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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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President Donald Trump’s lawyer suggested last year that President Trump should pardon two of his former aides, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and campaign chairman Paul Manafort, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

According to three people familiar with the discussions, John Dowd made the suggestion to Flynn and Manafort’s lawyers when special counsel Robert Mueller was building his cases against both of the former aides. The timing suggests Dowd could have offered pardons to influence Manafort and Flynn’s decision on how to plead.

Dowd reportedly had the conversation with Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, last summer. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials in December, a move that Dowd reportedly privately said he didn’t understand because he had told Kelner Trump was prepared to pardon Flynn.

Dowd reportedly spoke with Manafort’s lawyer Reginald Brown, who is no longer his attorney, before Manafort was charged with money laundering, conspiring against the U.S. and failure to register as a foreign agent, among other things. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all the charges and has said that he doesn’t want a pardon from Trump because he doesn’t think he did anything wrong.

Dowd, who resigned from Trump’s legal team last week, denied he had discussions with either of the former aides’ attorneys about pardons, he told the Times.

Trump has reportedly been curious about his pardoning power since last year, when he inquired about the extent of his ability to pardon during a meeting with White House lawyers. Since coming into office, Trump has pardoned two individuals. In August, Trump pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who supported his campaign, for a contempt of court conviction. This month pardoned a sailor who was charged with obstruction of justice and retaining national defense information.

In December, Trump told reporters that he wasn’t prepared to talk about pardoning Flynn “yet,” saying he’d like to wait and “see what happens” first.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is scheduled to deliver an on camera press briefing at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday. Watch live below:

After suggesting this weekend that students organizing for gun control should learn CPR instead of asking “someone else to solve their problem,” former Sen. Rick Santorum apologized on Wednesday. But he did not back down from his larger point.

Santorum maintained his suggestion that instead of advocating for gun control measures, the students should be focused on starting local mentoring and anti-bullying programs in their schools and communities. The students he was referencing were the survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month who have been pushing for gun law reform since the shooting, in which 17 people were killed.

“The fact of the matter is I did misspeak in using the term CPR,” he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Wednesday. “I certainly respect their right to protest … Obviously that was not the intention, nor has it been my suggestion throughout the course (of) these shootings. What I talked about are broader things, like mentoring, like fatherhood programs. … things that can unify us.”

He said he condemned the actions of some on the far right who have tried to paint the student protesters as actors or as attempting to repeal the Second Amendment, but claimed there were “politics and hypocrisy on both sides of this debate.”

“In the strongest possible terms, I condemn both sides,” he said, before Cuomo interrupted, saying he sounded “like Trump after Charlottesville.” President Donald Trump blamed both the white supremacists and the counter protesters for the violence that erupted at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, that ended with one women dead.

Look you can’t get up there and say that many on the left have not been demonizing as mindless shills of the NRA,” Santorum said. “It’s happening on both sides, come on, don’t do this Charlottesville stuff on me.”

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Retiring Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) lambasted his own party for hypocrisy in its reaction to President Donald Trump’s alleged affair with a porn actress on Tuesday evening.

During an interview with CNN, he said Republicans have been “pretty damn silent” about the President’s alleged affair with porn actress Stormy Daniels, compared to the way the party reacted when former President Bill Clinton had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“They’d be waving a bloody shirt, it would be a human rights violation,” Dent told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Bill Clinton, let’s face it, I wasn’t in Congress back then, but a lot of folks were pretty darn alarmed and outraged and had a strong voice about the character, saying character counts. And now that the shoe is on the other foot, a lot of those same folks are pretty damn silent.”

He said there was “no question” that Republicans would be “screaming, you know, morning to night” if a Democratic president had been “conciliatory toward the Russians, for example” like Trump has reportedly been.

Dent said he thought both porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal were “credible” and suggested their alleged affairs with Trump were not surprising because Trump is “no choir boy.”

Trump has been uncharacteristically silent in recent weeks as both Daniels and McDougal have publicly recounted parts of their alleged affairs with the President a decade ago. Both women have tangled Trump in lawsuits over his alleged attempts to silence them about the relationships.

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After a retired Supreme Court justice called for the repeal of the Second Amendment on Tuesday, President Donald Trump reassured his base that he would “NEVER” let that happen.

“THE SECOND AMENDMENT WILL NEVER BE REPEALED!” he tweeted Wednesday morning. “As much as Democrats would like to see this happen, and despite the words yesterday of former Supreme Court Justice Stevens, NO WAY.”

In his New York Times essay, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said repealing the right to bear arms from the Constitution would be the fastest mechanism for legal change surrounding gun control. He said the move would limit the National Rifle Association’s lobbying power and make room for significant gun access legislation.

Gun control has made its way back to the national conversation following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month that left 17 people dead. In the month since the attack, the high school student survivors have lead national protests calling for a ban on semi-automatic weapons and common sense gun reform measures.

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