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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

While the White House still lacks a communications director since the departure of longtime President Trump aide Hope Hicks, two of the most familiar faces in the communications shop are reportedly planning to exit the Trump White House, CBS News reported Wednesday.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah are reportedly both mulling their departure. Sanders has told friends that she will leave the Trump administration by the end of the year, while Shah has not yet decided on a date for his exit, according to CBS.

Sanders and Shah both declined to comment on the record when contacted by CBS, but Sanders vehemently denied the report on Twitter Wednesday evening, saying she is “honored to work for @POTUS.”

While Sanders denies the news of her impending retreat, the report of her exit follows a tumultuous month for Sanders, who has been heavily questioned and criticized for lying to the media last year when she told reporters that Trump did not personally dictate a statement that Donald Trump Jr. initially released about his infamous meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in 2016.

The news also comes on the heels of reports that the White House is taking steps to shake up the press shop, ousting junior staffers and cutting down on the number of people allowed to attend daily meetings. The efforts are all fueled by a crusade to crackdown on leaks to the press.

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A Trump-aligned Republican who won the GOP Senate primary in Virginia on Tuesday will face Hillary Clinton’s former running-mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) in a race that’s bound to resemble key aspects of both Clinton and President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

And the crowds could take similar form, too.

During Corey Stewart’s victory rally on Tuesday evening, the candidate referred to his opponent as “Hillary Clinton’s running-mate.” The mere mention of the former Democratic Party nominee fueled the crowd to begin chanting “lock her up!” — a frequent incantation at Trump’s most rowdy campaign rallies.

“That might just happen, by the way,” Stewart responded, according to The Washington Post. “And Timmy, too. Oh, we’re gonna have a lot of fun between now and November, folks.” 

The audience recited other Trump campaign slogans on Tuesday evening, like Trump crowd favorite “Build the wall!”

Stewart’s victory on Tuesday even elicited a response from Trump, who tweeted Wednesday that Stewart had a “major chance of winning!”

h/t HuffPost

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President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who is under investigation for a number of possible crimes ranging from bank fraud to campaign finance violations, is reportedly concerned that he could be arrested any day now, according to friends of Cohen who spoke to Vanity Fair and New York Daily News.

The unnamed source who spoke to the NYDN characterized Cohen as “very stressed out” about the possibility of an indictment.

“None of it is good,” the source said.

White House officials in turn are reportedly concerned that the possibility of an arrest will cause Cohen to flip on Trump.

“If anyone can blow up Trump, it’s him,” an unnamed White House official told Vanity Fair.

Cohen denied the reports of his concern, telling Vanity Fair that their “alleged source is wrong!”

The FBI raided Cohen’s house, hotel and office in April as part of an investigation into some of his business dealings, including a $130,000 payment he made to porn actress Stormy Daniels as part of a non-disclosure agreement to keep her quiet about an alleged affair she had with Trump a decade ago.

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As President Donald Trump doubles down on how “expensive” it is for the U.S. military to train with the South Korean military, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC), who regularly spends downtime golfing with the President, called Trump’s rationale for halting the practice “ridiculous.”

“The money we spend on training with our allies is money well spent,” he told CNN Tuesday. “It’s not a burden onto the American taxpayer to have a forward deployed force in South Korea. It brings stability. It’s a warning to China that you can’t just take over the whole region. So I reject that analysis that it costs too much, but I do accept the proposition, let’s stand down and see if we can find a better way here.”

Trump announced on Tuesday that he had agreed to halt “war games” — the joint military practice between the U.S. and South Korea — on the Korean peninsula, an exercise that’s widely regarded as an effort, in part, to saber-rattle North Korea. During a press conference following his denuclearization meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump cited the expense of the practice as rationale for agreeing to stop doing it. He doubled down on that defense in a tweet on Wednesday morning, claiming the U.S. saves “a fortune” by not participating. 

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The New York Times is conducting a review of reporter Ali Watkins, who reportedly had a personal relationship with the Senate Intelligence Committee staffer who was indicted last week on three counts of lying to FBI agents about his contacts with reporters and allegedly leaking classified information to the press, according to The New York Times.

The review is being led by Charlotte Behrendt, an associate managing editor, and Andrew Gutterman, who oversees the Times’ labor department.

Watkins email and phone records were seized by the Department of Justice in February as the FBI probed Senate Intelligence Committee aide James Wolfe, whose job in the Senate was related to protecting sensitive information reviewed by lawmakers on the committee. Watkins and Wolfe were involved in a years-long relationship, which ended last year. Watkins reportedly disclosed the prior relationship to Times management before she started working at the newspaper in December and said that she did not use Wolfe as a source while they were dating.

In the past year, Watkins has been approached by people who identified themselves as federal agents at least twice and has been questioned about Wolfe and her sources— once last June and once in February, the Times reported.

In June, a man contacted Watkins and offered to work as a potential source for her stories, according to the Times. But at the meeting, the man — whom the Washington Post has identified as Jeffrey Rambo — told her he knew about her relationship with Wolfe and asked her to help him identify government leakers. Rambo, who is reportedly a Customs and Border Protection agent, is currently under review for his conduct related to the interaction with Watkins, according to the Post.

Watkins reportedly told Politico management — where she was working at the time, covering the Senate Intelligence Committee — about the encounter and disclosed her relationship with Wolfe for the first time. Her byline continued to appear on stories covering the intelligence committee.

She joined the Times in December and covers federal law enforcement.

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During his hour-long news conference and series of media appearances following his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Tuesday, President Donald Trump didn’t hesitate to defend and even praise the dictator, who’s best known for his record of brutal human rights violations that involve starving his people, running a ruthless police state, sexual violence and even ordering the murder of members of his own family.

Addressing the inhumane acts by the Kim regime during a press conference Tuesday in Singapore, Trump told reporters that “all I can do is do— what can I do? We have to stop the nukes,” vowing that those who have been tortured and held in gruesome captivity would be the “great winners today.” That is, if Kim breaks with his family’s record of breaking promises with the U.S. to denuclearize the peninsula.

Here’s a rundown of all the times Trump’s painted a positive, and even glowing portrait of the regime leader, whom he praised just as often as he mentioned how many hours he had been awake straight (26):

The news conference (the first full presser he’s held in 16 months):

Trump barreled right into the press conference by expressing gratitude for Kim, who took “the first bold step toward a bright new future.” He boasted to reporters that the meeting was “honest, direct and productive.”

Minutes later he called Kim “very talented” and praised him for his ability to run a country as a youngster: “Anybody that takes over a situation like he did, at 26 years of age, and is able to run it, and run it tough — I don’t say he was nice or I don’t say anything about it — he ran it. few people at that age. You can take 1 out of 10,000 could not do it.

He later told reporters they would be “surprised” at how “smart” Kim is, branding him a “very good negotiator” who “wants to do the right thing.”

The interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:

In a follow-up interview with Stephanopolous, Trump gave his praise a new spin, suggesting that Kim’s “country does love him,” arguing for the passion North Koreans have for their dictator: “His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor.”

He then claimed the two sanguine leaders really, actually do trust each other, despite what you might have heard: “I do trust him, yeah,” Tump said. “Now, will I come back to you in a year and you’ll be interviewing and I’ll say, ‘Gee I made a mistake?’ That’s always possible. You know, we’re dealing at a very high level, a lot of things can change, a lot of things are possible.

“He trusts me, I believe, I really do,” Trump continued. “I mean, he said openly, and he said it to a couple of reporters that were with him, that he knows that no other President ever could have done this, I mean no other pre — he knows the Presidents, he knows who we had in front of me. He said no other President could have done this. I think he trusts me, and I trust him.”

And, Trump added, the regime leader, who ordered the poisoning of his brother in a public Malaysian airport last year, even has an open invitation to the White House: “I would love to have him.”

The interview with Greta Van Susteren:

Trump continued his gushing over Kim well into Tuesday afternoon, making his most complimentary comments about Kim to Van Susteren, who asked him, point-blank, whether Kim actually loves the people he starves.

Really, he’s got a great personality. He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator. He loves his people, not that I’m surprised by that, but he loves his people. And I think that we have the start of an amazing deal,” Trump said.

He added: “I think he liked me, and I like him. And I understand the past and, you know, nobody has to tell me, he’s a rough guy. He has to be a rough guy or he has been a rough person. But we got along very well. He’s smart, loves his people, he loves his country. He wants a lot of good things and that’s why he’s doing this.”

Trump also doesn’t blame Kim for continuing his predecessor’s police state: “Look, he’s doing what he’s seen done, if you look at it. But, I really have to go by today and by yesterday and by a couple of weeks ago because that’s really when this whole thing started.”

And on the pair’s palpable chemistry, Trump said: “Well, I think you have somebody that has a great feeling for them. He wants to do right by them and we got along really well. We had a great chemistry — you understand how I feel about chemistry. It’s very important. I mean, I know people where there is no chemistry no matter what you do you just don’t have it. We had it right from the beginning, I talked about that and I think great things are going to happen for North Korea.”

Excerpts from the interview with his “shadow chief of staff” (Fox News’ Sean Hannity):

Before the full interview airs during Hannity’s show on Tuesday evening, the hosts of “Fox and Friends” teased some of Trump’s initial comments. Trump told Hannity that he and Kim “got along very well” right “from the beginning,” which was better than he assumed.

The President also walked back the name-calling he engaged in with Kim in recent months — when he dubbed him “little Rocket Man” and claimed his nuclear “button” was bigger than Kim’s — sheepishly calling the comments “foolish,” but necessary.

That segment of “Fox and Friends” ended with Hannity cajoling Trump for his skills in reading people.

Meanwhile, here are a few things Trump said about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after leaving the G-7 summit in Quebec last weekend:

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After enduring a full 25 hours without sleep, President Donald Trump continued to defend North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and his well-documented history of human rights violations on Tuesday, telling VOA’s Greta Van Susteren that Kim’s just “doing what he’s seen done.”

“He’s a rough guy. He has to be a rough guy or he has been a rough person,” Trump told Van Susteren. “But we got along very well. He’s smart, loves his people, he loves his country.”

“But he’s starved them,” Van Susteren asserted, “He’s been brutal to them. He still loves his people?”

“Look, he’s doing what he’s seen done, if you look at it,” he said. “But, I really have to go by today and by yesterday and by a couple of weeks ago because that’s really when this whole thing started.”

 

During a press conference with reporters following the White House’s release of a joint-agreement between Kim and Trump committing to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Trump told reporters that he trusted Kim and said he was “talented” for running the country at such a young age.

“Anybody that takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it and run it tough — I don’t say he was nice, or I don’t say anything about it,” he said.

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) called fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) “a danger to the country” for relaying to the media that he had drafted documents to propose an Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF) if President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un didn’t go well.   

Lindsey Graham is a danger to the country by even proposing ideas like authorizing war with Korea, my goodness, so that should be something that is seen as naive and seen as something that really serious people shouldn’t even really be discussing,” Paul told CNN on Monday evening ahead of the summit, in which Kim and Trump signed a joint agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

He went on to blast Graham for “bankrupting” the country over his “naive worldview where he believes that war is always the answer.”

“It’s also gotten us involved in dozens and dozens of wars where it’s not really clear what the American interest is in those wars and I think sometimes the reaction to our involvement in those wars has actually been worse than if we had not been involved at all,” he said.

Graham, for his part, did tell ABC ’s “This Week” on Sunday “I hope I never have to use it,” referencing the AUMF.

Paul has previously attacked Graham for his war hawk rhetoric.

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A White House communications staffer, Steven Cheung, who served on President Donald Trump’s campaign, departed the White House last week, Politico reported.

Cheung was a special assistant to the President and the director of rapid response in the communications department. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders carried out Cheung’s ousting during a meeting last week. Other staffers in the communications shop were not notified of his departure until their emails to Cheung stopped sending, Politico reported.

In a statement to Politico, Sanders said Cheung was leaving to pursue a “prominent position in the private sector.” She called him a “well-liked” and “talented” member of the team, notwithstanding the reported “clashes that precipitated his departure,” in Politico’s words.

Cheung’s departure comes on the heels of reports that the communications department is shrinking in an attempt by top White House officials to clean up the leak of internal information to the press— a crackdown ignited when a junior aide joked about Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) cancer during an internal meeting, comments that were promptly leaked to a Hill reporter.

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The Texas woman who was sentenced to five years in prison for an unintentionally illegal vote while on supervised release for a federal felony conviction has been denied a motion for a new trial by the same judge who initially slapped her with the harsh sentence.

According to a 16-page ruling Monday, Judge Ruben Gonzalez sided with the prosecutor’s claims against Crystal Mason — a jumbled set of arguments claiming the defendant missed deadlines and that the initial motion for a new trial did not provide sufficient evidence to prove bias. Mason has maintained that her illegal vote in the 2016 presidential election was an accident; she didn’t know she wasn’t allowed to vote while on supervised release.

Mason’s attorney, Alison Grinter, plans to file an appeal, calling the case against Mason just another attempt to perpetuate a narrative of widespread voter fraud in the U.S.   

“We’re going to throw absolutely everything at it, and I think this is a real injustice,” she told TPM Tuesday. “It’s really classic voter intimidation. … If you prosecute every Crystal Mason out there, you might be able to drum up a case for voter fraud.”

In the motion for a new trial, Mason and Grinter argued that Mason did not actually vote in 2016 because her provisional ballot was rejected and at the time Mason believed she was eligible because she was on supervised release and not parole. Mason was convicted of tax fraud in 2011 and served 57 of her 60 months in prison. She had been out of prison for more than a year at the time of the incident.

Judge Gonzalez also rejected Mason’s claims that evidence of bias against her was not explored at trial. The witness who made the initial report about Mason’s vote, a man named Karl Diedrich, who was serving as the election judge at her precinct, is Mason’s neighbor. As the election judge, Diedrich testified that he gave Mason her provisional ballot, swore her to it and signed off on her ID.

But Gonzalez argued there was not evidence to support her claims of bias, citing court testimony, in which Dietrich claimed he did not know that Mason had been convicted of a felony. In testimony, Dietrich said he asked Mason to read the entire affidavit for a provisional ballot — which asks voters to answer questions about whether they have been convicted of a felony — and she “responded affirmatively when he held up his right hand and asked if she affirmed that all the information provided was accurate.”

“There was no evidence presented at the hearing on the defendant’s timely-filed motion for new trial that Mr. Dietrich ever harbored any type of ‘bias’ toward the defendant, much less ‘bias’ that contributed to the defendant voting illegally,” Gonzalez wrote in the ruling.

The judge also rejected arguments made in an amended motion for a new trial and an amicus letter brief from the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project because both were filed past the deadline. Grinter told TPM that she had very little time to file the new trial motion after she picked up Mason’s case. Gonzalez told her to file an amended motion, but the state wouldn’t approve it.

In the amicus letter filed in late May, the ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project attempted to argue that slamming Mason with a five-year sentence would “chill participation in elections.”

The State’s prosecution sends a message that, rather than freely engaging in the fundamental democratic process of voting, citizens may vote only if they are certain that they have interpreted the complex Election Code correctly to determine their eligibility. Any mistake — no matter how innocent — will be penalized with the full force of the criminal law,” the groups wrote. “Such a message, if not rejected by this Court, will inevitably chill participation in elections and undermine the strength of our democracy.”

The ACLU and the state civil rights group also argued that an “apparent mistake” about eligibility was not sufficient evidence to determine “requisite criminal intent.”

While the civil rights groups’ arguments weren’t considered in court Monday, the groups also argued that the state law that led to Mason’s conviction has been overturned by 2002 federal statute that allows a person who believes they have a right to vote the opportunity to submit a provisional ballot in a federal election, placing the burden of proof on the state.

The Tarrant County prosecutor arguing the case against Mason reportedly did not assert that the civil rights groups’ arguments were incorrect, but said they shouldn’t be considered because of the missed deadline, according to the Star Telegram, which covers Fort Worth, Texas and the surrounding area.

Since the initial ruling, a petition arguing racial injustice and advocating that all charges against Mason, who is an African American, be dropped has garnered 38,000 signatures. Grinter said she is planning to appeal the ruling and should find out her deadlines for filing an appeal before the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth within the next few days.

Read the ruling below:

 

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