Nicole_avatar

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

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.

Read More →

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.

Read More →

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.  

Read More →

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.

Read More →

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.

Read More →

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.

Read More →

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.

Read More →

As predicted in reports this week, President Donald Trump pounced on Amazon Thursday, baselessly claiming that the tech giant takes advantage of the U.S. Postal Service.

“I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the election,” he tweeted. “Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state and local governments, use our Postal Service as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.) and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!”

Axios reported Wednesday that Trump is “obsessed” with Amazon and is planning to crack down on the company over issues he has with its property and sales tax policies. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has hinted in the past that the White House may eventually take a stance on the company’s tax system. Amazon pays taxes in 23 states and the District of Columbia, according to Forbes. Sources close to Trump told Axios Wednesday that Trump thinks Amazon is killing small businesses and hurting his real estate friends who own brick and mortar shopping centers.

Despite reportedly being briefed on the matter in multiple meetings, Trump has the “perception,” according to an Axios source, that the online retailer is costing the U.S. Postal Service money. The Postal Service actually makes a profit from Amazon. In 2013, the Postal Service added Sunday deliveries in several large cities because the demand for Amazon packages made it worthwhile to do so.     

Trump’s tweet stands in contrast with statements from the White House about the company. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Trump had “no announcements” or “actions that we’re currently pushing forward” regarding Amazon.

Read More →

Revealing his patriotic-like loyalty to President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he has no regrets over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, despite consistent public lashings from the President.

He even defends Trump for taunting him.

In a new profile on Sessions in Time Magazine published Thursday, Sessions said he still thinks he “did the right thing” by stepping back from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign. That move cleared the way for special counsel Robert Mueller to dig in, which has fueled most of Trump’s vexation with his attorney general.

“I think I did the right thing,” he told Time. “I don’t think the attorney general can ask everybody else in the department to follow the rules if the attorney general doesn’t follow them.”

Sessions dismissed Trump’s personal Twitter attacks, claiming that the President “does get frustrated” because “he’s trying to run the country.”

“He’s got to spend his time dealing with certain issues,” he told Time.

Despite his defense of the President, Sessions, who has largely remained silent in the face of Trump’s criticism, gave a slight pushback to Trump’s attacks in February, when he called Sessions handling of FISA abuse in the FBI “disgraceful.” In response, Sessions released a rare statement, saying his office would work to “ensure that complaints against this Department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary.”

That evening, Sessions was spotted having dinner with Solicitor General Noel Francisco and deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who hired Mueller.

Read More →

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, phoned Trump’s new pick to run the National Security Council for advice in the past year, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Administration officials and people close to Trump told the Journal that Kushner and Bolton have had a longstanding relationship — Bolton would often stop by Kushner’s office to visit when he was at the White House.

Kushner has reportedly called Bolton several times in the past year to ask for advice, according to the Journal’s sources. Kushner specifically sought the new national security adviser’s input on issues related to the operations of the United Nations, where Bolton served as the U.S. ambassador in former President George W. Bush’s administration.

Aides would also reportedly encourage Kushner to call Bolton to apprise him on current White House initiatives so that Bolton, who was previously working as a Fox News contributor, could make informed comments while speaking about the administration’s position on networks Trump watches.

Trump announced on Twitter last week that Bolton, who is well known for his hawkish foreign policy views, would replace H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser.

Read More →

LiveWire