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Archive for April 12th, 2018

Why the GOP’s Campaign Against ‘Lyin’ Comey’ Makes No Sense

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Eric Levitz writes in New York:

The Republican Party is racing to assassinate James Comey’s character before his tell-all book hits shelves next Tuesday. The former FBI director’s literary debut is expected to paint Donald Trump as an authoritarian oaf with no respect for the rule of law. The Republican National Committee has built a website explaining why you shouldn’t believe that.

With the White House’s blessing, the RNC is launching a multifaceted campaign to rebrand George W. Bush’s deputy attorney general as “Lyin’ Comey.” The party is airing digital ads and dispersing talking points to Republican officials across the country, all built around three core arguments:

1) “Comey has a long history of misstatements and misconduct,” including damage caused to the FBI because of “bizarre decisions, contradictory statements and acting against Department of Justice and FBI protocol.”

2) “Attempts to smear the Trump administration are nothing more than retaliation by a disgraced former official.”

3) “Comey isn’t credible – just ask Democrats.” The digital ads will show several Democrats calling for Comey’s resignation after he injected himself into the 2016 presidential race, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is shown saying: “All I can tell you is the FBI Director has no credibility.”

This case is, of course, mendacious and absurd. Yes, Democrats (rightly) criticized Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation. But that is only relevant if Trump can credibly claim that he fired Comey in response to those complaints. And he can’t — both because he applauded the very action that Democrats criticized most, and because Trump has already said, on national television, that he fired Comey because he disapproved of the FBI’s Russia probe.

And then, there’s the inconvenient fact that James Comey hasn’t actually told very many demonstrable lies. Trump landed a clean (if ironic) hit on the former FBI director when he derided him as a “showboat.” There is something a bit unseemly about Comey’s love of the spotlight (let alone about his cashing in on abetting the election of Donald Trump). But he’s just not that big of a liar — a reality that “lyincomey.com” inadvertently affirms. Here’s how the website “fact checks” Comey’s claim that Trump attempted to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn:

No matter what his grandstanding book says, Comey has already confirmed multiple times under oath that neither President Trump nor his staff asked him to stop the Russia investigation.

SEN. RICHARD BURR: Director Comey, did the president at any time ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections?

 

DIR. COMEY: Not to my understanding, no.

Of course, there isn’t actually any contradiction between Comey’s answer and his allegation. Trump could have tried to obstruct certain lines of the FBI’s investigation into his campaign, without ordering an end to the broader probe into Russian interference.

But such quibbles are ultimately beside the point. The hype around Comey’s book and the RNC’s attempts to discredit it both proceed from the same false premise: that James Comey has something important to reveal about Donald Trump that Donald Trump has not already revealed about himself. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2018 at 1:31 pm

Our Disgraceful Infant Mortality Epidemic

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Kevin Drum has a good post (with charts, of course). From the post:

. . . In 1960, we ranked 11th in infant mortality among rich countries. Not great, but not terrible. Today we rank 24th out of 27 rich countries, ahead of only Turkey, Mexico, and Chile. We are behind every single country in Europe by a large margin. This is the price we pay for our horrible health care system.

Read the whole thing.

And he has another post this morning:

Trump Administration Looking at Ways to Re-Sabotage Obamacare

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2018 at 12:32 pm

What Trump’s Fight with Amazon Signals for American Business

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Adam Davidson writes in the New Yorker:

Jean Palème Mathurin has the stocky, muscular build of a farmer, but he’s not one anymore. He is one of the leading economic voices in Haiti. He’s also something of a miracle. He was born into a family of peyizan (Creole for “peasants”) in a small village several hours southwest of Port-au-Prince. A group of Baptist missionaries started a school there for the area’s poorest children, who would otherwise never learn to read or write. Clearly brilliant, Mathurin eventually scored among the highest in the nation on a college-admissions test and attended a Haitian university on a scholarship. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Paris-Sud, and he became Haiti’s chief negotiator on trade and investment issues and, during and after the earthquake of 2010, the primary economic adviser to Haiti’s Prime Minister. There are few people like Mathurin in Haiti. Peyizan, even brilliant ones, don’t go to college, they don’t get Ph.Ds., and they don’t become powerful advisers. They remain peyizan. Mathurin has devoted his life to understanding why that is. Why, in poor and corrupt nations, does merit mean so little, and how does a tiny and often mediocre élite maintain its wealth?

At Paris-Sud, Mathurin built an economic model of Haiti and other similarly weak states. A few years ago, he explained it to me, as we walked through a tent city in front of the Prime Minister’s office, on a mountain overlooking the capital. Mathurin said that, in nations with some degree of broadly shared prosperity, one can think of the economy as standing on top of several supports. The base is provided by a government that uses its power to create clear and fair rules for economic activity. This means that industries will be regulated fairly, courts will rule impartially, and, perhaps most important, power will be transferred democratically and peacefully.

The next platform of support comes from a host of widely available shared resources that insure that people feel confident investing in the future. These include physical things, like electricity and phone lines, and also something known to economists as “institutional infrastructure,” which includes the expectation that parties will adhere to contracts, and that property rights will be respected. It is only in nations with stable governance, rule of law, and reliable infrastructure that one can see the flourishing of entrepreneurial, growth-oriented business.

Mathurin’s model was partly inspired by the important work of the economists Joel Hellman and Daniel Kaufmann in the nineteen-nineties, when they tried to understand the nature of the kleptocracy in the former Soviet Union. They called the model “state capture.” Previously, many economists assumed that economies tended toward stability and growth, and that corruption was a correctable aberration. But state-capture theory showed that economies can enter a long-term state of stable instability. When the base layer, where government resides, is thoroughly corrupted, businesspeople learn that the easiest way to get rich is to bribe politicians and support their grab for power. The politicians, in turn, will allow that élite to profit from the second layer, that of infrastructure. In these nations, the wealthiest typically operate in basic industries: concrete, road construction, electricity, phone service. That’s because these are industries in which profit comes more from government regulation and expenditure than from competitive excellence.

All nations, of course, suffer some degree of corruption. Mathurin told me a simple test to determine if a country’s corruption level is at risk of reaching a point of state capture: just see if there is a class of entrepreneurs and small-business people with enough confidence in the government and the infrastructure to invest in businesses that can only succeed in a market that allows for the unconnected to thrive, based on their merit. In another chat a few years ago, this time in a crowded deli in New York City, Mathurin pointed out the window at the many shops nearby as proof that this country, for its many flaws, has not been captured. Without even thinking about it, those store owners trusted that their venders and bankers and electricity provider would honor their contracts, that the roads and the phone service would be reliable enough to allow businesses to function, and that, every few years, the turnover of leadership, in either the city or the nation, would not have any dramatic impact on their ability to conduct business.

I thought of Mathurin’s model when President Trump recently took to Twitter to express his rage at Amazon. In several tweets, he accused Amazon of “costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their Delivery Boy.” He has asked, “Is Fake News Washington Post being used as a lobbyist weapon against Congress to keep Politicians from looking into Amazon no-tax monopoly?” It seems clear that his pique came not from a careful review of postal-service rates or of the laws governing lobbying but from his anger at a steady stream of devastating (and, it need not be said, not-at-all fake) reports about him and his Administration published by the Post, which is owned by Amazon’s C.E.O., Jeff Bezos.

At the same time, Trump tweeted his delight with the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, and seemed to encourage the company to launch a rival nationwide cable channel. He proclaimed, “The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The ‘Fakers’ at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!” Currently, the Department of Justice is suing to prevent a merger of A.T. & T. and Time Warner, the parent company of CNN. At the same time, Sinclair is in the process of merging with Tribune Media, a move that would strengthen Sinclair’s network of television stations. The Justice Department seems likely to approve that marriage. There are legitimate legal reasons for the Justice Department to treat the two mergers differently, but when the President makes his self-interest so plain it is impossible to fully trust the process.

It’s easy to dismiss these tweets as part of the stream of confused emotional outbursts that have come to characterize Trump’s Presidency. However, looked at through the framework of state capture, they are more troubling. Trump is explicit: he will use the power of his office to reward allies and punish truth-tellers who oppose him. The President of the United States is signalling to the entire administrative apparatus—to all the lawyers and bureaucrats at all the agencies—which outcomes he prefers and which he will meet with his wrath. He has also expressed contempt for the normal checks on administrative power, as he has made clear in his open effort to erase the traditional separation between the White House and the Justice Department.

Another thing to consider is that,  throughout history, many reasonably well-functioning economies have been eventually captured by a corrupt élite. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson described this process in their marvellous book, “Why Nations Fail.” They show it occurring in ancient Rome, medieval Venice, and modern-day Mexico. In the first half of the twentieth century, Haiti itself was a poor but functioning nation, on a par with Korea and Singapore, when François (Papa Doc) Duvalier took power in a populist election, in 1957, and implemented a textbook state-capture plan, which destroyed the economy. Acemoglu, an economist at M.I.T., has watched the country of his birth, Turkey, fall into deep corruption and tyranny. He points to other nations that have followed a similar path, such as Venezuela and the Philippines. “Charismatic autocratic leaders are cunning,” he told me. “They have very good instincts for politics, though I don’t know if they strategize in a planned manner or if it’s instinctive.”

Acemoglu does not see Trump’s tweets as frivolous. They cost Amazon more than fifty billion dollars in valuation in a few days. That is a significant economic act, in which the President effectively transferred wealth away from his perceived detractors. Acemoglu is now worried about how businesspeople will respond to Trump’s behavior. They might see that praising Trump or, at least, not challenging him will improve their chances at profit. In captured nations, the next logical step would be to seek closer ties to the President through secret ownership. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote, “It will not take very long for venture capitalists to realize that one good way to maximize the ‘upside’ possibilities for the companies they own in the age of Trump would be to sell an equity share at a discount rate to a partnership controlled by the Trump family. Nobody except Eric, Ivanka, and Don Jr. would need to know that the Trumps are now silent partners in Startup X, Y, or Z. But it would be an easy and relatively cheap way to ensure favorable regulatory treatment.”

Trump obviously isn’t the only threat to a well-functioning, merit-based economy. Many economists, including Acemoglu, think that, among other things, Amazon itself needs to be carefully regulated, to prevent abuse of its market power. But such sensible oversight is impossible in a captured state, where regulation is just a tool to transfer wealth to the leader and his cronies. (Disclosure: I am a producer of a television program that will air on Amazon next year.)

In the Amazon tweets, the market response to them, and the resounding silence of . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2018 at 12:09 pm

Trump is a master of “Ready, Fire, Aim”: Trump to explore entering Pacific trade pact he once called ‘a disaster’

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Trump continues his practice of taking a strong position and then turning around and taking the opposite position. Jordan Fabian reports in The Hill:

President Trump on Thursday instructed top administration officials to explore re-entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a trade pact he pulled the U.S. out of last year while calling it a “disaster.”

Speaking after a trade meeting with Trump, Republican senators said the president told National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to look into joining the deal, which the 11 other nations signed in March.

“The president multiple times reaffirmed in general to all of us and looked right at Larry Kudlow and said, ‘Larry, go get it done,'” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a vocal proponent of free trade, told reporters at the White House.

Sasse cautioned that Trump “is a guy who likes to blue-sky a lot and entertain a lot of different ideas,” suggesting the president could eventually change his mind.

If the U.S. were to re-enter TPP, it would be a remarkable about-face for Trump, who repeatedly blasted the trade pact during the 2016 campaign.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump called TPP a “disaster” that is backed by “special interests who want to rape our country.”

His decision to pull out of the agreement, one of his first moves as president, was blasted by Republicans who said it put the U.S. at a disadvantage to China on the global stage.

In late February, 25 Senate Republicans wrote a letter to Trump calling on him to rejoin the Pacific Rim agreement, arguing it would broadly boost the U.S. economy.

Trump told lawmakers he now believes TPP “might be easier for us to join now” because the 11 other nations are close to finalizing a deal without the United States, according to the Nebraska senator.

In early March, the 11 other nations signed the renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership in Chile after spending the better part of the last year reworking the deal.

Trump’s instructions come at a time when he is engaged in a roiling trade dispute with Beijing and also pushing to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, who are also parties to the TPP.

Before President Obama left office, advocates for the sweeping Pacific Rim deal argued that the agreement was important for the United States because it would anchor the nation in the rapidly growing Pacific region while providing a buffer against China.  . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2018 at 10:47 am

Trump’s Company Is Suing Towns Across the Country to Get Breaks on Taxes

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Katherine Sullivan reports in ProPublica:

President Donald Trump is famous for bragging about his net worth. Publicly, he claims he’s worth more than $10 billion. He even sued an author over the issue and lobbied the editors of Forbes about his ranking on their billionaires list.

Yet quietly in another setting, the Trump Organization says the president’s holdings are worth far less than he has proclaimed. Across the country, the Trump Organization is suing local governments, claiming it owes much less in property taxes than government assessors say because its properties are worth much less than they’ve been valued at. In just one example, the company has asserted that its gleaming waterfront skyscraper in Chicago is worth less than than its assessed value, in part because its retail space is failing and worth less than nothing.

Since he became president, Trump’s companies have filed at least nine new lawsuits against municipalities in Florida, New York and Illinois, arguing for lower tax bills, ProPublica has found. Some of those lawsuits have been previously reported. At stake is millions of dollars that communities use to fund roads, schools and police departments.

Real estate owners dispute property taxes frequently, and some even sue. The president has a long track record of doing so himself. But experts are troubled that he’s doing so while in office.

No president in modern times has owned a business involved in legal battles with local governments. “The idea that the president would have these interests and then those companies would sue localities is really a dangerous precedent,” says Larry Noble, of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. The dynamic between local and federal governments is impossible to ignore in these cases, says Noble. Municipalities “rely on resources from the federal government and the federal government can make your life easier or much more difficult.” The concern arises because the president did not fully separate from his businesses, he says.

A spokesman for the Trump Organization said, “Like any other business or property owner when property taxes become inflated it is not uncommon to challenge the process to ensure fair treatment. This is a routine practice and any suggestion otherwise is simply ridiculous.”

Here’s a selection of the Trump Organization’s fights:

Ossining

Just north of New York City, the Trump Organization is fighting the town of Ossining. Set along the Hudson River 35 miles north of New York City, the suburban town is home to Trump National Westchester Golf Club.

Trump bought the course in 1996 for $7.5 million and put in $40 million of renovations. The course includes a 75,000-square-foot clubhouse, a 101-foot man-made waterfall and a host of luxury condominiums overlooking the fairway.

Trump said in presidential financial disclosures that this property is worth $50 million. Ossining currently assesses the property at only $15 million.

Yet in legal filings, the Trump Organization claims $15 million is far too high. In 2015, the company said the property is worth only $1.4 million in a lawsuit filed against the Town of Ossining in Westchester County court.

Municipalities almost always settle instead of taking such cases to expensive trials. But because of public outcry, the town decided not to settle this time. It is fighting this case and another related to a neighboring private golf course, which is not owned by Trump.

Asked how it feels to be sued by the president’s company, Dana Levenberg, Ossining Town supervisor, says, “It is certainly uncomfortable at best.”

The town of Ossining has a population of 38,000 an annual budget of $5.5 million. In order to fight, it’s bringing in expert assessors and outside lawyers — and it adds up. “When you have deep private pockets, it’s a lot easier to have staying power in these cases,” Levenberg says.

Trump National Golf Club LLC, the subsidiary that owns the club, has filed lawsuits over property taxes each year since 2015. If the town loses, they’ll have to refund Trump National the difference between what it claimed was owed and the Trump Organization’s number — roughly $439,960 from 2015 alone. That will come out of school budgets and municipal funds. Briarcliff Schools, the district the course falls in, has put aside $2.8 million of their annual $51.4 million budget for future tax refunds. The town and a number of other municipal offices have set aside funds as well.

Chicago

In Chicago, the Trump Organization has embraced a notoriously unequal system of property assessment challenges to its own benefit.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2018 at 10:25 am

To Paul Ryan: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out

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Michael A. Cohen of the Boston Globe writes:

Wednesday morning, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced that he will not be seeking reelection in November. While the decision was not wholly unexpected (there’s been speculation  for several months that Ryan would step down) the move does speak to the exquisite political cowardice that has become Ryan’s defining political characteristic over the past nearly three years.

Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015 – and far more so since he became president – Ryan has been his spineless enabler. He’s offered gentle tsk-tsks as Trump has engaged in a steady stream of authoritarian and anti-democratic behavior that has shattered once sacrosanct political norms and exacerbated the nation’s already vast political divisions. Indeed, it’s quite fitting that Ryan made his announcement less than 24 hours after Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the president’s chief water carrier in the House on the Russia investigation, went on Fox TV and suggested that FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should be impeached by Congress. Nunes’ reckless, partisan behavior – and the reluctance of the House leadership to challenge it – is one of Ryan’s many ignominious legacies.

But Ryan’s ever greater legacy will be the one that he is most proud of – and the one that will do untold damage to a generation of Americans. I’m speaking of the more than $1 trillion tax cut that Ryan helped push through in the House and was signed by Trump late last year. In fact, even more fitting than Nunes’ latest temper tantrum is that Ryan’s departure comes the same week as the CBO reports that the budget deficit will top $1 trillion by the year 2020.

Ryan became speaker, in large measure, because he and his Republican cohorts spent the first two years of the Obama administration railing about America’s rising red ink and pledging to rein in the nation’s debt once they took power. But of course Ryan and his Republican colleagues never cared one whit about the deficit – it was a means to a political ends. But there were real-life consequences to the budget hawkishness of the Obama years. Spending that would have lessened the impact of the economic downturn – things like more money for unemployment insurance, new infrastructure spending, and relief for cash-strapped states – was killed by Republicans who portrayed deficit spending as if it was one of the seven deadly sins. Now, of course, increasing the deficit spending is just fine, as long as it is being used to cut the taxes of wealthy Americans.

For every journalist and political pundit who bought into the GOP’s dishonest deficit posturing – you were had. But the real victims are the Americans who desperately need a strong and effective social safety net, not the shredded, tattered one that Paul Ryan will leave behind. With his tax cut for the nation’s wealthiest Americans it will be that much more difficult to find the resources to deal with the myriad challenges facing this country – from the opioid epidemic and the nation’s crumbling infrastructure to anti-poverty initiatives and strengthening social insurance programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. That, above all else, will be Paul Ryan’s greatest and most pernicious legacy. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2018 at 10:18 am

Posted in Congress, GOP

What if Trump’s legal liability ends up having nothing to do with Russia?

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Jennifer Rubin makes some excellent points in her post today:

Kenneth W. Starr was appointed in 1994 to investigate the Whitewater matter concerning real estate investments made by President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton. When Starr issued his report in 1998, Whitewater was an afterthought. The case against the president turned out not to be about financial crimes, but his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, as well as his dissembling under oath in a lawsuit filed by Paula Jones. In other words, it is hardly unprecedented for a special prosecutor to start in one place and wind up in another legal universe. Could we be heading down such a path concerning the Russia investigation of President Trump? It sure looks that way.
Trump’s legal problems can be sorted into three baskets — his campaign’s possible cooperation/coordination with Russians to influence the U.S. election; potential obstruction of justice (e.g., allegedly leaning on then-FBI director James B. Comey to give former national security adviser Michael Flynn a pass, firing Comey after he refused to give Trump a pledge of personal loyalty, concocting a phony excuse for the firing, and drafting a misleading statement to explain the Trump Tower meeting); and “everything else.” We did not know until raids at the home and office of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen how problematic the “everything else” category might be.
We know that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III handed off investigation into potential criminal matters to a New York prosecutor. Therefore, we can surmise that the suspected crimes leading to the raid almost certainly did not concern Russia collusion or obstruction of the Russia investigation, both of which we know Mueller is looking into.
What’s in the universe of issues encompassed within the Cohen warrant? The Post reports:

A search warrant used this week to raid the office and residences of President Trump’s attorney sought all his communications about a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape that captured Trump boasting about grabbing women’s body parts, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
Federal investigators specifically asked for all communications about the recording — which surfaced a month before the 2016 presidential election — that personal attorney Michael D. Cohen had with then-candidate Trump, as well as with his campaign aides.
The broad request also sought Cohen’s communications with Trump and campaign surrogates about “potential sources of negative publicity” in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. . . .
The search warrant executed Monday sought all of Cohen’s communications about payments or negotiations with adult-film star Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal.

In short, the raid seems to focus on hush money paid to keep the women quiet. It is the factual basis for potential violations of banking, wire-transfer, taxes and campaign-finance laws. (Think of the Al Capone tax-evasion violations that finally landed him in prison). And, since Cohen was Trump’s all-purpose fixer and dealmaker, the matters at issue in the New York case could involve practically anything in Trump’s life and business over the last decade or so.
As Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare blog put it, the Cohen part of the story is “apparently not about L’Affaire Russe” but rather about L’Affaire Stormy. As Wittes explained, it means that “prosecutors were able to show probable cause of criminal activity connected to Cohen’s representation of the president on matters far removed from Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, obstruction of justice or any of the other matters within Mueller’s purview.”
A serious and multifaceted criminal investigation apart from Mueller and Russia issues has serious implications for Trump in several respects.
If Trump could fire Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and everyone else on the Russia case, he would accomplish very little. As a preliminary matter, the Russia investigation would be handed off to someone else (as it was after the Saturday Night Massacrein 1973 during the Watergate scandal). Moreover, it is likely that none of those potential firings would affect the New York Cohen case at all. They are been run by different prosecutors in a different location. This is the start-with-Whitewater-end-with-Lewinsky problem.  In essence, the president’s efforts to impugn Mueller or the FBI, or to accuse Democrats of trying to delegitimize his election victory are irrelevant to the Cohen-related matters.
Second, these claims involving payoffs to women are far easier for the public to understand.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2018 at 10:13 am

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