Between appointing his daughter and son-in-law to senior White House positions, engaging in business deals with foreign governments, and “encouraging” diplomats and dignitaries to book rooms in his hotels, Donald Trump’s administration is setting new records for executive malfeasance. When corruption is so widespread, so pervasive, so ingrained in the political culture in Washington, D.C., and the executive branch, how do you push back? Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a thorn in the side of Wall Street who is widely assumed to be considering a 2020 run for the presidency, joins Mehdi Hasan in an exclusive interview on this week’s episode of Deconstructed to discuss her anti-corruption legislation and how she plans to drain the corporate money out of Washington.
Senator Elizabeth Warren: Money is going to drown our democracy, and if we don’t start fighting back, and fighting back more aggressively, then we are part of the problem as well.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan. Today on the show: The C-word. No, not Samantha Bee’s C-word about Ivanka Trump. No. And not Robert Mueller’s C-word in relation to Trump and Russia. Today’s show is not about collusion. But it is about something perhaps just as bad: corruption.
EW: Powerful corporations and their Republican allies are working overtime to roll back basic rules that protect the rest of us. So, why is this happening? The answer’s pretty simple. Corruption.
MH: That’s my guest today. Yes, you may have recognized her voice, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, banker-basher-in-chief for the Democrats and possible presidential candidate come 2020. I’ll be talking with her about her new plan to clean up U.S. politics.
So, let’s talk corruption in Trump’s America.
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries: Well, there’s a cloud of corruption hanging over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and the more that we learn, the worse that it gets for the Trump administration.
Judy Woodruff: Maryland and the District of Columbia allege that the president has received improper from foreign governments through his D.C. hotel.
Chris Hayes: The president of the United States attempted to use the power of his office to financially injure a company owned by a man who published journalism the president doesn’t like.
Jake Tapper: He frequently visits properties that he owns, raising the profile of his private enterprise on the taxpayer’s dime.
Peter Alexander: Does the president believe he is above the law?
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders: Certainly not. The president hasn’t done anything wrong.
MH: One of the things you may not know about me is where my parents are from. Because I’ve mentioned on the show before that I’m British, I was born and brought up in England, but I’m also of Indian heritage. My parents are originally from India, before they moved to England. And since the election of Donald Trump last year, I keep getting into conversations with friends of mine, family members of mine — both from India and still living in India — and they all say the same thing: “Wow Trump’s corrupt. He’s really corrupt. He’s so corrupt, he’d make one of our Indian politicians blush.” And, at first, I thought that’s kind of unfair: Indian politics is notoriously, historically corrupt, in a massive, sweeping way. But then I realized maybe they have a point: because Indian politicians, for all their corruption, at least pretend not to be corrupt, and when they do their illicit activities, when they take their bribes, they do it behind the scenes — in private, in secret, not in broad daylight.
The weird and astonishing thing about President Trump, though, is how openly corrupt he is — unashamedly, nakedly, flagrantly. He even brags about how he’s immune from the charge of corruption. He’s above it all:
John Karl: President Trump declared himself effectively immune from prosecution, tweeting: “I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?”
MH: This is a president, lest we forget, who tweeted out of the blue last month that he was personally working with the Chinese government to help the Chinese state-controlled phone and telecom equipment maker ZTE get back into business and avoid U.S. sanctions. Hmm, that’s weird. Why’d he tweet that?
He tweeted it around the same time as the Chinese government was extending a $500 million loan to a Trump-linked real estate project in Indonesia.
This is a president who lives at the White House. Yet down the street, on Pennsylvania Avenue, you have the Trump International Hotel, where foreign diplomats and dignitaries are quote unquote, encouraged, to book rooms and thereby pay money directly into the pocket of the president of the United States.
This is a president who appointed his unqualified daughter and unqualified son-in-law to senior White House positions, from which they’ve tried to make money for their own brands, their own businesses, from foreign governments: whether it’s the Japanese government, the Chinese government, the Qatari government, the U.A.E., the list goes on and on.
Alex Witt: Investigators are looking at whether Jared Kushner’s business ties are shaping White House policy.
Joy Reid: Jared Kushner is doing very big-dollar deals with Chinese government-owned businesses. They’ve just gotten 38 new patents.
Rachel Maddow: Qatar was also approached by Jared Kushner’s family about funding their real estate company.
MH: And it’s not just Trump and his family of grifters: It’s the entire Trump administration. Take Scott Pruitt — seriously, just take him — the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a one-man walking corruption scandal.
The Huffington Post reported this week that Pruitt has racked up 10 new corruption scandals in just the past month alone, including: ordering an aide to set up a call with the chairman of Chick-fil-A to discuss getting his wife a franchise with them — nice; going to a basketball game as the guest of a billionaire oil executive who just happens to be lobbying the EPA to rollback Obama-era environmental rules; and — my favorite — using more than $3,000 of taxpayers’ money to buy himself personalized journals and pens from a luxury Washington jewelry store. Again, I could go on and on.
But look: it’s not just right-wing Republicans. Yes, they’re more corrupt than the rest. Yes, they’re more brazen than the rest. But the Democrats don’t have clean hands here either. There’s a reason why the United States is so corrupt, why there’s so much money distorting politics here, in a way that it doesn’t distort politics in other Western countries, FYI. Because corruption in the U.S. is a bipartisan activity. We all know about the Clintons, for example, and some of their dodgier donors. We all remember Hillary squirming on the debate stage to explain why she wouldn’t release the transcripts of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs.
Hillary Clinton: And I have said, if everybody agrees to do it — there are speeches for money on the other side, I know that. [Audience boos.] But I will tell you this —
MH: And just this past week, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez won his primary in New Jersey with the full backing of the local Democratic Party establishment despite dodging a conviction for a series of corruption and bribery charges.
Newscaster: The jury in the Senator Menendez corruption trial deadlocked today, just 48 hours —
MH: So when corruption is so widespread, so pervasive, so ingrained in the political culture here in Washington D.C., what do you do about it? How do you push back? How do you save democracy from it?
MH: My guest today may have some of the answers to those questions. Elizabeth Warren is the senior Democratic senator from Massachusetts, a thorn in the side of Wall Street and is widely assumed to be considering a run for the presidency in 2020.
Senator Warren really isn’t a fan of bank bosses or CEOs, especially when they’re in front of her Senate committee:
EW: At best you were incompetent, at worst you were complicit. And either way you should be fired. Wells Fargo needs to start over and that won’t happen until the bank rids itself of people like you, who led it into this crisis. Thank, you Mr. Chairman.
Tim Sloan: Mr. Chairman, could I respond to that?
MH: This week, Warren announced in a speech that she would be introducing sweeping legislation to clean up Washington D.C., to ramp up the fight against corruption of the pre- and post-Trump variety:
EW: In the coming weeks, I will introduce sweeping, anti-corruption legislation to clean up corporate money sloshing around Washington, and make it possible for our elected government to actually work for the American people, again.
MH: So I went to Capitol Hill to ask the senator, in an exclusive interview for Deconstructed, exactly what she’s planning to do to crack down on corruption, whether she’s willing to stand up to her fellow Democrats in order to do so and, of course, to ask her the inevitable question about the 2020 election.
MH: Senator Warren, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
EW: Oh, I’m delighted to be here.
MH: Earlier this year, you called the Trump administration the “most corrupt administration ever.” Would you extend that description to Donald Trump himself? He’s the most corrupt president ever?
EW: So far as we know. That’s what the data show. And I think of it because corrupt is a very special word for people who are in government. This is about people who feather their own nests instead of the public good.
MH: And of all the most brazenly and outrageously corrupt things that Trump and members of the Trump clan have done since coming to office, because I know it’s a long list, but what stands out to you as the one that really made your jaw drop. Is there one that you thought: Wow, I can’t believe that one?
EW: This is hard. This is genuinely hard.
I think it went back for me before Trump had his first meeting with Chinese officials. And that the Chinese, who are very, very reluctant to give trademark and copyright out to foreigners, and that Trump and the Trump enterprise had been looking for forever.
And so, Donald Trump gets elected and the Chinese want to make nice and suddenly he gets granted multiple copyrights —
MH: And now recently his daughter —
EW: — that help him. And I just want to be clear — let me underline — that do not go to the benefit of the American people for whom he now works. Go to the benefit of Trump enterprises and Donald Trump and his family, personally.
MH: Yeah. And you mention family: We recently had Ivanka getting the same trademarks and patents.
EW: That’s right. You know, in fact, can I just make a little point here about the Constitution of the United States? The Constitution specifically says that the president cannot accept emoluments.
EW: And basically that just means gifts — giveaways — to the president. And you have to stop and think: Why? So there they were, you know, they’re back in the late 1700s, they’re all sitting down, trying to work on the Constitution. They got the quill pins out, they got the little inkwells, they’re having a lot of conversation. And one of the things they want to make clear is that no one in America should doubt on whose behalf the president works. And so, specifically saying, you can’t be taking these gifts from foreigners because you’ve committed to work for the American people.
MH: And almost all the other presidents managed to pull it off.
EW: But, exactly!
MH: It’s not like it was an impossible bar.
EW: No, exactly. It’s not like we’ve had to have this conversation multiple times already.
MH: And what I find so amazing is that they don’t even pretend to hide it!
EW: And that’s the part! It’s right out there in the headlines for everyone.
MH: OK, so it’s right there in the headlines. We’re now having this conversation that we didn’t think we needed to have, but we are.
MH: You gave a big speech earlier this week where you spoke about corruption, you talked about a sweeping anti-corruption bill you want to bring in to “clean up Washington D.C.” you plan to introduce in the Senate in the coming weeks.
What is that legislation? How is a bill going to clean up Washington D.C.? That’s a big ask.
EW: OK. So let me start with the problem I’m trying to clean up.
Let’s say spill on aisle three, here. You know, we get everybody over to look at what’s wrong here. Rich and powerful corporations figured out decades ago that they could have a business model that was about: Oh, let’s come up with a great product, let’s sell that product, let’s put some money into R & D and let’s put some money into capturing government to work for us, to make the rules on us just a little easier.
Because it turns out that investing money and lobbying Washington, investing money in influencing Washington, invest, hey, $100 million and it can pay back in the billions.
MH: Oh yeah.
EW: Even trillions over time.
Right now, people get bribes from their companies to come work in government. I’ll give you an example of that: Gary Cohn was being mentioned as an economic advisor. Goldman Sachs said: Hey baby, go do this and we will give you more than a quarter of a billion dollars to do that. That’s just a pre-bribe, so that he would go in and advise the president and while he’s advising the president.
MH: He’s not going to screw over Goldman Sachs while he’s advising the president.
EW: In fact, you know, I bet Goldman Sachs got more than a quarter of a billion dollars worth of value out of that one, baby.
EW: Or, let’s look at it on the backend. Everybody who’s in government right now, who might just be looking over the edge to say, you know, someday this gig will be over.
MH: What’s my next job?
EW: What’s my next gig? What’s my next job? During writing Dodd-Frank, the financial regulations, do you know that there were 125 former congressmen and top legislative aides who were lobbying? And what were they lobbying on behalf of? The big banks, to make those regulations as weak as possible.
So my bill just says: When you know what the problems are, you know what the solutions are. The first one is, it says you just stop the pre-bribes. You don’t get to pay people to go take those fancy government jobs.
Let’s be clear: Goldman Sachs was not offering Gary Cohn a quarter of a billion dollars if he wanted to go take a job as a firefighter, or he wanted to go take a job as a teacher. It was only if he was going to be in that position to be able to advise the president.
So, for openers: No, no, no — you do not get pre-bribes. Second part, while you’re serving in government, you’ve got to divest. You can’t own individual stocks: Duh. You can’t own parts of companies that are going to be affected by the decisions you make.
MH: And this applies to the president, as well, I’m guessing?
EW: Uh, yes! Yes. Yes. This applies to everyone. And you’ve got to be totally transparent about it.
And the third one, coming out the other side: I tell you one thing we could do for openers. How about if we put in place for the president, for senators, for members of the House, for the heads of all of the agencies, for all of the cabinet officials and for the top aides a lifetime ban on lobbying?
MH: Lifetime ban. Several 100 people there you’ve just named.
EW: Hey, listen: Boo hoo. My view is —
MH: Why would people, why would your colleagues in this place, here on Capitol Hill, including your Democratic colleagues, why would they vote for this? This is turkeys voting for Christmas.
EW: So, so the question is: Can we get enough American people to demand that they vote for it? That’s what democracy is about.
MH: I hope you’re right. But it is a very radical proposal.
EW: You bet.
MH: You’re proposing, as a Democratic senator. Now, when it comes to taking money from big corporations, you don’t need me to tell you that the Democrats don’t have clean hands here.
EW: I understand.
MH: They haven’t been reluctant recipients of that kind of money. Barack Obama, when he was running for president in 2008, actually raised more money from Wall Street than John McCain, the Republican challenger did. We know about the Clintons and all of their donors — some dodgy, some not. You know, Senator Robert Menendez who won his primary this week, who’s been accused of all sorts of things involving corruption and bribery and gifts. So would you accept that your party, even when it was in office, is if not more guilty, as guilty? Nearly as guilty?
EW: Oh, come one. This is not about comparisons.
MH: It is, because you have to win over all these people to get them on board your bill, and I’m saying it’s not like your party’s going to be behind you.
EW: Yeah. But here’s, here’s what I think — it’s if people are behind us. That’s how we make change. This place is corrupt. And the problem is that everything I just described: the pre-bribes, the taking care of yourself instead of the American public, the doing your job and keeping an eye on what the next job is in the revolving door,
MH: It’s common sense.
EW: Every one of those things is legal. But they’re all legal.
MH: So, I’m from abroad. People around the rest of the Western world look at the role of money in America and go, “Wow!” There’s nothing comparable in France, Germany, Canada, Britain.
But you also have the Supreme Court. It’s not just about this place, it’s not just about changing legislation. Even if you change all the laws here, the Supreme Court comes out and says: You know, corporations are people, money is speech, all of these things are now entrenched in constitutional law, culture, precedent. How do you get past that? You know, a lot of people feel very defeatist, saying, well, we can change, we can vote people out or in, but the Supreme Court has said: Go for it with the spending.
EW: OK so let’s cut right to the bottom line of this. Understand: I taught law for a very long time and talking about constitutional amendments, it actually makes my eyelashes frizz. Because that just seems like oh my gosh, what a dangerous place to go. But on this one? It may be where we have to go.
Citizens United is taking the legs out from underneath democracy. And we have to be willing to overturn Citizens United. One of the tools available to us is a constitutional amendment.
The second tool available to us is a Supreme Court that revisits some of the facts that underlie Citizens United. But the bottom line is —
MH: This court ain’t gonna do that.
EW: — it’s hard. Yeah. I get it that it’s hard. But we can’t give up on it, because money is going to drown our democracy. And if we don’t start fighting back and fighting back more aggressively, then we are part of the problem as well.
MH: You say money’s going to drown our democracy: A lot of that money comes from two brothers, the Koch brothers.
EW: Yeah! I’ve heard of them!
MH: One of them — one of them, David Koch — announced he was standing down from his business empire and his political campaign for health reasons. We all wish him well with his health. But that still leaves the other brother and an entire infrastructure. How damaging are the Koch brothers to American democracy? Can you encapsulate it?
EW: It’s staggering. They have changed — fundamentally changed — democracy. They have been among the leaders in making this government work better and better for a smaller and smaller group.
You know, if you just pick environmental issues for an opener. There was a time, not so very long ago, 20 years, maybe, 15 years, when Republicans and Democrats were very worried about climate change. And then along come the Koch brothers who want to protect their oil and coal-based empire. And notice, because here’s the point about corruption, it wasn’t just about contributions that they made to politicians, although they sure made plenty. It was the contributions they made to so-called independent think tanks. It was about the money they used to hire bought and paid for experts —
MH: They built an entire echo chamber.
EW: They built an entire industry that doubted the science.
MH: And the Democrats don’t have anything equivalent. George Soros sadly —
EW: No, no. We do not have the equivalent of that.
But the consequence was: Republicans who were taking money and were inclined to lean in the direction of the big donors got cover and got some protection from the Koch brothers who created this whole environment that created this — “Maybe, maybe there’s climate change and maybe there’s not.” That’s the kind of damage they’ve done on and not just there.
MH: Yeah, the wider deregulation agenda now. Even Trump is on board with it.
You have been very passionate in slamming bankers, CEOs, especially when they come to testify in front of you in the Senate. The videos of you doing that have gone viral. It’s what you’re known for by many people, it’s what you’re admired for by many on the left in particular. Why do you think it is that more Democrats don’t do what you do? Why don’t a lot of your colleagues in the Senate feel as strongly as you do about some of these issues, dare I ask?
EW: Oh, you know, I genuinely don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think much about it.
MH: You must think about. Like, for example, earlier this year, there was a roll back of the Dodd-Frank regulations.
EW: Oh yeah, but that’s a different point. I thought you were asking the question about why people don’t get hot when we have —
MH: Well, I think they’re linked together.
EW: Well, I’m not so sure. For example: We had the Equifax folks in, and boy, I looked down the aisle on our side, on people who are asking questions and I thought Catherine Cortez Masto, boy, she planted her feet and landed some good solid, blows. Sherrod Brown, who is the ranking member of the Democrats, really gets in there and fights. So I get to see a lot —
MH: So on the bankers front, we have the Dodd-Frank law, 10 years on from the financial crash, parts of it are repealed in a vote in the Senate: 17 Democrats voted for that; 33 Democrats in the House voted to repeal parts of that legislation. Why?
EW: So this all started, supposedly, with community bankers, the small banks. And they argued that the regulations put in place following Dodd-Frank were too complicated for them. And basically, by about three years ago, four years ago, pretty much Republicans and Democrats who worked in this area said: OK, we could make some changes for the community banks. But, no, said the Republicans, and their big-bank donors. They said: The only way this bill goes forward is if there are giveaways for the giant financial institutions.
MH: But you expect that from the Republicans. My question is: the Democrats who did that, was that a betrayal?
EW: And, look, what it did is it made the system riskier. Because what that bill now permits is there were 40 of the largest financial institutions in this country are on a special watch list. It means you look at them carefully, more regular inspections and so on and so forth. This bill said 25 of those 40 get moved off of the watch list and they get treated like a tiny little bank out in Western Oklahoma.
MH: So, does it make a crash more likely in your view?
EW: Not just in my — yes, and, not just in my view. Understand: The Wall Street Journal editorialized against this, saying it increased the risk in the system. Bloomberg Business editorialized against it —
MH: Ok, and yet 17 Democrats in the Senate —
EW: And the Congressional Budget Office —
MH: So tell me why 17 Democrats in the Senate and 33 Democrats in the House voted to repeal this. Was it money? Was it the influence of money? What we’ve been talking about in this interview?
EW: They helped make this a riskier system and I think that is a bad decision. All day long, they said they were there for the community banks, but using the community banks as human shields to be able to get giveaways for giant banks was wrong.
MH: So I asked Bernie Sanders on this show a few weeks ago about the attitude of Democrats towards big money and he said: “Are there some who have the guts” — referring to Senate Democrats — “Are there some who have the guts to take on the billionaire class? Yeah. Most don’t.” Do you agree with him?
MH: You don’t think enough of your Senate Democrats are willing to on the billionaire class?
EW: Look, there are not enough of my Senate Democrats, there are not enough of the Republicans. What do you expect, we give them a pass?
MH: No, I don’t give them — but we expect a higher standard from the Democrats.
EW: But you are right. There are not enough. Because until we have all of the Democrats who are willing to take on the billionaire class, until we have all of the Democrats who are willing to fight for the American people and not for a handful of billionaires and giant corporations, then it’s going to stay an uphill fight.
MH: So, just to shift gears to a big story of the week. The president said on Monday, in a tweet, where else? That he has “the absolute power to pardon himself.” He’s basically above the law, he thinks.
Now last month you said, you’re quote, “Not there yet in terms of being up for impeaching Donald Trump.” Were he to try and pardon himself, would that be enough to get someone like yourself to say: It’s time to impeach.
EW: Oh, look — let’s separate these two things. First of all, he does not have the power to pardon himself. I’ve read the Constitution, it does not have a part where it says: You know, we’ve got all these laws, we’ve got all these checks, we’ve got all these balances. We had a chance to create a king. We decided not create a king, which is what our Constitution basically says — except, if there’s ever a guy who wants to pardon himself, he can do it. That part is not there in the Constitution.
MH: Is that impeachable, if he were to go down the road of trying something along those lines?
EW: So, let’s do the other half. I take this question of impeachment very seriously. This is one of the most serious things —
EW: — that any Congress can ever be called on to do. Right now we have a special prosecutor who is continuing an investigation. Mueller should be permitted to complete his investigation. He has already come up with, I think it’s 19 indictments or guilty pleas. And he needs a chance to finish without interference.
MH: And we know Trump wants to fire him. We know that. If he were to fire him, would that be an impeachable offense?
EW: If he were to fire him, I believe he would create a constitutional crisis. So my view right now, and it is the view, the stated view of multiple Republicans as well: Let Mueller complete his investigation without political interference.
MH: But what are the consequences? I want to hear what are the consequences, what is everyone going to do about it if I fire him?
EW: Then, like I said, I don’t believe he can fire him without provoking a constitutional crisis. Republicans in the Senate and in the House have both said publicly that he will not fire Mueller.
Now look, I’d like to pass a law right now that prohibits him from firing him. But they say: We don’t need to do that because he’s not going to fire him. We need to let Mueller issue his report to the American people and then make a decision.
MH: OK. So, you’re right: Impeachment is a serious thing. A lot of people say: Don’t impeach him and make him a martyr. Beat him at the ballot box. Vote him out of office in 2020.
A lot of those same people say they would like you to be the one who pushes him out of office. Are you considering, are you willing to run against him for president in 2020?
EW: I’m not running for president. I’m running for Senate.
MH: That’s not what I asked.
EW: But here’s the answer: I am running for Senate in Massachusetts 2018. I’m up for reelection, along with many other Democrats in the Senate.
MH: But you’re not ruling out the 2020 presidential run.
EW: I am not running for president. Let me make this pitch because I think it’s so powerfully important.
EW: We have a lot of fights in front of us over the next five months. And they may include Mueller.
EW: They include what’s happening all around the country, they include what’s happening right here in Washington. We’ve got to stay focused on those fights. But more than anything else, we have got to stay focused on this 2018 election.
As Democrats, as progressives, we cannot take our eye off the ball and say, “Oh, it’s all going to be about 2020.” No, it’s going to be about 2018, right now.
MH: Fine, but you’re not ruling out 2020.
EW: I am not running for president.
MH: One last question, and then we’re out of time. One very last question: Donald Trump isn’t good at many things, I think we can all agree on that. One thing he’s very good at is bullying people. He’s very good at giving people nicknames. He’s given you a rather racist, offensive one of Pocahontas. He called Hillary Crooked Hillary. I just wonder: Have the Democrats considered trying to reverse-brand. I never hear anyone trying to brand Trump.
We opened the interview saying he’s the most corrupt president in history. Have you thought about, you know, going into elections, branding him, labeling Crooked Donald. Dirty Don! How about Dirty Don?
MH: You know, you’ve got some very creative ideas there. Maybe we should have a big group effort on this. For me, right now though, it’s about going out and talking about these core issues. And they may not be as sexy, but corruption, what’s happening to America’s families, what’s happening to students today in this country, what’s happening to women, what’s happening to Muslims, we can just keep going through the list. We have to make this an America again that works for the people. Not for the rich and the powerful, and not for the likes of Donald Trump.
MH: Elizabeth Warren, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
EW: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
MH: Thanks so much.
MH: That was Senator Elizabeth Warren, and that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, and is distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every Friday. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps new people find the show! And if you want to give us feedback, do email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you so much!
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