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 toned down his criticism of U.S. trade relations with China while on foreign soil Thursday.

Throughout his campaign Trump repeatedly attacked China for “ripping us off” and “raping” the U.S. on trade between the two countries. He promised to officially label China a “currency manipulator” as President.

But during a bilateral appearance with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in front of business leaders on Thursday, Trump bragged about his “great chemistry” with Xi and said he doesn’t “blame China” for the U.S.’s annual trade deficit with China, “a number beyond anything what anybody would understand.”

“This number is shockingly hundreds of billions of dollars each year, estimates are as high as $500 billion a year,” he said, referencing the imbalance between U.S. exports to China and imports from the country that has put the U.S. in massive debt to China— about $1.2 trillion as of August, according to experts.

“Both the United States and China will have a more prosperous future if we can achieve a level economic playing field,” he said. “Right now, unfortunately, it is a very one-sided and unfair one, but, but I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”

Trump said the fault lies with his predecessors who “allowed it to get so far out of kilter.” Trump said he wanted to work on removing barriers to make the agreement more successful, saying the U.S. loses $300 billion a year from “the theft of intellectual property.”

We’ll make it fair, and it’ll be tremendous for both of us,” he said. “My feeling toward you is incredibly warm. We have great chemistry. I think we’ll do tremendous things, China and the U.S.”

Back in the states, Democrats criticized Trump’s soft critique on trade, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) calling China’s trade policies “rapacious.”

“After campaigning like a lion against China’s trade practices, the President is governing like a lamb,” he said in a statement Thursday. “Rather than treating China with kid gloves, the President should be much tougher on China, as he promised he would be on the campaign trail.”

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Rep. Scott Taylor (R-VA) said there were plenty of factors that contributed to Democrat Ralph Northam’s big win in Virginia on Tuesday, but the “overwhelming thing” that pushed Democrats to come out and vote was the “divisive rhetoric” spurred on by President Donald Trump.

“You have to give credit where credit is due. Democrats showed up last night, there’s no question about it,” he said on CNN’s “New Day” Wednesday morning. “You can attribute some of the things to the candidate, Gillespie, as well too, but there was an overwhelming thing that was looming large and that was the divisive rhetoric.”

Taylor, who has consistently said he supports Trump, but “not blindly,” said last night’s Democratic wins were “a referendum” on the President.

“I don’t think there’s any way you can look at it in a different way, to be honest with you, and be intellectually consistent,” he said, adding he doesn’t agree with Trump’s assessment that Republican candidate Ed Gillespie lost because he didn’t fully “embrace” the President.

“With all due respect to the President, I simply profoundly disagree with that,” he said.

The significant Democratic wins in Virginia and New Jersey, and in other state and local races coast-to-coast Tuesday, had Democrats hopeful for the beginning of a turning point for the party.

Republicans tried to downplay the results. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) said his party would probably be “saying the same kind of thing” if roles were reversed. “That’s the way the spin works on these things,” he said on Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade’s radio show.

Watch the interview with Taylor below:

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President Donald Trump was quick to distance himself from the Virginia gubernatorial candidate he endorsed following Republican Ed Gillespie’s defeat Tuesday evening. Trump tweeted from South Korea that the candidate “worked hard, but did not embrace me.”

But Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel pushed back on that claim.

“Ed did work with the President, he did robocalls and he had tweets,” she said, likely referencing a robocall Trump made prior to Election Day encouraging voters that Gillespie “will help make America great again.”

It appears Trump did more to embrace Gillespie, than vice versa. The President tweeted support for Gillespie in late October and again on Tuesday. Gillespie failed to mention the Presidential tweets of support at later campaign events. Gillespie even dodged questions from TPM about Trump at a campaign event.

McDaniel went on to contradict herself, saying the reason Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) won was because he said he would be willing to work with the President if it helped the people of Virginia.

“Our base is for our President. The enthusiasm for the President is still strong. … Voters want to see candidates embrace the President,” she said. “If there’s a playbook for Democrats, they should work with the President. … I absolutely think any candidate should be embracing the President and I think Ed did.” 

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While President Donald Trump was quick to dismiss calls for gun control after the church shooting massacre in Texas over the weekend, his nominee for assistant secretary of defense for health affairs took a different approach.

During Dr. Dean Winslow’s confirmation hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, Winslow was asked about the need for a policy change surrounding the reporting of military criminal history and offered that it’s “insane” that the average American could purchase a semi-automatic weapon like the one Devin Kelley allegedly used in the church attack that left 26 dead on Sunday.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked Winslow if domestic violence — the crime Kelley served a year in military confinement for — should have a zero tolerance police within the military, synonymous with the punishment for sexual assault. Winslow said it was a system failure that allowed Kelley’s crimes to go unreported to the FBI.

“When you’re designing weapons systems and things, the last thing you want is to engineer it in a way that a single point of failure results in such a tragic outcome,” he said, before making the comments he acknowledged he “may get in trouble” for.

But I’d also like to, I may get in trouble with other members of the committee, just say how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semi-automatic assault rifle like an AR-15, which is apparently the weapon that was used, that’s an issue not as much for this committee, but elsewhere, so again obviously domestic violence is a serious problem,” he said.

He was then cut off by an unidentified senator who said Winslow’s comments were not “in your area of responsibility or expertise.”

Authorities say Kelley used a variant of a semi-automatic riffle to conduct the attack, similar to weapons used by the gunmen in gun massacres in Las Vegas last month, an Orlando night club last year and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

Winslow is a former U.S. Air Force colonel who also serves as the vice chair of medicine at Stanford University. The Air Force has admitted fault for failing to report Kelley’s past military criminal convictions to the FBI, which would have blocked Kelley from purchasing a firearm.

Watch the hearing here. Winslow’s comments come at around 1:20:00

H/t: Huffington Post

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Another Texas Republican announced his retirement on Tuesday evening.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) won’t seek reelection in 2018, stating simply it’s “time for the next step.”

“I am looking forward to spending more time in Texas, especially with my 12 grandkids who have all been born since I was first elected to Congress,” he said in an announcement on Twitter. “I am proud of the work that my office has accomplished: giving crime victims a voice, helping to combat human trafficking and fighting for constitutional rights and individual liberty.”

Poe, who was diagnosed with leukemia last year, said health was not a factor in his retirement.

The former judge was elected to Congress in 2005 and has been an advocate for religious freedom and victims of domestic violence, rape and other violent crimes ever since. He served on the House Freedom Caucus throughout his time in Washington, but stepped down in March because he felt the caucus was no longer constructive since Republicans took control of Congress.

Poe is just the latest Republican — and the second from the state of Texas — to announce their retirement in recent weeks, clearing the way for new candidates in the 2018 midterms. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) announced his decision to leave last week, saying he “never intended to make it a lifetime commitment.”

Other Republicans have made more contentious retirement announcements, like Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who pinned their exits on President Donald Trump’s behavior.

Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) also said he would retire Tuesday, saying the “polarization” in Congress has made it difficult to do his job.

H/t: CNN

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During a speech in front of South Korean lawmakers at the National Assembly in Seoul on Wednesday, President Donald Trump praised Korean golfers and promoted his golf club in New Jersey.

“Korean golfers are some of the best on Earth,” he said in the address that also touched on topics like threatening North Korea to end its nuclear ambitions. “In fact, and you know what I’m going to say, the Women’s U.S. Open was held this year at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., and it just happened to be won by a great Korean golfer.”

Trump also mentioned that eight of the top 10 players at the match this summer were from Korea.

“And the top four, one, two, three, four, were from Korea. There you go. Congratulations,” he said.

While the remarks were met with laughter and applause, it’s just the latest blatant attempt to promote his own private businesses from the platform of the presidency, a move that’s been met with broad criticism since he was elected.

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President Donald Trump sent a personal message to North Korean leader Kim Jung-un in a speech from Seoul, South Korea on Wednesday, warning the regime it would face devastation in Kim doesn’t abandon his nuclear missile program.

Today I hope I speak not only for our countries but all civilized nations when I say to the North, ‘Do not underestimate us and do not try us,’” he said in a speech to lawmakers at South Korea’s national assembly that was met with frequent applause. “We will not permit America or our allies to be blackmailed or attacked. We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction. We will not be intimidated.”

Just before heading to a two-day visit to China, Trump also called on “all responsible nations” to put significant economic pressure on North Korea, calling out China and Russia specifically to “fully implement the UN security council’s resolutions, downgrade diplomatic relations with the regime and sever all ties of trade and technology.”

All responsible nations must join forces to isolate the brutal regime of North Korea, to deny it and any form of it, you cannot support, you cannot supply, you cannot accept,” he said. “It is our responsibility and our duty to confront this danger together because the longer we wait, the greater the danger grows and the fewer the options become.”

Trump addressed Kim directly, saying, “despite every crime you have committed against God and man,” the U.S. was prepared to find a diplomatic solution, but again warned that his nuclear ambitions must stop.

“The weapons that you are acquiring are not making you safer, they are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face,” he said, calling North Korea “a hell that no person deserves” and promising a “much better future” if the country conducts a “total denuclearization.”

The threats did not have any type of resounding impact in North Korea, according to CNN, the only American news outlet stationed within the regime. Officials told CNN that they’d “already heard enough” from “mad dog” Trump.

Trump has taken an aggressive tone with North Korea for months, saying missile threats from the country would be met with “fire and fury” and calling Kim “rocket man.” That rhetoric has prompted Kim to test several ballistic missiles and even threaten the U.S. territory of Guam.

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The man accused of shooting and killing 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Sunday escaped from a behavioral center in 2012, threatened his military superiors and tried to sneak weapons onto the Air Force base he lived on, according to reports from the El Paso Police Department that were uncovered by two local news outlets.

That was all while he was facing domestic abuse charges from the Air Force for assaulting his wife and fracturing his step-son’s skull, according to Houston Channel 2 and WFAA 8 reports.

The suspect, Devin Kelley, was placed in a mental health facility called Peak Behavioral Health Services in Santa Teresa, New Mexico and was arrested by El Paso police on June 7, 2012 at a Greyhound bus station not far from the U.S.-Mexico border after he had escaped, according to the police reports.

Someone had informed El Paso police that Kelley “suffered from mental disorders and had plans to run from” the mental health center to “take a bus out of state,” the El Paso police report said.

Police were also advised that Kelley was a “danger to himself and others as he had already been caught sneaking fire arms on Hollaman Air Force base” and that he was “attempting to carry out death threats” that he had made against his military chain of command. When he was arrested he did not resist or saying anything about wanting to harm himself or others, according to the report.

The new reports shed light on the man accused of entering a church and opening fire on parishioners, carrying out the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history.

Kelley had served in the Air Force and was served a bad conduct discharge. He was sentenced to a year in military confinement for domestic abuse not long after he broke out of this mental health institute.

The Air Force has admitted it failed to properly report Kelley’s past crimes to the FBI, documentation that would have blocked him from being able to purchase a firearm. Kelley reportedly purchased four firearms in the past three years.

Read the police report below:

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Forbes magazine has found out that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is not, in fact, a billionaire. He’s a mere multi-multi-millionaire.

After holding his place on The Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans for more than a decade, Ross is being removed from his perch, after the financial disclosure forms he filed for his Cabinet position reveal he has less than $700 million in assets.

It seems clear that Ross lied to us, the latest in an apparent sequence of fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers that have been going on with Forbes since 2004,” Forbes writer Dan Alexander wrote Tuesday. “In addition to just padding his ego, Ross’ machinations helped bolster his standing in a way that translated into business opportunities.”

When asked about the discrepancy between his claims of wealth — last year Forbes listed his net worth at $2.9 billion, though he claimed it was closer to $3.7 billion — Ross said he had an additional $2 billion in family trusts. He told Forbes he had put the money in a trust between the election and the nomination and wouldn’t share documentation on the assets for privacy reasons.

Forbes spent a month digging into Ross’ finances. The magazine spoke with 10 former employees at WL Ross and Co. and found that Ross was well known for misleading colleagues and investors. Over the years, he’s paid millions in fines, been forced to pay millions back to investors and has been sued “numerous” times, according to Forbes.

The Department of Commerce disputed claims that Ross moved $2 billion to a trust after the election and a spokesperson for the department only sent Forbes a two-sentence response to detailed questions about his assets.

“Secretary Ross has filed all required disclosures in accordance with the law and in consultation with both legal counsel and ethics officials at the Department of Commerce and Office of Government Ethics. As we have said before, any misunderstanding from your previous conversation with Secretary Ross is unfortunate,” the spokesperson told Forbes.

Ross recently was thrust into the spotlight after it was revealed that he owns holdings in a company that partners with a major Russian gas company, which is owned by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law, according to the Guardian.

Read the full Forbes report here.

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After Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) asked for prayers for the victims of the mass shooting at a church in Texas on Sunday in a tweet, he was met with widespread criticism from what he called the “secular left,” who claimed the latest mass shooting was Republicans’ fault for not budging on gun control policy.

When asked about the backlash on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle” show, Ryan said the criticism was “disappointing” and said “people who do not have faith don’t understand faith,” and claiming the “secular left” is responsible for some of the “disunity” in the U.S.

“It is the right thing to do in moments like this because, you know what? Prayer works,” he said. “And I know you believe that and I believe that and when you hear the secular left doing this think, no wonder you have so much polarization and disunity in this country when people think like that.”

He also said some were trying to “exploit a tragedy to infringe on law abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights” and said the fact that the shooter in Texas was able to get a gun was “a pretty clear cut case”: a convicted domestic abuser should not have been able to buy a gun.

“The law is on the books to prevent a person like this form getting a gun and that didn’t happen and we’ve got to get to the bottom of why that didn’t happen,” he said. “And yes, there are a lot of questions the Air Force has to answer on that.”

Speaking about another gun issue, Ryan also said the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) is still reviewing whether the sale of bump stocks is legal. Bump stocks are devices that make a semi-automatic weapon operate like an automatic weapon.

There was bipartisan outcry over the legality of the devices when a gunman used them to shoot and kill more than 50 people in Las Vegas just weeks ago. Republicans, including President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), have dismissed any attempts to talk about gun control in the wake of the latest mass shooting that left 26 people dead in Texas, saying it’s too early to talk about politics.

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