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

A man who served as a translator for Michael Cohen while he brokered a deal with Korean Aerospace Industries was recently interviewed by the FBI, signaling federal investigators are interested in the the $150,000 payment Cohen received from the company, according to the Washington Post.

The translator, Mark Ko, who lives in California, told the Post that he had been interviewed by FBI agents about the contract “a few weeks ago,” but would not provide details about the interviews. Ko told the Post that he didn’t know if the agents were members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team.

Korean Aerospace Industries is one of several companies — like AT&T and drug company Novartis — that’s been questioned by federal authorities over its payments to President Donald Trump’s personal attorney after the 2016 election. AT&T and Novartis have both confirmed they went into business with Cohen, through his shadow consulting company Essential Consultants, because Cohen sold them access to Trump and his policy makers.

Novartis paid Cohen $1.2 million over the course of a year and AT&T spent $600,000 to work with Cohen. Both companies have expressed regret for the decision and have ousted top executives over the matter.

The South Korean aerospace company, on the other hand, has defended its contract with Cohen, saying it didn’t know about Cohen’s relationship with Trump and went into business with him to get legal advice on U.S. accounting procedures.

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During his time as vice president of Cambridge Analytica, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon attempted to use the company’s political ad targeting technology to suppress the African American vote, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

“One of the things that provoked me to leave was discussions about ‘voter disengagement’ and the idea of targeting African Americans,” he said during his testimony, according to the Guardian.

Under Bannon’s leadership, the company targeted Facebook posts at African Americans reminding them of comments that Hillary Clinton had made in the 1990s calling young black people “super predators” to try to keep them from voting, according to the Guardian.

Bannon, along with billionaire Robert Mercer, wanted to use the targeted advertisement technology as part of an “arsenal of weapons to fight a culture war,” Wylie said Wednesday. Wylie, who was the first to sound the alarm on Cambridge Analytica’s use of private data from millions of Facebook users, said he had documents to back up his claims.

Read the Guardian’s full report here. 

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President Donald Trump on Wednesday resorted to his usual waffling when asked whether the summit with North Korea was still set, despite threats from leader Kim Jong-Un to pull out.

“We will have to see,” he said, amid shouted questions from reporters during a photo opportunity with the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan in the Oval Office. “We haven’t seen anything, we haven’t heard anything. We will see what happens. … Time will tell.”

Earlier this week, Kim threatened to abandon the denuclearization talks if the U.S. continues to push North Korea “into a corner” with unilateral denuclearization demands.

Watch Trump below:

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Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters on Tuesday that she did not threaten to resign after President Donald Trump reportedly scolded her in front of stafers last week about an increase in illegal immigration.

“I have not resigned,” she said in response to reporters’ questions as she left a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, according to Politico. “I didn’t threaten to resign.”

The Department of Homeland Security has previously denied that Nielsen mulled resigning, despite reports from several news outlets. In her initial statements to the media, Nielsen wouldn’t confirm or deny that she had considered leaving the administration.

The New York Times was first to report last week that Nielsen was “close” to resigning after Trump yelled at her in front of colleagues about his stance that undocumented immigrant children should be separated from their parents when they cross into the U.S. illegally.

According to the Times, Nielsen “told associates after the meeting that she should not continue in the job if the President did not view her as effective.”

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The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general will look into Administrator Scott Pruitt’s use of nonpublic email accounts, according to a recently released letter obtained by Politico.

The inspector general plans to probe whether the department is properly saving email records and properly searching all of its email accounts in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, Politico reported. The letter confirming the investigation was released by two Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. That committee’s chairman, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) has expressed concerns over Pruitt’s use of private email accounts, which previous heads of the EPA have done for daily communication with staff, according to Politico.

The new investigation brings the total number of federal probes into Pruitt’s conduct — related to his first-class travel, use of around-the-clock security, raises for his closest aides and the cheap housing he got from an energy lobbyist — to 12.

Trump has remained publicly supportive of Pruitt, despite the consistent flood of scandals plaguing Pruitt and his department.

Read the letter confirming the investigation below:

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A top executive at Swiss drug making company Novartis is retiring from the company over the $1.2 million it paid to a shadow company owned by President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen last year, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. 

Novartis’ general counsel Felix Ehrat will be replaced on June 1 by Shannon Thyme Klinger, who currently works as the company’s chief ethics, risk and compliance officer, according to the WSJ.

Over the course of the last year, Novartis paid Cohen about $100,000 a month to gain insight into the Trump administration’s health policy plans, namely its efforts related to the Affordable Care Act. The company said recently that it realized after its first meeting with Cohen that Trump’s personal lawyer would not be helpful in garnering influence and stopped working with him, but continued to pay out the remainder of the contract.

The Novartis ouster comes as AT&T forced its top Washington, D.C. executive into retirement last week, following fallout from revelations that the telecom giant paid Cohen $600,000 last year. In the statement announcing Bob Quinn’s retirement, AT&T called the agreement a “big mistake.”

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The Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating the now-inoperative Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that worked for President Donald Trump’s campaign and came under scrutiny for harvesting private data from millions of Facebook users, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

According to an American official and people familiar with the investigation who spoke with the Times, the DOJ and FBI in recent weeks have tried to question former employees and banks with which the company did business.

The investigation is reportedly in its early stages and investigators primarily want to get a handle on Cambridge Analytica’s business practices. The probe in the U.S. is focused mainly on the company’s finances and how it was able to gather and use personal data from more than 50 million Facebook users, according to the Times. The DOJ has also contacted Facebook as part of the probe, according to the U.S. official who spoke with the Times.

Earlier this month, the company said it would declare bankruptcy.

Read the New York Times’ full report here.

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As Ecuador funded a multi-million dollar effort to protect Wikileaks founder Julian Assange during his stay in the country’s London embassy, Assange returned the favor by hacking into the embassy’s communications system, the Guardian reported Tuesday.

According to a new Guardian report outlining the details of the spy operation designed to protect Assange, the Wikileaks founder’s hack allowed him to intercept professional and personal communications of the embassy staff and set up his own satellite internet. The Ecuadorian embassy was warned of Assange’s behavior in 2014 by a surveillance company that was hired to film Assange’s interaction with visitors. 

Assange has been living at the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012 to avoid extradition by the Swedish government, where he was wanted for sexual assault. Those charges were dropped in May 2017, according to the Guardian. Assange is still living at the embassy because he is wanted for jumping bail in the United Kingdom, but longtime loyalist Rafael Correa, who was Ecuadorian president from 2007 to 2017, recently said Assange’s days of protection are “numbered.”

Assange is also hiding out to avoid the U.S. government extraditing and charging him with crimes related to his 2010 Wikileaks case, when he published a series of leaks of classified military information provided by Chelsea Manning. 

Read the Guardian’s full report here. 

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A Republican candidate governor in Georgia governor will drive around in a “deportation bus” starting Wednesday to raise awareness about the “dangers of sanctuary cities,” his campaign announced Tuesday.

Georgia state Sen. Michael Williams — who claims he’s the “most outspoken anti-illegal candidate” in the state’s history — plans to visit each of “Georgia’s dangerous sanctuary cities” in coming days, his campaign said in a statement. 

“Through his bus tour of sanctuary cities, William will expose how dangerous illegal aliens ruin local economies, cost American jobs, increase healthcare costs and lower education standards,” the statement said, before touting Williams’ history as the Georgia co-chair for President Trump’s campaign.

“Williams champions implementing the federal 287(g) deportation program in every Georgia county to deputize officers as ICE agents,” the statement said. “His anti-illegal alien program would expedite the deportation process and send a clear message to illegal communities that they are not welcomed in Georgia.” 

Williams’ campaign also specifically calls out one of his Republican primary opponents, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, for “failed leadership” on “illegal immigration,” which Williams claims is “a fierce subject” in the race for governor.

But Cagle takes a hard line on undocumented immigrants as well — in a statement on Cagle’s campaign site the lieutenant governor says he’s “led the fight to defund and outlaw sanctuary cities” and has ensured “that criminal illegal aliens could not terrorize our families.” He’s also vowed to deploy the national guard to the southern border if elected. 

In response to Williams’ bus tour announcement, Cagle’s campaign manager Scott Binkley told TPM “Michael’s making a convincing case that the first person rounded up by the deportation bus should be him.”

There are three other Republicans running in the primary on May 22: Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state; Clay Tippins, a former Navy SEAL and businessman; Hunter Hill, a former state senator and U.S. Army ranger. 

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The Environmental Protection Agency and the White House took measures to block the publication of a report on a nationwide water-contamination crisis because of concerns it would cause a “public relations nightmare,” Politico reported Monday. 

The report by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) was set to publish in January, disclosing that a dangerous level of toxic chemicals had contaminated water near military bases and other areas from New York to Michigan to West Virginia. The study would also reveal that the chemicals are riskier to human health at a level lower than what the EPA has previously deemed safe, Politico reported. 

According to an email obtained by Politico, one White House aide warned early this year that the “reaction” to the report would be “huge” and “extremely painful” to the EPA and the Department of Defense. 

“The public, media and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” one unidentified White House aide said in an email obtained by Politico. “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”

The water contamination report has still not been published, according to Politico. 

Read the full story here.

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