Trump’s national security strategy is a farce

Roger Cohen writes: The Trump Administration has put out its new national security strategy. This is a farce. On any one issue, President Trump and his team have several contradictory positions. That’s what happens when your priority as president is to use foreign policy to throw red meat to your base while other cabinet members are scrambling to stop Armageddon.

“It’s impossible to know what the United States position is on any number of subjects,” a European ambassador told me last week. “We could go sleepwalking into a war.”

Let’s start with North Korea, whose small but growing nuclear arsenal is overseen by Kim Jong-un, a leader as volatile as Trump. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump Administration’s policy toward North Korea is “really quite clear.” He said, “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition.”

That was Tuesday at the Atlantic Council. By Friday, at the United Nations, Tillerson was setting conditions.

North Korea must cease “threatening behavior” before talks can begin; it must “earn its way back to the table;” and pressure will “continue until denuclearization is achieved.”

Denuclearization is not going to happen in the real world. If that’s the condition, there will be no talks. As for Trump, he has said Tillerson is “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” He has warned that the United States is “locked and loaded.” He has never embraced talks without preconditions, favored by France, Britain and sometimes Tillerson.

Clear enough already?

Oh, I should add that Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, was not present when Tillerson spoke. Great optics there: Haley and Tillerson are known to be at loggerheads, with the secretary of state (regarded by some as a dead man walking) suspecting Haley wants to succeed him.

Now, effective pressure on North Korea has three components: China, China and China. Trump’s new national security strategy identifies China as “a strategic competitor.” It suggests the United States will get tough on Chinese “cheating or economic aggression.”

Great timing there: Trump is asking President Xi Jinping to cut off crude oil exports to North Korea as his “strategy” lambasts China. Our president believes everyone will do his bidding because he says so. Hello! You want a favor? You don’t double down on confrontation. [Continue reading…]

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While headlines focus on Mueller, Trump’s ire is directed at Sessions and Rosenstein

The Washington Post reports: Advisers who have spoken recently with Trump about the Russia investigation said the president was sharply critical of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller operation — but did not broach the idea of firing Mueller.

“I think he realizes that would be a step too far,” said one adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a private conversation.

Rather, Trump appeared to be contemplating changes in the Justice Department’s leadership. In recent discussions, two advisers said, Trump has called the attorney general “weak,” and complained that Rosenstein has shown insufficient accountability on the special counsel’s work. A senior official said Trump mocked Rosenstein’s recent testimony on Capitol Hill, saying he looked weak and unable to answer questions. Trump has ranted about Rosenstein as “a Democrat,” one of these advisers said, and characterized him as a threat to his presidency.

In fact, Rosenstein is a Republican. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated him to be U.S. attorney in Maryland.

On Monday morning, after this story was published, a White House spokesman reached out to The Washington Post to say that Sessions and Rosenstein are safe in their jobs.

“The president is not considering changes to the Department of Justice leadership,” said Raj Shah, principal deputy White House press secretary. [Continue reading…]

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Why it’s far worse for Trump to fire Rosenstein than to fire Mueller

Asha Rangappa writes: Although under the Special Counsel regulations Mueller does not have to report to Rosenstein day to day, he does need to check in with the DAG three months before the end of the fiscal year with a status report on the progress of the investigation, and Rosenstein has the power to “determine whether the investigation should continue.” Separately, Rosenstein has the power to require Mueller to “provide an explanation for any investigative or prosecutorial step,” and can prevent Mueller from pursuing any action if, in his view, he believes that it is “inappropriate or unwarranted” under departmental practices. If he does so, he must report this decision to both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees. The fact that, six months into Mueller’s appointment, no such report has been made and Mueller continues to take significant investigative and prosecutorial steps (including, most recently, obtaining tens of thousands of transition team emails from the General Services Administration) suggests that Rosenstein is on board with the breadth, scope, and direction in which Mueller is taking the investigation.

Removing Rosenstein and replacing him with a DAG who is at the very least more sympathetic to Trump could have drastic repercussions on the investigation. The new DAG could burden the Special Counsel with a requirement to provide an explanation for every move he makes, and then decide that they aren’t necessary or appropriate. In fact, since Mueller is required to provide the DAG with at least three days’ notice in advance of any “significant event” in the investigation, she would have plenty of time to intervene and challenge Mueller’s actions (and a less scrupulous DAG could even leak Mueller’s plans to the White House or others). A new DAG would even have the ultimate—er, trump card: she could decide at some point that the investigation should not even continue at all.

Of course, any attempt to override a decision by Mueller would need to be reported and justified to Congress. However, given the increased clamor of some GOP members and right-leaning media outlets against the Mueller investigation, a DAG’s rationale for pushing back on Mueller’s investigation would find a receptive audience in some circles, including on the Hill. The situation is delicate, and a DAG has a powerful platform to shift the balance of power against the investigation. Imagine the next DAG simply expressing doubts about Mueller in testifying before the Congress, instead of the level of confidence Rosenstein expressed last week before the House Judiciary Committee. Those are important moments in the life of this investigation, and a DAG not fully committed to the rule of law but to insulating the president and the White House from political and legal accountability could wreak havoc. [Continue reading…]

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Trump judicial nominee Matthew Petersen pulls out after struggling to answer basic questions

The Washington Post reports: Matthew Petersen, a nominee to the federal judiciary, has withdrawn from consideration days after a video clip showed him unable to answer basic questions about legal procedure, the White House confirmed Monday.

Petersen, nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is the third Trump judicial pick to withdraw in the past week amid criticism from Democrats and others about their qualifications.

White House spokesman Raj Shah confirmed that Trump had accepted Petersen’s withdrawal but declined to comment further.

The video of Petersen that went viral Thursday captured five minutes of pointed questioning by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) at Petersen’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee the day before.

It was posted on Twitter by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who wrote that it showed Kennedy asking Peter­sen “basic questions of law & he can’t answer a single one.”

As of Friday, the White House was standing by Petersen, with a spokesman saying that he was qualified and that “the President’s opponents” were “trying to distract from the record-setting success the President has had on judicial nominations.” [Continue reading…]

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FBI warned Trump in 2016 Russians would try to infiltrate his campaign

NBC News reports: In the weeks after he became the Republican nominee on July 19, 2016, Donald Trump was warned that foreign adversaries, including Russia, would probably try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign, according to multiple government officials familiar with the matter.

The warning came in the form of a high-level counterintelligence briefing by senior FBI officials, the officials said. A similar briefing was given to Hillary Clinton, they added. They said the briefings, which are commonly provided to presidential nominees, were designed to educate the candidates and their top aides about potential threats from foreign spies.

The candidates were urged to alert the FBI about any suspicious overtures to their campaigns, the officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Trump silences ‘We The People’ petition site

The Hill reports: The White House says it will take down a website that hosts petitions to the federal government, with a promise to restore it as a new site next year.

The “We The People” website, launched by then-President Obama in 2011, will be taken down on Tuesday at midnight, The Associated Press reported Monday.

Officials told the AP that platform will be replaced with a new website in late January and that all of the existing petitions will be restored at that time.

The Trump administration has yet to respond to any petitions that have exceeded 100,000 signatures, which necessitate a response from the federal government. [Continue reading…]

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Putin thanks Trump for CIA intel that ‘foiled’ a planned ‘terrorist attack’ in Russia

The Washington Post reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday phoned President Trump to thank him for a tip from the CIA that thwarted a terrorist attack being planned in St. Petersburg.

The unusual call — countries share intelligence all the time, but presidents rarely publicly thank one another for it — was confirmed by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Putin told Trump that the information provided by the CIA allowed Russian law enforcement agencies to track down and detain a group of suspects who were planning to bomb the centrally located Kazan Cathedral and other crowded parts of Russia’s second-largest city.

“Based on the information the United States provided, Russian authorities were able to capture the terrorists just prior to an attack that could have killed large numbers of people,” the White House said in its readout of the call. “Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together.” [Continue reading…]

I don’t have time to answer this question right now, but I can’t help wondering whether the conspiracy theorists who so often raise the specter of “false flag” operations are doing so right now.

We already know how easily the piggy in the Oval office can be led by the ring in his nose.

We also know Putin wants to presents Russia as an equal to the U.S. rather than an inferior partner.

But the picture being painted here is one in which the CIA supposedly has better intelligence on plots unfolding inside Russia than do Putin’s own security services.

Perhaps that’s the case, or perhaps bait was carefully laid for the CIA in order to conjure a useful bit of PR highlighting the cordiality of U.S.-Russian relations during a time when Russia isn’t too busy meddling in U.S. elections.

Update: I guess there are other observers with vastly more knowledge of Russian politics than I have, who are also casting a deeply skeptical eye on this report:

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Trump predicts exoneration in Russia investigation as allies fear a ‘meltdown’

CNN reports: President Donald Trump is privately striking a less agitated tone on the Russia investigation, sources say, even insisting he’ll soon be cleared in writing. But his new approach has some allies worried he’s not taking the threat of the probe seriously enough.

Trump has spent much of his first year in office so enraged by the federal investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election that lawmakers who work with him tried to avoid the issue entirely and his friends worried that Trump might rashly fire the special counsel. But in recent weeks, Trump has privately seemed less frustrated about the investigation, according to multiple sources who have spoken with the President.

There’s no indication from special counsel Robert Mueller or his team that the probe is in its final stages. A tipping point in the showdown could come as soon as this week when Trump’s private lawyers and Mueller meet, sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Trump’s team is hoping to get a clearer sense of Mueller’s next steps in the investigation, an assessment that could either pacify Trump or inflame him. [Continue reading…]

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Trump and allies are trying to destroy Mueller

Julian Zelizer writes: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has come under fierce political attack. President Donald Trump and his allies are systematically attempting to destroy the legitimacy of the investigation in the eyes of the public. And without a strong congressional investigative counterpart, Mueller finds himself increasingly isolated and alone.

While the White House issued a recent statement that it has no intention of firing Mueller, that is almost beside the point. In what should now be considered the classic Trumpian playbook, the President has moved aggressively to raise doubts about the credibility of his opponent. Ironically, he and his allies are attempting to crush an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with the Russians by insinuating that the Hillary Clinton campaign may, in fact, be at fault for such behavior.

The President’s attacks should not be taken lightly. As Brian Stelter has argued on CNN, Trump and the conservative media have perfected echo chamber politics, whereby the multiple charges about the investigation — that FBI agents were out to systematically bring down this presidency, that the agency is damaged by rampant conflict of interest problems, that Mueller is illegally obtaining information about the transition — have moved to the forefront of the national conversation regardless of the veracity or relevance of any of these claims.

Peter Carr, a Mueller spokesman, made a statement soon after the allegation emerged: “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”

The stories bleed into the rest of the media as well. On Sunday morning, a Washington Post headline read, “Mueller unlawfully obtained emails, Trump transition team claims,” which was likely music to the President’s ears. An allegation by the Trump for America legal team had quickly made its way into the headlines.

Indeed, it is telling of how effective Trump can be that Mueller’s decision to fire an FBI agent for his email conversations about the campaign was somehow turned into a black mark against him, rather than a sign of how cautiously the process has been handled. [Continue reading…]

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Key officials push back against Trump campaign’s claim that a federal office illegally turned over emails to special counsel

BuzzFeed reports: A lawyer for the Trump transition team on Saturday accused a federal agency of illegally and unconstitutionally turning over thousands of emails to the Special Counsel’s Office.

Specifically, the General Services Administration (GSA) turned over emails written during the transition — the period between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2017 — and the Trump campaign is claiming in a letter that the decision to do so violated the law.

Officials with both the Special Counsel’s Office and GSA, however, pushed back against the Trump campaign lawyer’s claims in the hours after the letter was issued. [Continue reading…]

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Doug Jones doesn’t believe that sexual harassment is a ‘real issue.’ If it concerned enough voters, he argues, Trump wouldn’t be president

BuzzFeed reports: In the wake of Democratic Sen. Al Franken announcing his resignation after being accused of sexual misconduct, several Senate Democrats have called on Trump to step down because of the allegations against him leveled by more than a dozen women.

On Sunday, Jones broke with some of his fellow Democrats, saying he didn’t believe the president should resign and that “we need to move on and not get distracted by those issues.”

Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper, the Alabama senator-elect said, “Those allegations were made before the election, and so people had an opportunity to judge before that election.” [Continue reading…]

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Black voters and candidates might save America

Michelle Goldberg writes: The contest for Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination is between two women named Stacey, both progressive lawyers who grew up in poverty, and it looks like a political science experiment about the future of the Democratic Party.

It’s not just that Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader, is black, and Stacey Evans, a former state representative from suburban Atlanta, is white. More significant are their divergent strategies for victory, which show, in microcosm, the debate Democrats are having about how to rebuild the party in the age of Trump. Do they try to win back white voters who’ve abandoned them? Or do they assume that most of those voters are gone for good, and invest in turning out minorities and white liberals?

Evans, who has been endorsed by Roy Barnes, Georgia’s last Democratic governor, is running an education-focused campaign meant to lure white swing voters. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, it’s an approach that “failed her party the past four elections, but it helped a generation of Georgia Democrats win office before them.” Abrams, by contrast, thinks she can prevail with a coalition of mobilized minority voters and white progressives. It’s a new, largely untried strategy for a Southern politician running statewide, but after Jones’s miraculous victory in Alabama, it suddenly looks possible.

We’ve all heard a lot about how the calamity of Donald Trump’s election has led women of all races to pour into politics. But it’s not just women; there’s a new political intensity among people of color more broadly. African-Americans in particular are once again shouldering the burden of redeeming America from its worst impulses. High black voter turnout last month in Virginia — where the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie, ran a campaign full of Confederate nostalgia — was crucial to the Democratic wave in that state. And in Alabama on Tuesday, black voters defied all predictions, as well as attempts at voter suppression, to turn out at historic levels. Though African-Americans are only 26 percent of the population, exit polls showed that they might have made up as much as 30 percent of voters. These voters went for Jones overwhelmingly; he won 98 percent of black women. “Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory,” tweeted the Democratic National Committee chairman, Tom Perez. [Continue reading…]

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Kirsten Gillibrand, long a champion of women, finds the nation joining her

The New York Times reports: For much of the year, Kirsten Gillibrand’s critics — sensing a presidential aspirant in their midst — had assumed that the New York senator could not hear enough about herself. For one day at least, it appeared she had.

It had been about 10 hours since President Trump accused her of “begging” for campaign contributions that she “would do anything” to secure, and the Ms. Gillibrand, driving with her 14-year-old son on Tuesday evening, flipped on the radio looking for an update on the Senate race in Alabama. The top story, instead, was her. The radio went off again.

What, exactly, had the president said about her? her son asked.

“He thinks mommy is doing a bad job,” she recalled telling him, taking care to censor.

After a Senate career spent elevating victims of sexual harassment and assault as a defining political focus, Ms. Gillibrand has assumed her place at the head table of the Democrats’ anti-Trump movement. The reason is simple: Her cause became the country’s. And she has made sure to stay out front in the reckoning.

Ms. Gillibrand was the first in her caucus to say Senator Al Franken of Minnesota should resign. She was the first prominent Democrat to say President Bill Clinton should have left office for his own sexual misconduct in the 1990s. She called for Mr. Trump to step down, citing his “numerous” and “credible” accusers. Then came Mr. Trump’s Twitter counterpunch, which was widely viewed as innuendo-laden and which Ms. Gillibrand denounced as a “sexist smear.”

Yet Ms. Gillibrand’s strengthening hand in national Democratic politics owes to more than mere circumstance. Circumstance does not transform an upstate congresswoman, who once boasted of keeping guns under her bed and pushed English as the official language of the United States, into an avatar of progressivism in 2017.

Ever since her long-shot entrance into a 2006 House race against an entrenched Republican in a conservative district, Ms. Gillibrand has been underestimated. Colleagues in the House once derided her as “Tracy Flick,” the hyper-ambitious blonde played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie “Election.” And when David A. Paterson, New York’s governor at the time, made her the shock pick to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2009, she was immediately seen as vulnerable, especially from the left.

“She had very middle-of-the-road points of view,” Mr. Paterson said. “It just kind of appeared that she sort of flipped. I think in retrospect, it would have been better to evolve.”

That knock has not stuck, and she appears to be looking at the next rung of the political ladder. While Ms. Gillibrand and her political team play down all talk of 2020, saying she is focused on her own 2018 re-election and those of her fellow Senate Democrats, she has for months been doing the type of spadework endemic to past presidential candidates: expanding her fund-raising network, courting key constituencies like black voters and polishing her image nationally. [Continue reading…]

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Trump allies say Mueller unlawfully obtained thousands of emails

Reuters reports: An organization established for U.S. President Donald Trump’s transition to the White House a year ago said on Saturday that the special counsel investigating allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election had obtained tens of thousands of emails unlawfully.

Kory Langhofer, counsel to the transition team known as Trump for America, Inc., wrote a letter to congressional committees to say Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team had improperly received the emails from the General Services Administration, a government agency.

Career staff members at the agency “unlawfully produced TFA’s private materials, including privileged communications, to the Special Counsel’s Office,” according to the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters. It said the materials included “tens of thousands of emails.”

Trump’s transition team used facilities of the GSA, which helps manage the U.S. government bureaucracy, in the period between the Republican’s November presidential election victory and his inauguration in January.

The Trump team’s accusation adds to the growing friction between the president’s supporters and Mueller’s office as it investigates whether Russia interfered in the election and if Trump or anyone on his team colluded with Moscow.

Asked for comment, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said: “We continue to cooperate fully with the special counsel and expect this process to wrap up soon.”

The GSA and officials at the special counsel’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Democrats say there is a wide-ranging effort by the president’s allies on Capitol Hill and in some media outlets to discredit Mueller’s investigation. [Continue reading…]

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The casual, obscene cruelty of an Israeli occupation empowered by Trump

Mairav Zonszein writes: Israeli soldiers shot in the head and killed Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh, 29, a man with no legs, who was holding a Palestinian flag near the Gaza border fence on Friday.

Abu Thurayeh, who according to several sources lost his legs and vision in one eye during an Israeli air strike in 2008 during Operation Cast Lead, was killed by Israeli soldiers while protesting along the Gaza border fence along with some 3,500 other Palestinians.

Following the incident, the IDF Spokesperson’s official statement to press read as follows: “During the violent riots, IDF soldiers fired selectively towards the main instigators.” (emphasis mine)

The IDF “selectively” chose to shoot a man behind a fence — a man who cannot run, who appeared only to be armed with a flag and his voice. Abu Thurayeh is the perfectly harrowing metaphor for the state of life for Palestinians in Gaza, and for Palestinians on a whole. Helpless, Static. Stunted.

And his killing perfectly sums up Israel’s treatment of Palestinians: monstrous. [Continue reading…]

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How Donald Trump is laying the foundation stones for a fascist state

Readers here should already be aware that I am not in the habit of making hyperbolic statements, so when I use the phrase “fascist state,” it’s not in the commonplace sense of merely expressing disgust for Donald Trump.

While fascism is generally most strongly associated with its expressions through military domination, as George Orwell clearly understood, the most pernicious and absolute way through which a totalitarian government exerts its power is through the control and manipulation of language.

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or “evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s nominee for U.S. District Court Judge can’t answer basic questions of law

CNN reports: A Trump judicial nominee struggled to answer basic legal questions posed to him by a Republican senator on Wednesday, including his lack of experience on trial work, the amount of depositions he’d worked on and more.

During his testimony, Matthew Spencer Petersen, who currently serves as a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, was asked a string of questions by GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana about his experience on trials, including how many depositions Petersen had worked on–the answer was less than five — and the last time he had read the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure — he said he couldn’t remember.

Petersen is up for a seat on the US District Court for the District of Columbia. [Continue reading…]

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Why 41 percent of white millennials voted for Trump

Matthew Fowler, Vladimir E. Medenica and Cathy J. Cohen write: In the year since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, many have continued to debate what motivated those who voted for him. We wanted to understand Trump voters among millennials, the generation that will make up the largest share of the voting-eligible population in the upcoming 2018 midterms. Most millennials voted for Clinton, as predicted.

But when we disaggregate the millennial vote by race and ethnicity we find some interesting things — including, notably, that 41 percent of white millennials voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

Why?

Two popular explanations have emerged post-election: 1) economic anxiety, and 2) racial resentment. Many commentators have argued that a sense of economic loss drove many white working-class voters toward Trump. Meanwhile, here at the Monkey Cage, Michael Tesler has explained that support for Trump was especially linked to racial resentment.

Examining our data from the GenForward Survey, we find a hybrid explanation. First, white millennial Trump voters were likely to believe in something we call “white vulnerability” — the perception that whites, through no fault of their own, are losing ground to other groups. Second, racial resentment was the primary driver of white vulnerability — even when accounting for income, education level or employment. [Continue reading…]

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