Essential Washington

Here's our look at the Trump administration and the rest of Washington.

Mick Mulvaney takes first step toward overhauling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Mick Mulvaney once called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau a "joke ... in a sad, sick kind of way.”

Now, as its acting director, he’s in a position to change it.

On Wednesday, Mulvaney announced he was launching a review of the entire operation of the consumer watchdog agency created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

White House

Trump allegedly told porn actress she reminded him of Ivanka during affair

Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, said Donald Trump told her in 2011 she reminded him of his daughter Ivanka. (Bill Haber / AP)
Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, said Donald Trump told her in 2011 she reminded him of his daughter Ivanka. (Bill Haber / AP)

President Trump told porn actress Stephanie Clifford she reminded him of his daughter while the pair carried on a not-so-steamy affair more than a decade ago, Clifford told In Touch Weekly in 2011.

She said that Trump was nothing special in the sack, telling the magazine that the sex was “textbook generic.”

“It was nothing crazy. It was one position, what you would expect from someone his age to do,” Clifford said.

Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels, took a polygraph test at the time of the interview and said the pair had “really good banter.”

“He told me once that I was someone to be reckoned with, beautiful, smart, just like his daughter,” she said.

Trump was probably talking about his daughter Ivanka, who was 24 at the time.

Around the time of the alleged affair, Trump, in an appearance on “The View,” complimented Ivanka’s looks and said that if she weren’t his child, “perhaps I’d be dating her.”

Trump’s purported fling with Clifford lasted several months, and the two allegedly met on several occasions, including rendezvous at his private bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles and at his office in Trump Tower.

Trump’s alleged relationship with the “Operation: Desert Stormy” star became public when the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the president’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, had paid Clifford $130,000 to keep quiet about their affair.

Clifford told In Touch that the she met Trump in 2006, shortly after his wife, Melania, gave birth to their son, Barron Trump.

He invited her to his hotel room for dinner after the pair met at the American Century celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, she said.

After Clifford went to the bathroom after their meal, she returned to see Trump lying in bed beckoning her toward him.

“And I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go,’” she said. “And we started kissing.”

“It was textbook generic,” she said. “I actually don’t even know why I did it, but I do remember while we were having sex, I was like, ‘Please, don’t try to pay me.’”

Clifford said Trump initially offered her a spot on his reality TV show, “The Apprentice.”

The pair “hung out for a little while, and he just kept saying, ‘I’m gonna call you, I’m gonna call you. I have to see you again. You’re amazing. We have to get you on ‘The Apprentice,’” she said.

He asked her to sign a DVD copy of her film “3 Wishes” and called her about every 10 days, she said. 

“Whether you’re a fan of his or not, which I never really was, you gotta admit he’s pretty fascinating,” Clifford said.

The two stayed in touch for several months, and Trump always called her “honeybunch,” she said. 

“Any time I needed to get ahold of him, he always took my call or called me back within 10 minutes,” she added.

Cohen tried to brush off the unearthed interview, telling the New York Daily News that “all they did is recirculate an old and debunked story that Ms. Clifford denied in 2011, 2016 and again in 2018.”

“This is not breaking news. … It’s old news that wasn’t true then and not true now,” Cohen added.

The longtime Trump lawyer says the In Touch story was a rehashing of a 2011 gossip piece published by Life & Style, which is owned by the same company.

But that report did not contain the interview with Clifford and states that “neither Donald nor Stormy has commented.”

A representative for In Touch said that “reporters who worked on the story originally brought In Touch’s 2011 interview with Stormy Daniels to our attention including the transcript, polygraph tests and other documentation” following reports that Clifford was paid off and signed a nondisclosure agreement.

“Donald Trump is clearly a more relevant public figure now than he was in 2011,” the spokeswoman said.

Trump blames Russia for helping North Korea evade sanctions

 (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Trump blamed Russia on Wednesday for helping North Korea evade U.N. sanctions, saying Moscow is mitigating the impact of China’s increased efforts to restrict the flow of resources to Kim Jong Un’s government.

“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Trump said in an interview with Reuters. “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.”

Even as Trump credited China for stepping up its efforts, he said Beijing could apply additional pressure on the government in Pyongyang to cease its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

The president’s comments came amid signs of increased cooperation between North and South Korea, which is hosting the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang starting Feb. 9.

The longtime adversaries have agreed to allow their athletes to march together in the opening ceremony and to jointly field a women’s hockey team.

Trump expressed increased concerns over North Korea’s nuclear progress, saying “they get closer every day,” as well as doubts about the prospects for diplomacy.

“I’d sit down, but I’m not sure that sitting down will solve the problem,” he told Reuters.

Lawmakers demand response to sexual harassment allegations at State and Defense departments

A march for women's rights last year in Laguna Beach. (Daily Pilot)
A march for women's rights last year in Laguna Beach. (Daily Pilot)

Ten Democratic senators on Wednesday demanded that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior administration officials respond to allegations of widespread sexual harassment in the government’s national security establishment.

The lawmakers cited an open letter published in late November that was signed by more than 200 current and former female government employees who said they had witnessed, been subjected to or knew of incidents of sexual harassment or assault at their workplaces or at the hands of co-workers.

The women included employees of the State Department, the Pentagon, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other parts of the government.

Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the other senators asked Tillerson and Mark Green, who heads USAID, to review and more effectively analyze data on sexual assaults and to “make dramatic, corrective change.”

“These incidents and the pervasive culture that all too frequently excuses these behaviors and actions have had serious and detrimental consequences for the careers and lives of those affected … and a deep and negative effect on our national security,” the letter said.  

The letter was signed by 10 Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which provides oversight for the State Department and USAID.

The State Department did not immediately respond to the letter, but officials previously have said they take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously.

Powell gets second Senate committee approval for Federal Reserve chair after nomination expired

A Senate committee on Wednesday for the second time overwhelmingly confirmed Jerome H. Powell to be the next head of the Federal Reserve, a vote that was necessary after his nomination expired at the end of last year.

Powell, 64, a Republican who has served as a governor on the Fed board since 2012, was tapped by President Trump to replace Janet L. Yellen as the central bank’s chairman. Her term expires Feb. 3, and Powell is expected to be confirmed before then, although no full Senate vote has been scheduled.

Powell was approved by voice vote of the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday, with only Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) dissenting. Warren also was the only no vote when the committee approved Powell 22-1 in a roll call vote on Dec. 5.

Trump campaigned to remove the GOP's 'shackles.' Instead, he's often wearing them

In the heat of his unlikely presidential campaign, Donald Trump declared himself free of the “shackles” of the Republican Party, promising to “fight for America the way I want to” and insisting he would never wish “to be in a foxhole with a lot of these people.”

Yet a year into his presidency, Trump has tightly tethered himself to that same Republican establishment and all but outsourced his agenda to its leaders in Congress. The “populism” so often cited as a major part of Trump’s victory has rapidly proved more rhetorical than real: On the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, Trump will be packing for a trip to Switzerland with much of his wealthy Cabinet to attend the annual Davos conference, a glittery gathering of the global elite.

“To me, populism was the Bannon position,” said Larry Kudlow, referring to the former White House strategist, now pariah, Stephen K. Bannon. “But Trump never bought into it.” Kudlow, a former Reagan administration official and commentator, has occasionally advised Trump.

Ex-CIA officer arrested, charged with keeping documents

CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. (EPA)
CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. (EPA)

A former CIA officer has been arrested and charged with illegally retaining classified records, including names and phone numbers of covert CIA assets.

Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, was arrested Monday night after arriving at JFK International Airport. He made an initial appearance Tuesday in federal court in New York, but will face charges in northern Virginia, where the CIA is located.

According to court documents, Lee, a Hong Kong resident, served in the CIA from 1994 to 2007 as a case officer. He worked in a variety of overseas offices and was trained in surveillance detection, recruiting and handling assets and classified material, among other things.

A court affidavit states that in 2012, after Lee had left the CIA, he traveled from Hong Kong with his family to northern Virginia, where he lived from 2012 to 2013. When he flew to Virginia, for reasons that are not explained, the FBI obtained a warrant to search Lee's luggage and hotel room. Agents found two small books with handwritten notes containing names and numbers of covert CIA employees and locations of covert facilities, according to the affidavit.

A CIA review of the information in the books found information at Secret and Top Secret levels of classification, according to the affidavit.

The eight-page FBI affidavit makes no allegations of espionage against Lee, only alleging illegal retention of documents. Any conviction on that offense carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The affidavit indicates Lee was interviewed five times by FBI agents in 2013, but never disclosed that he possessed the books.

Court records do not list an attorney for Lee.

Dean Boyd, a CIA spokesman, declined comment on the case Tuesday, citing Lee's ongoing prosecution.

Court records indicate Lee is a naturalized U.S. citizen and an Army veteran.

Suit by 22 state attorneys general seeks to block FCC's net neutrality repeal

A group of 22 Democratic state attorneys general, including those from California and New York, filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to block the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of tough net neutrality rules for online traffic.

The suit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, argues that the vote last month along party lines by the Republican-controlled FCC was an “arbitrary and capricious” change to regulations enacted by Democrats in 2015.

Those rules were designed to ensure the uninhibited flow of online content. They prohibited AT&T Inc., Charter Communications Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and other broadband and wireless internet service providers from selling faster delivery of certain data, slowing speeds for specific video streams and other content, and blocking or otherwise discriminating against any legal online material.

White House doctor says Trump scored perfect marks on cognitive test, needs to lose weight

President Trump registered a perfect score on a cognitive screening test as part of his physical examination taken last week, the White House physician said Tuesday, adding that Trump requested the test to rebut accusations that his mental faculties are declining.

“There’s no indication whatsoever that he has any cognitive issues,” Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the chief White House doctor, whose tenure treating presidents began with George W. Bush, told reporters during a lengthy White House briefing. “He’s very sharp. He’s very articulate when he speaks to me.”

“Absolutely, he’s fit for duty,” Jackson said.

CongressWhite House

Senate advances bill to continue NSA surveillance program; passage expected this week

The National Security Agency campus at Ft. Meade, Md. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press) None
The National Security Agency campus at Ft. Meade, Md. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

A bill to continue the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs for five more years advanced Tuesday in the Senate, overcoming objections that it did not do enough to protect Americans’ civil liberties.

Opponents came close to filibustering the measure, which was approved by the House last week. But the Senate’s narrow 60-38 vote puts it on track for final passage this week.

Voting stretched more than an hour as senators lobbied key holdouts in dramatic fashion on the Senate floor.

A coalition of Republicans and Democrats sought to limit the program, operating under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s section 702, ever since former federal contractor Edward Snowden disclosed its reach in 2013.

Two years ago, Congress agreed to reforms requiring the government to seek warrants for bulk data collection.

But civil libertarians wanted further restrictions to prevent eavesdropping on Americans without a court-issued warrant. Others argued the surveillance system was vital for national security.

President Trump confused matters last week when he tweeted criticism of the bill before quickly reversing himself, after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan intervened, ahead of the House vote.

The bill would reauthorize the program, with some changes, through 2023.

This is the test Trump's doctor says the president aced. How well can you do?

At a news conference Tuesday, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the chief White House doctor, stated that President Trump aced a cognitive screening test as part of his physical examination taken last week.

The test administered, Jackson noted, was the widely used Montreal Cognitive Assessment, a brief written and oral examination covering basic recall exercises, language questions, abstraction and more. 

The president, according to Jackson, received a perfect score of 30. 

See how well you do below:

CongressImmigrationWhite House

Sen. Cory Booker calls Homeland Security chief 'complicit'; Nielsen testifies she never met a 'Dreamer'

Sen. Cory Booker rebuked Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen as “complicit” Tuesday for failing to recall — or object to — President Trump’s vulgar language about immigrants from Africa and other countries.

“Why is this so important? Why is this so disturbing? Why am I frankly seething with anger?” Booker asked at the Senate Judiciary Hearing.

“We have this incredible nation where we have been taught it doesn’t matter where you’re from. ... It’s about the content of your character,” he said.

“You’re under oath,” he told Nielsen. “You and others in that room that suddenly cannot remember? ... Your silence and your amnesia is complicity.”

The impassioned exchange came as Nielsen testified that she had never met with any “Dreamers” — the young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, who now face deportation under Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA.

The personal stories of Dreamers’ accomplishments have captivated lawmakers. Trump last week rejected a bipartisan deal to help them during a White House meeting.

Trump ignited furor when he criticized the plan for allowing immigrants from Africa, Haiti and other “shithole” countries. Trump told the lawmakers he wanted more Europeans, specifically from Norway.

Two Republicans, Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, have given shifting accounts of the meeting, first saying they didn’t recall Trump using the word and then denying he did.

Nielsen told senators she did not hear Trump’s specific comments, but was struck by other “rough talk” in the Oval Office.  

Booker, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and other human rights leaders, described the president’s “shithole” remarks as part of a racially tinged pattern that included his support of “both sides” of the deadly neo-Nazi protest over the summer in Charlottesville, Va.

“We know what happens when people sit back and are bystanders and say nothing,” Booker said, noting the death threats he and other senators of color have received.

“When the commander in chief speaks or refuses to speak, those words don’t dissipate like mist in the air. They fester. They become poison. They give licenses to bigotry and hate in our country.”

Nielsen told the senator she shares his passion against white supremacists and insisted the department is going after those groups. “It can’t be tolerated in the United States,” she said.

Trump administration confirms it halved payment to U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees


The Trump administration said Tuesday it had cut in half a scheduled annual payment to the United Nations relief agency that serves millions of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

A funding cut had been anticipated since Jan. 2, when President Trump complained on Twitter that the United States gives what he described as hundreds of millions dollars a year to the Palestinians, who do not show “respect or appreciation” in return.

After Trump’s tweet, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put a hold on the annual U.S. payment to UNRWA, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, while the State Department launched a review. 

On Tuesday, the State Department said it would pay $60 million to UNRWA but would withhold an additional $65 million pending the review. As the world’s richest country, the U.S. is the largest donor to the U.N. agency.

Trump’s tweet followed widespread condemnation of his Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and eventually to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. Palestinians, who consider Jerusalem the capital of a future state, said Trump’s move crippled chances for a negotiated peace deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The White House was especially angered on Dec. 21 when the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted, 128-9, to approve a nonbinding resolution that declared Trump’s decision “null and void,” despite Trump’s threats to cut funding from the world body.

According to its website, UNRWA helps provide education, healthcare and social services to more than 5 million Palestinians in parts of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Created in 1949, it isn’t associated with the Palestinian government and doesn’t take part in peace talks with Israel.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said administration officials had considered cutting off all money to the relief agency but were convinced by neighboring Arab states that such a drastic move would be highly destabilizing.

She said the Trump administration wants to see other countries pay more to support the U.N. agency’s mission. 

“This is not aimed at punishing anyone,” she said. “It has long been a concern … how UNRWA manages its money.”

DACA to remain in effect while Trump administration asks Supreme Court to overturn judge's order

President Trump sits and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
President Trump sits and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The Justice Department said Tuesday it will ask the Supreme Court to overturn a federal judge’s ruling that prevents President Trump from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which currently offers protections from deportation for about 700,000 people who came to the U.S. as children.

But the administration has not asked courts to put the ruling by U.S. District Judge William Alsup on hold while the Supreme Court considers what to do. The effect will be to allow the DACA program to continue while the litigation proceeds.

“Until further notice … the DACA policy will be operated on the terms in place before it was rescinded” by Trump, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Tuesday. “We are still accepting applications.”

Although the administration is seeking a speedy review by the high court, the justices are under no obligation to expedite the case — or even to hear the administration’s appeal. They could send the case back to a lower court for further proceedings.

At minimum, the high court would likely take several weeks to consider the case. That could buy congressional negotiators additional time to come up with a legislative solution for the so-called Dreamers, the young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children.

The Homeland Security Department announced Saturday that it would once again start processing applications for renewal of DACA permits because of Alsup’ ruling. The judge’s ruling also ordered the department not to terminate any existing permits.

The judge, who is based in San Francisco, made his ruling applicable nationwide.

“It defies both law and common sense for DACA … to somehow be mandated nationwide by a single district court in San Francisco,” said Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.


11:50 a.m.: This article was was updated throughout with additional details and background.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham: Let's end this 's-show' on immigration

Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks on Capitol Hill. (Alex Brand/Associated Press)
Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks on Capitol Hill. (Alex Brand/Associated Press)

A leading Republican senator on immigration urged President Trump to abandon his harsh and profane statements about Africa and some other countries and return to an attempt to get a bipartisan deal to protect young immigrants and boost border security.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who confronted Trump at a White House meeting last Thursday after the president apparently complained of immigrants from “shithole countries,” said Trump may have gotten bad advice from his staff before the meeting.

“This has turned into an s- show and we need to get back to being a great country,” Graham said Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

He said Trump needed to return to his mood and language of Jan. 9, when the president said he wanted a bipartisan deal that continued to protect from deportation about 800,000 people brought to the country illegally as children and was made with “love.”

The so-called Dreamers were allowed to apply for deferral from deportation under an Obama-era program known as DACA, but Trump last year moved to phase out the protection, kicking the sensitive issue to Congress for a solution.

Shortly before the meeting on Thursday, Trump had an agreeable conversation with Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, Graham said. 

“What happened between 10 and 12?” Graham asked Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of Homeland Security, who testified to the House committee. “I don’t [know] either and I’m going to find out.”

“Tuesday we had a president I was proud to golf with and call my friend,” Graham said. “I don’t know where that guy went. I want him back.”

Graham said Congress and the White House still could come up with a deal on DACA, as long as it contained some measures on border security and changes to the legal immigration system. He said Republicans would not support a so-called clean bill on DACA, that excludes other issues. 

“I’m telling my friends on the other side - DACA and nothing else is not going to happen,” he said.

Watch live: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies at Senate hearing

Homeland Security head, in sworn testimony, says she did not hear Trump call African countries 'shitholes'

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The head of the Homeland Security Department denied that President Trump referred to some countries as “shitholes” during a White House meeting about immigration —  though she didn’t dispute that Trump used vulgar language.

“The conversation was very impassioned,” secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I don’t dispute that the president was using tough language. Others in the room were also using tough language.”

“I did not hear that word used, no sir,” Nielsen said, responding to a question from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). She didn’t specify what Trump did say. Nielsen is the only Cabinet member who was in the room.

Pressed about Trump’s expressed preference during the meeting for immigrants from Norway, Nielsen also said she couldn’t be sure that the country’s population is mostly white.

“Norway is a predominantly white country, isn't it?" Leahy asked.

"I actually do not know that, sir, but I imagine that’s the case,” she said.

Reports last week said that Trump said he wanted fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” in Africa and more from places like Norway. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) confirmed Trump’s statements after the first reports.

Pressed by Durbin on Tuesday, Nielsen said she did not “specifically remember the categorization of countries in Africa.”

“Do you remember him saying, “I want more Europeans; why can’t we have more immigrants from Norway?” he asked.

Nielsen said she remembered Trump calling immigrants from Norway hard-working.

The White House did not deny that Trump made the comment after reports on the meeting surfaced last week. Over the weekend, the president and some Republican senators have disputed it. Some White House aides have said Trump actually used the word “shithouse.”

Trump’s language has further inflamed the debate on how to address immigration and a deal on the DACA program, which provides protections from deportation.

Trump administration attempts to link terrorism cases with immigration

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The Trump administration on Tuesday released a report attempting to link terrorism with migration, arguing that it was evidence of the need to dramatically reshape the nation’s immigration system.

The report, ordered by President Trump in an executive order last year, said that 75% of the 549 people convicted of terrorism charges since 9/11 were born outside the U.S. Administration officials called that a sign that the U.S. needs to scrap its policy of family preferences for visas, which they call “chain migration,” and a diversity visa lottery program.

But the report did not specify how many — if any — of the convicted terrorists entered the country through those means. It also did not detail how many of the convictions were related to attacks or plans in the U.S. versus overseas and how many involved people who went to fight overseas for the Islamic State or another terror group. Those details were not available, officials said.

“The focus of our immigration system should be assimilation,” a senior administration official said on Tuesday, speaking on condition that his name not be used. He said the nation should give priority to potential immigrants who speak English, who have an education and those who are “committed to supporting our values — not family members of people already here.”

“This report is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Senate Judiciary Committee during testimony Tuesday.

The report, due last year, is being released in a highly charged moment in the immigration debate, as Trump and some Republicans in Congress seek tough new border and immigration measures in return for a deal protecting the 690,000 people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals  program. The official said the timing of the report was coincidental.

White House

A week after California mudslides, Trump sends condolences through press secretary statement

 (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Nearly a week after horrific mudslides hit California’s Central Coast and killed at least 20 people, President Trump sent his condolences to those affected in his first public statement on the disaster.

The two-sentence statement was released by the White House press secretary on Monday.

“The President has been briefed and will continue to monitor the mudslides in California. The President and First Lady extend their deepest sympathies to the families affected, their appreciation for the first responders saving lives, and their prayers for those who remain missing.”

Trump’s belated response stood in contrast to his repeated statements and tweets of condolences and promises of aid after hurricanes slammed Texas, Louisiana and Florida last year — all states that, unlike California, backed Trump for president in 2016.

The mudslides’ toll could go higher. Four people remain missing, and authorities said Sunday their focus has gone from search and rescue to recovery. The disaster has wiped out 73 homes and damaged hundreds more.

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