the insult.

New Hampshire has a “substance misuse crisis,” just like other states across the U.S. that are combatting the opioid epidemic, she tweeted.

“Instead of insulting people in the throes of addiction, @POTUS needs to work across party lines to actually stem the tide of this crisis,” the junior senator said.

Appearing on CNN Thursday afternoon, she said she wanted the President to “stop the talk” and invited him to “learn more” about the opioid crisis and the issues associated with that addiction.

Trump won the New Hampshire primary election, pulling out ahead of then-Republican candidate John Kasich, but lost the state to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton during the general election.

Read More →

The merit-based immigration proposal backed by the President would be damaging to South Carolina’s two strongest industries, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who came out against the plan just hours after the President made it public.

The RAISE Act, which was announced Tuesday by the President and Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) would favor green card applicants who demonstrate skills, education and language ability over relations to people already here. It also seeks to cut legal immigration in half over the next decade.

Graham said that move would be “devastating” to his state’s agriculture and tourism industries, where jobs are often filled by immigrants.

“South Carolina’s number one industry is agriculture and tourism is number two.  If this proposal were to become law, it would be devastating to our state’s economy which relies on this immigrant workforce,” he said in a statement. “South Carolina’s agriculture and tourism industry advertise for American workers and want to fill open positions with American workers. Unfortunately, many of these advertised positions go unfilled. Hotels, restaurants, golf courses and farmers will tell you this proposal – to cut legal immigration in half — would put their business in peril.”

He said the measure “incentivizes” illegal immigration, which would hurt his state’s economy.

“After dealing with this issue for more than a decade, I know that when you restrict legal labor to employers it incentivizes cheating,” he said.

Other Republicans have expressed concerns about the bill as well, with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) saying he would like to see manufacturing and agriculture be considered skills that allow admittance under this plan because “not one dairy plants” in his state can “hire enough people to work.”

Sen. John Thune (R-SD) made similar comments, telling the Washington Examiner his state has “work force needs” that often have to be filled by “immigrants labor supply.”

H/t The Post and Courier 

Read More →

After a confrontation with a Cubs fan at a Milwaukee Brewers game over the weekend, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said his response was more tame than it could have been.

“For those of you who know me, I was very restrained. I didn’t dump the nachos on him or anything, which I think was an option,” he said, during a news conference in Trenton, N.J.

Christie was recently recorded stooping down to get in the face of a Cubs fan and calling the man a “big shot.”

The fan, Brad Joseph, said the governor confronted him after he had heckled Christie, calling him a “hypocrite” and shouting “you suck.” Christie claims that was the only altercation he got into at the weekend baseball games with his son, who works for the Brewers, and said he took about “200 pictures” with fans in the stands.

“When I’m at a baseball game with my son on a Sunday afternoon, I do have a right to sit there and enjoy the game,” he said. “You get one shot to call me a name or curse me out. And I gave him that first shot to do that, but when you go at it a second time, you’re going to get a response.”

The baseball game run-in is just one of several incidents in the past month that have brought the governor negative attention.

In July he was photographed on a public beach with his family, even though the beach was closed after the government had shut down because of a stalemate between Christie and his state’s legislature.

Also last month, he auditioned for a spot on a live sports talk radio show and called a caller a “communist” for asking about the beach incident.

At a New York Mets game, he was booed by fans when he caught a foul ball.

Christie — who has a 15 percent approval rating, according to a Monmouth University Poll —  can’t seek reelection because his term limit is up in January.

Read More →

Just 33 percent of Americans approve of President Donald Trump nationwide, the lowest approval numbers that have been seen since his inauguration, according to a new Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday. Sixty-one percent of American voters disapprove of Trump, according to the poll.

White men were the most split on their opinions about the President, with 47 percent approving of Trump and 48 percent disapproving. Republicans are still standing by their party’s pick, though, with 76 percent of those who identify with the GOP saying they’re happy with Trump. A mere 2 percent of Democrats indicated approval of the President.

Even Trump’s main base of supporters — white people with no college degree — are losing faith in the President. They disapprove of his job performance 50 percent to 43 percent.

The majority of the registered voters surveyed said the President is not levelheaded — 71 to 26 percent — and 54 percent indicated they were embarrassed, not proud, that Trump is President.

“It’s hard to pick what is the most alarming number in the troubling trail of new lows for President Donald Trump,” Tim Malloy, the assistant director of Quinnipiac University Poll, said in a statement. “Profound embarrassment over his performance in office and deepening concern over his level-headedness have to raise the biggest red flags. The daily drip drip of missteps and firings and discord are generating a tidal wave of bad polling numbers.”

Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said he is not honest; 63 percent said he does not have good leadership skills; and 59 percent said he does no care about average Americans. However, 58 percent still think he is a strong person and 55 percent think he is intelligent.

Multiple intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia interfered with the 2016 election, and 63 percent of those interviewed believe it happened, while 58 percent think the President was involved.

Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed want the President to stop tweeting from his personal account.

The poll surveyed 1,125 registered voters nationwide from July 27 to Aug. 1 via live phone interviews. The poll has a +/- 3.4 percentage point margin of error.

Read More →