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

An Israeli intelligence company called Psy-Group formed a partnership with President Trump’s campaign data firm, the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica, in order to win business deals with the U.S. government after the election, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Psy-Group — which is owned by Joel Zamel, a person of interest in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe — signed a memorandum of understanding in December 2016 with Cambridge Analytica, people familiar with the matter told the WSJ. The plan was for the two firms to work together to share intelligence and social media services, while also helping each other win government contracts, people familiar with the efforts told the WSJ.

While Psy-Group has not yet been granted any governmental contracts, according to the WSJ’s search of public records, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, was given a $500,000 contract with the State Department in February 2017.

Cambridge Analytica closed earlier this month after it was revealed that the company improperly harvested the data of millions of private Facebook users.

Read the WSJ’s full story here.     

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has in recent days cooled on the idea of meeting with President Donald Trump to discuss denuclearization, in part because he’s concerned if he leaves his country for too long, he could lose power, the Washington Post reported.

According to people familiar with the discussions who spoke to the Post, Kim is purportedly concerned a trip so far from home could expose him to a military coup or other attempts to replace him. The North Korean regime leader is also worried about his personal safety and about having enough fuel to get to Singapore where he plans to meet Trump on June 12.

During a press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday, Trump told reporters that Kim would not only be “safe” during and after their meeting, but also “happy, his country will be rich, his country will be hard-working and prosperous,” he said.

It’s been widely reported that, at least in part, comments made by Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton — about the U.S. using the “Libya model” to promote denuclearization in North Korea — threw cold water on Kim’s interest in meeting with the U.S., likely because that deal ended with the country’s former leader being forced from power and killed.

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Following multiple reports that Republican party infighting may soon cost Paul Ryan (R-WI) his speakership, Ryan reportedly wrangled up his closest colleagues on Tuesday for a closed door meeting to vent, according to The New York Times and the Washington Post.

At the meeting, Ryan reportedly lectured his colleagues about sticking together and behaving “as though they are in the majority,” per the Times. He also expressed his irritation with the embarrassing dismantling of the farm bill last week, which conservatives sank amid a broader debate over immigration policy, and said he thinks the “political winds” were finally blowing in Republicans’ direction, according to the Post.

Ryan was reportedly so worked up that he even “used the word ‘crap’ once,” Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) told reporters.

“For Paul Ryan, ‘crap’ is pretty blue language,” he said.

Despite Ryan’s apparent frustration, the meeting ended well— with a standing ovation that could be heard in the hallway, according to the Post.

While the White House has been tight lipped about its opinion on who Ryan’s successor should be ever since Ryan announced his retirement in April, one senior White House official told the Post that the White House is unsure if Ryan should remain speaker through the end of his term.    

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Still shaken by the leak of a morbid joke made at Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) expense during an internal White House meeting earlier this month, President Donald Trump has reportedly demanded a major shakeup of his communications team, Politico reported Tuesday.

And the President has asked the aide who made the joke about McCain “dying” to help him identify leakers, according to three people familiar with the situation who spoke to Politico.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has reportedly signed off on plans to reduce the number of midlevel and junior aides on the communications team, a move that will not impact high level officials like press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The communications teams housecleaning is one of many measures the White House plans to take to crack down on leaks.  The New York Times reported last week that the White House was shrinking the size of its daily communications meetings in order to stifle what gets shared with the press.

Trump’s demands for change are reportedly in response to the leak of the McCain joke that special assistant Kelly Sadler made earlier this month.

During a meeting with Sadler and other staffers, Trump asked Sadler to help him identify leakers in the communications shop. In that same meeting, Trump also “expressed deep frustration,” in Politico’s words, with the excessive leaks that have plagued his presidency since Day One. He said the stories that are often privately shared with the media are inaccurate and damaging, according to Politico.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is scheduled to deliver an on camera press briefing at 3:00 p.m. ET Tuesday. Watch live below:

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Tuesday pushed back against a conclusion reached by the intelligence community and the Senate Intelligence Committee — that Russia favored President Donald Trump in its influence campaign during the 2016 election. 

Speaking to reporters at a House briefing on election security, Nielsen was asked about the 2017 intelligence community report that found Putin not only “ordered an influence campaign” aimed at the 2016 presidential election, but also that Putin had a “clear preference” for Trump in those meddling efforts.

She claimed that she hadn’t seen that conclusion, which was made available to the public last year.

“I do not believe that I’ve seen that conclusion,” Nielsen told reporters. “That the specific intent was to help President Trump win. I’m not aware of that. But I do generally have no reason to doubt any intelligence assessment.”

She added that she believes that Russia attempted to “disrupt our belief and our understanding of what is happening,” and she called Russian interference “an integrity issue.”

In a statement to TPM on Tuesday, Department of Homeland Security press secretary Tyler Houlton said that Nielsen “agrees” with the Intelligence Community assessment and “clearly” said Tuesday that the “Russian government unequivocally worked to undermine our democracy” in 2016. Houlton pointed out that the Kremlin “targeted both major political parties” in its interference, but did not state that Nielsen believes Russia favored Trump.

Houlton said the language used by the reporter — CNN’s Manu Raju — did not “reflect the specific language” in the intelligence community’s report.

However, Raju specifically asked if Nielsen had “any reason to doubt the January 2017 intelligence community assessment that said it was Vladimir Putin who meddled in the election to help President Trump win?” Nielsen responded saying: “I do not believe that I’ve seen that conclusion.”

In its 2017 report, the Intelligence Community stated: “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Read Houlton’s full statement below:

“The secretary has previously reviewed the Intelligence Community’s assessment and agrees with it – as she stated today and previously. She also very clearly articulated today that the Russian government unequivocally worked to undermine our democracy during the 2016 election. Russian goals included undermining faith in the U.S. democratic process and harming a candidate’s electability and potential presidency.  Importantly, they targeted both major political parties. As the secretary reiterated — their intent was to sow discord in the American electoral process. However, we have no evidence that any ballots were changed or counted incorrectly as a result of Russian interference.

“The intelligence assessment language is nuanced for a reason.  The secretary agrees with that assessment. But the question asked by the reporter did not reflect the specific language in the assessment itself, so the secretary correctly stated she had not seen the conclusion as characterized by the reporter.

“The Department is well aware of the threat posed by Russian election interference, and today’s classified member briefing was one of many opportunities by the Department and the secretary to be transparent with Congress and the American people about efforts to ensure the integrity of our elections. ”

Nielsen’s comments come just days after the Senate Intelligence Committee announced it sided with the intelligence community in its findings on Russian interference.

Nielsen’s apparent skepticism of the determination that Russia favored Trump is in line with the conclusion reached by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. They claimed in their report that the intelligence community didn’t follow its best practices when it concluded Russia favored Trump in the election.   

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Working in the West Wing requires a bit of familiarity with President Donald Trump’s quirks, like his paranoia of being poisoned and penchant for fast food.

It also requires a close study of his poor grammar. 

According to two people familiar with the process who spoke with the Boston Globe, White House staffers regularly write out draft tweet options for Trump to browse, each including a hand-selected Trumpism — like excessive exclamation points, capitalization for emphasis, fragments and cryptic ellipses.

The intentional poor grammar is designed to keep Trump’s personal cadence alive and well on his Twitter feed, even when it’s not actually the President composing the tweets, according to the Boston Globe. The distinction between a Trump tweet and a replica by his communications staff has become increasingly difficult to decipher, people who closely follow his feed told the Boston Globe.

Read the Globe’s full report here.

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Vice President Mike Pence offered his full-throated support of President Trump’s most recent crusade — demands for a Justice Department inspector general probe of the FBI’s motivations for hiring an informant to speak to members of his campaign.

During an interview with Fox News’ Martha MacCallum, Pence said Trump was “grateful” that the Justice Department had asked the inspector general to investigate whether the informant was dispatched for political reasons and claimed “millions of Americans” would be distraught if that were the case.

“The President is, I think, grateful, that the Department of Justice is going to have the inspector general look into it and determine, and ensure, that there was no surveillance done for political purposes against our campaign,” he said. “I think it would be very troubling to millions of Americans if that took place.”

Over the weekend, Trump seized on reports that a government informant spoke with two Trump campaign officials as a way of probing Russian interference in the election without compromising the vote. He tweeted Sunday a “demand” for the DOJ probe, and the department asked the inspector general to look into it.

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As president, the famously chatty Donald Trump has been allowed to have at least two cellphones on hand that enable him to take part in his two favorite pass times: talking to friends on the phone and venting on Twitter.

But, according to a new Politico report, Trump has resisted typical security protocol for the devices. Trump regularly ignores advice from his aides about swapping out the phone that he uses to scroll through Twitter and read the news, claiming the convention is “too inconvenient” for him. Aides have encouraged the President to swap out his Twitter cellphone at least once a month, but he repeatedly breaks with precedent and ignores the guidance.

The President has reportedly gone as long as five months without letting security experts examine the device he uses for Twitter, however the call-capable cell is “seamlessly swapped out on a regular basis” a senior West Wing official told Politico. That phone, which Politico described as a “burner” phone, also has a camera and microphone, features deemed too risky for personal cell use under the Obama administration.

The insight into Trump’s cellphone use comes as Chief of Staff John Kelly attempts to crack down on the use of private cellular devices within the West Wing. While pegged as a security move, the new policy is widely seen as a measure to prevent leaking from within the White House. 

Read the full Politico report here. 

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Tripling down on its efforts to prove that President Donald Trump was only referring to members of the MS-13 gang as “animals” — not all undocumented immigrants — the White House released a statement Monday morning explaining the origins and crimes of the “violent animals of MS-13.”

The statement — titled “What you need to know about the violent animals of MS-13”—outlines some of the horrific crimes committed by members of the gang in the suburbs of New York City and Washington, D.C. in the past two years. The statement called MS-13 members “animals” nearly 10 times.

During a panel discussion with California officials who oppose the state’s sanctuary immigration policies last week, Trump appeared to refer to immigrants who have been taken out of the country for attempting to illegally enter the U.S. as “bad ” people and “animals.” Trump later clarified — both to reporters and on Twitter — that he was referring to members of the MS-13 gang. Read a transcript of the conversation in question here.

In the new statement, the White House repeatedly referred to the group as “the MS-13 animals” as it outlined the brutal rapes and murders the group is believed to have committed in recent years, as the gang has risen to national notoriety for its violent attacks in the U.S.

MS-13 is a transnational gang that has brought violence, fear, and suffering to American communities,” the statement said. “MS-13, short for Mara Salvatrucha, commits shocking acts of violence to instill fear, including machete attacks, executions, gang rape, human trafficking, and more.

“Recent investigations have revealed MS-13 gang leaders based in El Salvador have been sending representatives into the United States illegally to connect the leaders with local gang members,” the White House continued. “These foreign-based gang leaders direct local members to become even more violent in an effort to control more territory.”

While the reported crimes by the gang are horrific in nature, as Vox News explains, the Trump administration — in its vows to “bring these violent animals to justice” — has used the attacks to perpetuate its narrative of linking illegal immigration with violent crime. 

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