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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 offered two words in defense of his scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt on Thursday.

“I do,” Trump told reporters when asked if he still had confidence in the administrator.

Perhaps he does, for now.

The comment comes amid reports that Trump was unimpressed with Pruitt’s interviews with Fox News and The Washington Examiner on Wednesday. The White House reportedly advised against speaking with the press, as Pruitt scrambled to clean up his image amid ongoing negative reports.

Trump reportedly called Pruitt earlier this week to reassure him of his support when reports surfaced that Pruitt defied the White House in order to get his closes aides a raise and rented a room in a home owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist last year for $50 a day.

Earlier Thursday, White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley told Fox News that he “can’t speak to the future of Scott Pruitt.”

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In a bizarre series of events, a high-profile political adviser from Nevada, who has worked on prominent Republican congressional and presidential campaigns, is being sought by police for domestic violence and for allegedly making his ex-fiancee his “slave,” The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

According to police reports and an interview with the ex-fiancee, who the Review-Journal did not name, the Republican consultant Benjamin Sparks evaded police after they were called to his residence on March 29 following a domestic dispute. The fight allegedly started because Sparks’ ex-fiancee, a 46-year-old woman, refused to comply with his demand that she have sex with other men in front of him, the ex-fiancee told the Review-Journal.

Sparks — a 35-year-old who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid and has coordinated campaigns for Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-NV) and State Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-NM) — was fired as political affairs director for RedRock Strategies over the dispute with his ex-fiancee and reportedly fled to Texas in recent days without any of his belongings.

According to emails, documents and texts his ex-fiancee shared with the Review-Journal, Sparks’ ex-fiancee was his “slave in training” and the two signed a five-page contract solidifying the matter after they started dating in November. The contract stated that his ex-fiancee was his “slave and property” and reportedly required her to kneel and look at the ground when she was around him, be nude, have sex anytime Sparks wanted and wear a collar in private, according to the Review-Journal.

On March 28, Sparks told her he wanted her to have sex with other men in front of him and she refused, which reportedly ignited the March 29 fight that culminated in Sparks calling the police and then fleeing the scene.   

“I truly don’t want this to happen to another girl,” the ex-fiancee told the Review-Journal. “I’m strong and have a great support system and despite that, this almost broke me.”

Read the Review-Journal’s full report for more details here.

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Chairman of Sinclair Broadcasting Group David Smith defended his company’s practice of forcing local stations into broadcasting “must-run” promotional content by comparing the segments to scripted news coverage, The New York Times reported.

“You can’t be serious!” Smith wrote in an email to the Times Tuesday, when asked about the backlash over Deadspin’s viral and Orwellian compilation video, which showed local anchors across the country denouncing “fake stories” in unison. “Do you understand that as a practical matter every word that comes out of the mouths of network news people is scripted and approved by someone?” Smith asked a Times reporter by email.

Sinclair reportedly regularly mandates that local news anchors read scripted, company-sponsored content on the air. It also requires local stations to run a daily “Terrorism Alert Desk” segment as well as right-leaning commentary from pundits including Boris Epshteyn, a former spokesperson for President Donald Trump. A recent segment that was the subject of the viral Deadspin video and prompted widespread criticism, featured local anchors discouraging viewers from reading “fake” and “one-sided” stories, echoing a major talking point of the Trump administration.

But Smith told the Times that the perception that his company is trying to force right-leaning messages on local viewers is “nonsense,” calling the promotional segments “standard practice in the industry.”

“Not that you would print it, but do you understand that every local TV station is required to ‘must run’ from its network their content, and they don’t own me,” he wrote in an email to the Times on Tuesday. “That would be all their news programming and other shows such as late-night talk, which is just late-night political so-called comedy.”

At the center of the criticism that Sinclair has faced for the obligatory scripted content lies concern over the company’s $3.9 billion proposed merger with Tribune Media. The Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission are both reviewing the merger to determine whether it’s in the public interest.

Sinclair is already the largest broadcasting company in the U.S. and a merger with Tribune would give Sinclair a voice in 72 percent of American households, significantly expanding the reach of the promotional content.

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White House attorneys have been meeting with President Trump’s new pick for national security adviser, former Fox News commentator John Bolton, to review his potential conflicts of interest, CNBC reported Wednesday.

A spokesperson for Bolton confirmed to CNBC that the former U.N. ambassador was meeting with lawyers, but declined to comment further, stating that his conversations with White House attorneys were “off-the-record.”

While it was unclear what aspects of Bolton’s background might raise red flags, according to sources with direct knowledge of the matter who spoke with CNBC, Bolton’s PAC and super PAC might be the point of contention.

Bolton has reportedly followed the White House’s advice to end all of his PACs political activity, even though both groups were already big spenders in the midterms, according to a CNBC source. Both the PACs will reportedly not fully shut down.

Bolton also internally announced that he would step down as chairman of his foundation — Foundation for American Security and Freedom — in March and plans to pull his name from the website on April 8, sources told CNBC.   

Read the full CNBC report here.

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President Donald Trump grew increasingly irritated with his top military officials and national security team in a meeting Tuesday for opposing his compulsion to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, CNN reported.

According to senior administration officials who spoke with CNN, Trump carped about the amount of money the U.S. has spent in Syria — which he called fruitless — and questioned why other wealthy nations in the Persian Gulf hadn’t stepped in to help defeat ISIS in the region.

Trump-favored officials, like CIA Director Mike Pompeo — who Trump has tapped to serve as secretary of state — and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, reportedly warned Trump of the consequences of leaving Syria too soon. Dunford argued that a swift exit would give countries like Russia, Turkey and Iran an unencumbered opportunity to advance their own interests in the region.

Trump also reportedly suggested that he wanted the U.S. to finish its mission against ISIS in Syria within six months. Department of Defense Secretary James Mattis and other military officials reportedly resisted that timeline, saying it was too short. Trump reportedly told them to “just get it done,” per CNN.

Trump has reportedly bragged to confidants that his new National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was not in the meeting, “has his back” on his desire to withdrawal from Syria.

Despite his irritation, Trump ultimately agreed to hold off on withdrawing U.S. troops from the region.

Read CNN’s full report here.

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During a discussion between Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) office and Sinclair Broadcasting Group staff in November 2017 about the company’s proposed merger with Tribune Media, Sinclair staff indicated that the company does not dictate the words or content that local reporters deliver, a Durbin spokesperson told TPM Wednesday.

But, evidenced by the viral, infamous compilation of videos showing dozens of Sinclair-owned stations’ reporters repeating a scripted denunciation of “fake” and “one-sided” reporting, Durbin has asked the company’s executives to clarify its policy on the “must-run” promotional segments.

In a letter to Sinclair Executive Chairman David Smith Wednesday, Durbin called the recent scripted promotions a continuation of the company’s “troubling history” of “dictating content to its stations.” He also questioned why Sinclair staff misrepresented its policy at the November meeting, in which Durbin discussed his concerns about the merger, spokesperson Ben Marter confirmed to TPM.

In response to concerns raised by my staff about the consequences of Sinclair-mandated programming on local reporting, Sinclair representatives repeatedly represented that Sinclair does not dictate the words or content local reporters deliver and that any national content distributed on Sinclair-owned stations is delivered by an identified national correspondent,” Durbin said in the letter. “The requirement that local news anchors deliver a scripted promotional message on-air is inconsistent with those representations.

He also called reports that there were “contractural penalties” for news stations and employees who refused to run the mandatory content “further troubling.”

Please confirm what Sinclair’s policy is regarding Sinclair-produced mandated content for local news anchors. Further, please clarify whether there will be employment consequences for personnel at local stations who refuse to deliver the scripted promotional message,” he wrote.

While Marter said the Sinclair-Tribune merger and Durbin’s concerns over Sinclair’s mandated promotion content were “separate issues,” he said the senator’s main concerns about the merger stem from the issue of independence for local media and the journalistic integrity of those local news stations.

Sinclair currently owns more television stations than any other broadcaster in the U.S. and if the merger is allowed, Sinclair’s reach would extend to 72 percent of American households.

Currently, both the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission are separately reviewing the $3.9 billion deal to determine if its in the public’s interest. Under FCC rules, a single company is limited to owning stations that reach no more than 39 percent of households, The New York Times reported in February.

Sinclair spokesperson Scott Livingston did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment.

Read the letter Durbin sent to Sinclair below:

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A former news director for a Sinclair-owned TV station in the Midwest said this week that the “must-run” promotions — like the one that went viral featuring local anchors denouncing fake news — have been commonplace for years.

But the infamous “one-sided news stories” script was the worst example the 14-year local news producer has seen. The producer, Aaron Weiss, told CNN on Wednesday that the videos were “equivalent to a proof-of-life hostage video.”

“My heart broke, my heart broke for the anchors who were forced to do that,” Weiss told the network, after publishing an op-ed about Sinclair in The Huffington Post on Monday.

“I know several of them and as someone who grew up in the local news business — my mom was an anchor in Tucson, Arizona for 30 years and I imagined if she had been forced to do something like that when I was a kid and forced to make a decision about their ethics versus feeding her family and keeping her job in a business she loves,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine doing it and so my heart goes out to all those anchors who were basically forced to do the equivalent of a proof of life hostage video.”

In 2013, Weiss joined a news station in the Midwest as news director, after working as a producer in several larger markets on the West Coast for years. Sinclair bought the station not long after he joined the team and he was rapidly introduced to the company’s “must-run” segments, which he described as “pre-produced packages” that came from corporate along with a script for the anchors to read. He said the pieces “barely passed as journalism,” but couldn’t be changed by producers or anchors.

“We had to air them whether we wanted to or not,” Weiss wrote in his Huffington Post op-ed. “Sinclair knows its strongest asset is the credibility of its local anchors. They’re trusted voices in their communities, and they have often been on the air for decades before Sinclair purchased their stations.”

At first, Weiss said his station tried to bury the packages in the early morning news, but were quickly warned by executives that they had to feature them at a more prominent time.

“I didn’t last long after that,” he wrote.

Weiss said he decided to speak out because he knew people inside the Sinclair-owned stations had, essentially, been issued a gag-order.

“They have successfully locked down the company where anyone inside — we have seen some memos that have been leaked threatening anyone who dares to speak out to anyone publicly about this,” he told CNN.

On Tuesday, FTV Live was first to publish a leaked memo that was sent to staff at the KATU news station in Portland, warning staff that they were not allowed to answer “any questions” or “get into any discussion with callers” or speak with the press about the promotional segments. The general manager for the region, Robert Truman, warned that there would be repercussions if they did.

“I will also remind you that giving statements to the media or sharing negative information about the company can have huge implications,” he said, according to the memo.

CNN and The Oregonian have both confirmed that the memo was sent out to the Portland station’s staff from Sinclair’s Truman. TPM attempted to reach Truman and Sinclair’s corporate spokesperson Scott Livingston Tuesday, but neither returned requests for comment.

In a press release on Monday, Sinclair claimed that the promotional segments “served no political agenda, and represented nothing more than an effort to differentiate our award-winning news programming from other, less reliable sources of information.”

Read the response from Sinclair below:

 

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Embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday that reports on his excessive spending and scrutiny over his housing are just fueled by critics trying to derail President Trump’s agenda.

“There are people that have long in this town done business a different way and this agency has been the poster child of it,” he told the Examiner’s “Washington Secrets” team. “And so do I think that because we are leading on this agenda that there are some who want to keep that from happening? Absolutely. And do I think that they will resort to anything to achieve that? Yes. … It’s toxic here in that regard.”

Pruitt has been widely criticized in recent weeks for everything from ethical conflicts within his department to excessive spending on his travel. In just the past few weeks it’s been reported that Pruitt has taken expensive first class plane trips for official and unofficial business; required round-the-clock security detail — including during a trip to Disney with his family; rented a cheap room from an energy lobbyist’s wife for part of last year; and defied orders from the White House in order to give huge raises to two of his favorite aides. Pruitt is currently under investigation by the EPA’s inspector general and the House Oversight Committee.

Pruitt commented on the controversy over his lodging last year for the first time Tuesday, telling the Examiner that he was “dumbfounded” that it was considered controversial. He claimed the lobbyist had no business before his agency and mentioned that he had several ethics officials look at the lease, claiming his rent — $50 a day — was market value. Pruitt also alluded that living there was a difficult time for him because he was “living out of a suitcase.” 

“You know, I was living out of a suitcase for the first four or five months I was here,” he said. “My wife was not here. My children were not here. My wife was back at home in Oklahoma until my kid went to college and my child went to law school. So we were actively trying to find a place to live and I was literally living out of a suitcase.”

Several news outlets reported on Tuesday that Pruitt was under an informal review by the White House and that the environmental chief could be on his way out.

But, according to the White House, President Donald Trump called Pruitt on Tuesday to reassure him that he wouldn’t be fired, despite reports that the negative news coverage “eats at” Trump. 

Trump told reporters Tuesday “I hope” Pruitt was going to be great, a possible sign that Trump may be distancing himself from the embattled administrator, despite being publicly impressed with Pruitt’s regulatory rollback efforts. 

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After the Democratic-backed Wisconsin state Supreme Court candidate pulled off a double-digit victory over her GOP rival on Tuesday evening, Gov. Scott Walker warned his state that a “blue wave” of the “Far Left” was imminent in November and encouraged Republicans to “counter it with optimism and organization.”

“Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI,” Walker tweeted Tuesday evening. “The Far Left is driven by anger and hatred — we must counter it with optimism and organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters and win in November.”

In a second tweet Walker claimed “big government special interests” were planning to “target” him as he faces reelection for a third term next fall.

In Tuesday’s election, liberal candidate Rebecca Dallet easily defeated the more conservative Michael Screnock, who was backed by Walker, though the state’s high court elections are suppose to remain non-partisan. According to the Journal Sentinel, Dallet trounced Screnock 56 percent to 44 percent, a victory that chips away at conservative control of the court and hands liberals their first victory on an open court seat in more than two decades.

“People are tired of what’s been going on in our state in terms of the money coming in to buy these elections and people spoke out tonight,” Dallet told the AP Tuesday.

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Self-professed conservative martyr Bill O’Reilly attempted to evince his post-Fox News relevance again on Monday by joining the tiff between Fox News host Laura Ingraham and a high school student who survived a mass shooting.

On his “No Spin News” website, O’Reilly asserted that the advertiser fallout that Ingraham’s show has experienced since she mocked David Hogg for not getting into college, was directed by “shadowy radical groups” and professed the “same thing happened to me.”

That tweet was ill-advised and Laura has apologized,” he wrote Monday evening, before promoting an interview with conservative pundit Bernard Golderberg on his show that night. “But know this: The sponsor boycott is not some spontaneous uprising by companies. It is being directed by powerful, shadowy radical groups who want Laura Ingraham off the air. Same thing happened to me.

Fox News said Monday that it still supports Ingraham and her show, despite criticism over a tweet she posted last week, in which she mocked Hogg for not getting into four colleges in California. Hogg has gained a sizable Twitter following in the past month, becoming a vocal advocate for gun control legislation after 17 of his peers and teachers were killed by a former student who opened fire at his high school.

Hogg tweeted a list of Ingraham’s advertisers and told his followers to ask the companies to drop their support of “The Ingraham Angle.” At least seven companies pulled their ads, and Ingraham swiftly apologized in a tweet, but Hogg said he didn’t accept the apology.

Hogg responded to the latest ridicule from a full-grown adult on Monday evening, by telling MSNBC that he didn’t “have any shadowy figures” behind him.

“I’m just a kid that uses Twitter,” he said.

O’Reilly’s not the only conservative to suggest Hogg and his peers are disingenuous in their response to the massacre. Far-right groups and some conservatives have criticized Hogg and his classmates in recent weeks, claiming the students are “crisis actors” or being paid by the left to speak out.

O’Reilly himself claims he was ousted from his high-profile gig at Fox News because of the mainstream media and liberal groups who wanted to silence his conservative voice. O’Reilly was pushed out of Fox after advertisers dropped his show amid reports that he had been entangled in multiple lawsuits and paid several multi-million dollar settlements to women who accused him of sexual harassment.

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