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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

The Senate Intelligence Committee is planning to question social media giants Reddit and Tumblr over reports that the Kremlin may have used their sites to spread false information during the 2016 election.

According to The Washington Post, Senate Intel staffers are soon holding a meeting with Tumblr and are seeking additional information from Reddit after website officials said Monday that the company shut down hundreds of accounts in 2015 and 2016 that they deemed suspicious. The Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency — that was tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals last months — used both platforms to spread disinformation, according to information first reported by the Daily Beast.

Tumblr reportedly found 21 accounts linked to the troll farm and content produced by the Internet Research Agency was shared widely on Reddit, according to the Daily Best.

Reddit officials revealed Monday that the the website had also found and removed “a few hundred” suspicious accounts, Steve Huffman, Reddit’s chief executive, said in a post on Monday.

Last year, congressional investigators grilled company executives for Facebook, Twitter and Google over Russian use of their platforms to spread disinformation and sow political division ahead of the presidential election.

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President Donald Trump on Monday afternoon again suggested that if he’s pleased with the renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement, then he may reconsider his decision to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

If not, “we’re not backing down,” he told reporters during a pool spray with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday.

“No, we’re not backing down,” Trump said in response to questions about the proposed new tariffs. “We’ve had a very bad deal with Mexico, a very bad deal with Canada. … We are renegotiating NAFTA as I said I would, and if we don’t make a deal, I’ll terminate NAFTA. But if I do make a deal which is fair to the workers and to the American people, that would be, I would imagine, one of the points that we’ll negotiate, will be tariffs on steel for Canada and for Mexico. We’ll see what happens, but right now 100 percent, but it could be a part of NAFTA.”

It was not clear whether that meant he wouldn’t impose tariffs on just Mexico and Canada or all foreign imports of aluminum and steel.

Trump tweeted Monday morning suggesting he might ditch plans for tariffs on imported steel and aluminum if renegotiations of NAFTA go smoothly. Republicans and foreign leaders have expressed concern over the tariff proposals he announced last week. On Monday afternoon, Trump said that the U.S. has been “ripped off by virtually every country in the world, whether it’s friend or enemy,” but said the “biggest problem” is China.

We lost, over the last number of years, $800 billion a year. Not a half a million dollars, not 12 cents, we lost $800 billion a year on trade,” he said. “Not going to happen. We got to get it back. Of course, the biggest problem is China. We lost $500 billion. How previous presidents allowed that to happen is disgraceful, but we’re going to take care of it.”

Facing backlash from foreign leaders around the world and lawmakers at home, Trump threatened over the weekend to place tariffs on European cars and suggested it was time for the U.S. to “change” its steel and aluminum industries.

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President Donald Trump’s son, Eric Trump, on Monday claimed CNN was “totally irrelevant” because it only had one show in the Top 25 total viewership ratings report for February, while Fox News had 15.

“Congratulations @FoxNews: Fox has 15 of the top 20 shows with @SeanHannity and @TuckerCarlson leading the pack at 1st and 2nd respectively,” he tweeted. “CNN has become totally irrelevant.”

While Fox News had more shows in the Top 25 for total viewership, those statistics aren’t as relevant when it comes to news networks making money.

Advertisers base their media buys off of viewership within the 25 to 54-year-old demographic category. Fox News still has 15 shows in the Top 25 for that category, but CNN fares far better among 25-54-year-olds. It had four shows in the Top 25 for that category, making this month the second best February the network has had in 10 years.

See the ratings for cable news shows among 25-54-year-old below:

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President Donald Trump on Monday morning questioned why the Justice Department under President Obama launched an investigation “into the Trump campaign (with zero proof of wrongdoing)” before the 2016 election and claimed the probe was “unprecedented” and “bigger than Watergate!”

“Plus Obama did NOTHING about Russian meddling,” he tweeted Monday.

It is unclear what prompted Trump’s Monday morning tweet, but the President has increased his criticism of the Obama administration in recent weeks, ever since special counsel Robert Mueller announced indictments against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for interfering in the 2016 election.

Former FBI Director James Comey said last year that the bureau opened its investigation into Russian meddling and whether the Trump campaign was involved in efforts to influence the election in July 2016, under the Obama administration. But Trump’s claims that the probe was part of an effort to boost Trump’s then-opponent Hillary Clinton is unfounded. The FBI was already publicly open about the fact that it was investigating Clinton’s use of a private email server to classified information when she was Secretary of State. 

The current White House has previously claimed that Trump has been tougher on Russia than his predecessor and has said Obama is to blame for Russian meddling as it happened under his administration.

Obama slapped new sanctions on Russia and expelled 35 Russian diplomats for its interference in election activity in the U.S. in December 2016. Meanwhile, Trump has declined to implement new sanctions — that passed with bipartisan support in Congress — against the foreign power, with the administration claiming the threat of sanctions served as enough of a deterrent.

Trump’s tweet follows remarks from the National Security Agency director Adm. Mike Rogers last week, who said he had been given no guidance from the White House on thwarting Russian cyber threats to the 2018 election.   

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Many unpaid interns working on Capitol Hill are required to sign non-disclosure agreements on their first day in Congress, Vox reported Monday. 

The agreements are reportedly designed to keep interns from speaking up about anything that happens in a lawmaker’s office, even in cases of harassment or abuse. 

Vox obtained and examined the non-disclosure agreements from the officers of a Democratic House and Senate member and spoke with 20 interns who said they were required to sign a similar document. Lawyers told Vox that the language used in some of the agreements was broad in scope, lacked an exception for interns who wanted to speak up about harassment and came with no guarantee that interns would receive a copy of the signed agreement.

The agreements apply even after an intern leaves Capitol Hill and is reportedly designed to keep lawmakers and their office staffers safe, despite being touted as agreements to protect sensitive information, Vox reported.

Read the full Vox report here.

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The State Department has not yet spent any of the $120 million that was to be allocated toward combatting foreign interference in elections, the New York Times reported Sunday.

Toward the end of former President Barak Obama’s administration, Congress voted to direct the Pentagon to give the State Department $60 million for combatting Russian and Chinese “anti-democratic propaganda,” according to the Times. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took nearly seven months to decide what to do with the funding and the Pentagon ultimately decided to keep it. The Department had another $60 million available for the next fiscal year, but decided last week to only take $40 million, the Times reported.   

That money will reportedly be transferred to the State Department and its Global Engagement Center in April, which will counter Russian meddling efforts with anti-propaganda counter-attacks. Currently, the Global Engagement Center doesn’t have someone who speaks Russian on the team and it is primarily focused on countering jihadist and other forms of extreme propaganda, according to the Times.

The news of the unspent millions comes as National Security Agency director Adm. Mike Rogers told the Senate armed services committee last week that President Donald Trump has not yet directed his department to work to thwart Russian cyber threats to the 2018 election.

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Reps. Chris Stewart (R-UT) and Tom Rooney (R-FL) say Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee questioned White House Communications Director Hope Hicks in a manner that forced her to acknowledge she sometimes tells “white lies” for President Donald Trump.

“It truly was just a setup of this witness, who was trying to be forthright and honest,” Stewart told CNN Friday. “The question was so broad. It was, ‘In any circumstances, regardless of what it might be, have you ever felt any pressure to be deceitful or to be dishonest regarding any subject?’ And she answered it honestly. And that is, anyone in that circumstance, there is none of us in our lives that can say we have always been 100 percent honest.”

On Tuesday, Hicks spent nine hours testifying in front of the House Intelligence Committee and reportedly admitted that she occasionally tells “white lies” for Trump.

Stewart also told CNN that Republicans interrupted the Democrats line of questioning to clarify whether Hicks had been untruthful in connection with the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and she answered saying “no, absolutely not.”

Rep. Rooney made similar claims on Wednesday, saying the line of questions — which was reportedly led by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) — was “bullshit” and a “trap.”

“They sent her down a rabbit hole that she could not get out of. And it was completely unfair,” Rooney told CBS News. “I think the fair representation is that it was a setup: Use an extremely gratuitously broad question to make her look bad and ignore the rest of the nine hours that we were down there,”

Swalwell countered Rooney’s comments and said it was simply “a question that is asked of every witness every day across America — and most people don’t have a hard time answering it,” he told CBS News.

Hicks resigned from her post at the White House a day after her interview with the House Intelligence Committee, but The New York Times and several other outlets report the decision was not because of the testimony and she’d been planning to leave for some time.

Read CBS’ News account of the back-and-forth over questioning Hicks here.

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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told reporters Friday that he never considered resigning over the White House’s handling of former aide Rob Porter’s resignation after allegations of abuse surfaced early last month.

“I have absolutely nothing to even consider resigning over,” he said Friday, according to a White House pool report. “We didn’t cover ourselves in glory in terms of how we handled that on Wednesday morning; it was confusing.”

That’s an understatement.

In the same pool spray with reporters Friday, Kelly attempted to outline how the reports of abuse allegations against Porter surfaced, when he first learned of the accusations and when Porter resigned, but his account differs from what’s been reported by TPM and many other news outlets.

Here’s how Kelly laid out the timeline of events:

Kelly said he first learned of one allegation against Porter on Feb. 6 when a reporter contacted the White House for comment about an allegation from one of Porter’s ex-wives related to “some level of emotional abuse.” 

“That was, I want to say, 5 o’clock in the afternoon,” Kelly said. “I talked to Rob, I said, ‘What’s the deal?’ He denied it. He said it’s absolutely untrue.”

Kelly said the first accusation “had to do with a messy divorce” and that there were no photos or mention of physical abuse in the press inquiry that was sent to the White House. Kelly said after he asked Porter about it, Porter agreed to resign; “it was a choice he made,” Kelly said.

Kelly said that it was his “sense” that his statement of support for Porter was put out at that point.

Kelly said he then headed to Capitol Hill for a meeting on DACA and when he returned, the White House received a second press inquiry “that included, I guess, the accusation of physical abuse.” Kelly said that he still did not have knowledge of the “photos” that one of Porter’s wives made public of a black eye she said she received when Porter allegedly punched her in the face.

Kelly said he then accepted Porter’s resignation, at around 7 p.m. and “called the office here and told one of the deputy chiefs of staff he had just resigned, have him in come in the next morning and get read out on some of the things.”

Kelly claimed he did not correct his statement at that time because he thought it was “accurate of my relationship” with Porter.

“The man we all knew, it was an absolute shock” Kelly said. “His religion, his focus on work, etc. It was just a shock to us all. The initial accusation was, messy divorce, ‘he yelled at me a lot.’ He resigned, I put out a statement of support for him, and an hour later find out now there’s a second report still not in the press, still no pictures. Just an inquiry… He had already resigned.”

Kelly said it was accurate that the White House had received “some information” on Porter in March 2017, but that he and White House attorney Don McGahn had not been made aware of it because it was “in the security office’s perspective, only partial information still coming in.” Kelly said the security office received a second “tranche” of information on Porter in July, but that he was still not made aware of it.

Kelly’s explanation of that timeline:

“We received another kind of tranche of things that came over in July. Now they look through it all. They now have what they consider to be a final product from the background investigation. They look through it. They sent it back to the FBI, and the FBI sent back the answer to those questions in late November. I’ve since learned all of this after Chris Wray’s testimony. By December, January, they still had not finished evaluating, the security office, and then (Feb. 6) happened and he resigned. They still not had evaluated his package to make a recommendation one way or the other.”

While Kelly admitted the White House’s response was “confusing,” his account also doesn’t add up with TPM’s timeline of how the resignation came about.

According to FBI Director Wray, the FBI sent the White House a “completed background investigation” on Porter in July 2017, not another “tranche of things” as Kelly claimed. It also contradicts the White House’s claims that the background check on Porter had not yet been completed at the time of his resignation.

Kelly also claimed that he and McGahn did not know about the accusations of abuse because the information had only been shared with the security office, but The Washington Post reported that McGahn was informed in September 2017 that Porter’s security clearance was delayed because of allegations of domestic violence. Both the Post and CNN also reported that Kelly was made aware of the allegations sometime in the fall of 2017. McGahn was informed of new allegations of abuse from one of Porter’s ex-girlfriends in November 2017, according to the Post.

Politico reported in early 2018 that Kelly was told that Porter had been denied a full security clearance because of a 2010 protective order against him.

Kelly’s account of the press inquiries that came into his office also doesn’t line up with what was initially published in the Daily Mail, which was an account by Porter’s second wife Jennifer Willoughby, who described several incidents of physical abuse. Around the same time, the White House issued its statements of support for Porter. Several outlets reported that Kelly believed Porter’s denials at that point and even asked him to stay at the White House.

Kelly was correct in that the photos of Porter’s first wife Colbie Holderness’ black eye did not surface until late evening on Feb. 6, after Porter had already privately resigned and after Kelly had released a statement of support for the former aide. Porter’s resignation then was made public on Feb. 7. 

Read TPM’s full timeline of the handling of the Porter resignation here.

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The White House on Friday denied reports that it is preparing to replace National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster as early as next month.

“Look, General McMaster is not going anywhere,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during an interview with “Fox and Friends” Friday morning. “As the President said yesterday in the Oval Office to a number of people, he thinks he is doing a great job and (is) glad he is here.”

NBC News reported Thursday that Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis were orchestrating the move. CNN reported last week that the Pentagon was quietly searching for a four-star military position in either the Army or Department of Defense for McMaster that could be considered a promotion. The move comes after months of mounting tensions between President Donald Trump and McMaster, according to CNN.

Trump reportedly has issues with McMaster’s personality and considers him condescending and unfriendly, according to a Republican source who spoke with CNN last week. McMaster was pegged for the national security position after Michael Flynn was ousted amid reports that he had spoken with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. about sanctions before Trump was inaugurated and then lied about those conversation to the Vice President.

Despite the White House’s denial of McMaster’s impending ouster, the report follows news that White House Communications Director Hope Hicks resigned and plans to leave the West Wing in the coming weeks. When asked about the “chaos” in the White House on Friday morning, Sanders deflected.

“If this is chaos, I think the American peopler are glad for it,” she said, before citing a laundry list of moves the White House considers to be Trump successes in the past year. “If they want to call it chaos, fine. We call it success and productivity and we will keep plugging along.”

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Fox News Executive Editor and Executive Vice President John Moody, who’s been with the news network since 1996, has retired just one month after the network yanked a controversial column he penned about diversity in the Olympics.

A Fox News spokesperson confirmed Moody’s retirement Friday, telling TPM: “John Moody has retired from Fox News.”

A person close to the situation told CNN that Moody was already planning to retire before the backlash over his column, which slammed the U.S. Olympics for its efforts to attract a diverse group of athletes for the Winter Games. 

“Unless it’s changed overnight, the motto of the Olympics, since 1894, has been ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger.’ It appears the U.S. Olympic Committee would like to change that to ‘Darker, Gayer, Different.’ If your goal is to win medals, that won’t work,” Moody wrote in the column that was deleted after it drew outrage early last month.

A network spokesperson said it was removed from the site because it did not “reflect the views or values” of Fox News.

At the time, a Fox News insider told TPM that the column was published without going through the “proper vetting process” because of Moody’s standing at the company.

“In terms of John Moody, he has zero editorial oversight on any platform, his title is a formality and he hasn’t performed that function for years,” the network insider told TPM last month.

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