The Daily 202: Jeff Sessions’s grilling highlights tension between chumminess of Senate, seriousness of Russia probe – Washington Post

With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA: It is widely presumed on Capitol Hill that Jeff Sessions chose to testify before the Senate Intelligence committee, rather than the committees that have jurisdiction over his department, because he has more friends there who would run interference on his behalf. If that was indeed the attorney general’s strategy, yesterday’s hearing validated it.

The tension between the chumminess of an old boys’ club that traditionally looks after its own and the seriousness of a Russia investigation that clouds the presidency was neatly captured in the closing minute of the two-and-a-half-hour hearing.

Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, expressed displeasure that Sessions was not forthcoming about his role – and the role of the Russia investigation – in Donald Trump’s decision to fire James Comey as FBI director. “There were a number of very strange comments that Mr. Comey testified last week that you could have, I believe, shed some light on,” the Virginia senator lamented.

Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the committee, concluded by pointing out that Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to replace Sessions when he stepped down earlier this year, had sat through the session in the audience. “He’s made us regret that we don’t have an intramural basketball team because he’s six-foot-nine,” said the North Carolina senator, who has been in Congress for 22 years.

“Big Luther is a good player,” Sessions replied with a knowing chuckle, noting that his successor played college ball at Tulane.

“You have helped us tremendously,” Burr said as he gaveled the hearing to a close, “and we’re grateful to you and to Mary for the unbelievable sacrifice that you made in this institution and also, now, in this administration.”

— The tribalism that has infected our politics has also transformed the Senate. Republicans, for the most part, either pulled their punches or batted cleanup. Democrats whacked at the former senator like a piñata.

— Sessions pleaded for some old-fashioned senatorial courtesy in his opening statement. “I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, at least some of you,” he said, “and the suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government, to hurt this country … or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.”

Speaking in the vernacular of the Old South, Sessions said he had come to “defend my honor against scurrilous and false allegations.” “I’ve earned a reputation for (integrity) … in this body, I believe,” he said. A minute later, he implored them again: “Please colleagues, hear me on this. … Colleagues, that is false.” Then Sessions corrected himself. “I cannot say colleagues now,” he said. “I’m no longer a part of this body.”

— But in the process of trying to clear his name, Sessions antagonized Democrats and suggested that he doesn’t believe in the chamber’s Golden Rule: Treat your colleagues as you’d like to be treated. The nation’s chief law enforcement officer acknowledged that he met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — once during the Republican National Convention and once in his Senate office — and that he did not disclose these contacts during his confirmation hearing. But his excuse for what some legal experts think might have constituted perjury was that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) had asked him “a rambling question.” Referring to “the so-called dossier,” Session complained: “I believe that’s the report that Sen. Franken hit me with.” In fact, Franken didn’t even ask Sessions about his interactions with the Russians. Without prompting, he volunteered: “I did not have communications with the Russians.”

Sessions incensed other former colleagues by reneging on his commitment to appear before the Appropriations subcommittee that controls the Justice Department’s budget. It was the second time he backed out. He sent a deputy in his stead. “You’re not the witness that should be behind that table,” Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) told Rod Rosenstein yesterday morning. “You’re not who I’m interested in speaking with at the hearing today.” Leahy, the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate, said Sessions “provided false testimony” and questioned how he “can credibly lead the Justice Department.” He also called the DOJ’s budget request “abysmal.”

During the Intelligence hearing, Sessions suggested that he won’t necessarily agree to answer additional questions about Comey or Russia before the committees tasked with overseeing his department. “I don’t think it’s good policy to continually bring cabinet members or the attorney general before multiple committees going over the same things over and over,” he said. (Sessions undoubtedly would have complained if Eric Holder or Loretta Lynch ever made this comment.)

— If Sessions thought he’d get special treatment from his Democratic counterparts because he spent two decades in the Senate, he thought wrong. The attorney general struggled not to let their tough questions – which he is unaccustomed to answering – get under his skin.

Kamala Harris pressed harder than anyone else on the committee. She served as California’s attorney general for the past six years and San Francisco’s district attorney for the seven years before that. With the savvy of a seasoned prosecutor, the freshman Democrat peppered Sessions with specific yes-or-no questions. It didn’t take long for him to become exasperated. When she asked if he had contacts with Russian businessmen last year, he said no. Then he began to clarify that it’s possible he met some at the Republican convention because there were lots of people he met with. Harris noted that she didn’t have much time and wanted to move quickly. “Will you let me qualify it? If I don’t qualify it, you’ll accuse me of lying,” Sessions shot back. “So I need to be correct as best I can. I’m not able to be rushed this fast! It makes me nervous!”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cut in. “The witness should be allowed to answer the question,” he told Harris. “Senator Harris, let him answer,” Burr, the chairman, admonished. Sessions then didn’t directly answer her question – and Burr announced that Harris’s time had expired.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Sessions what Comey was cryptically referring to last week when he said that he had been aware of “problematic” facts that he knew would force Sessions to recuse himself. The fired director said he couldn’t discuss them outside of a classified session. The question peeved the attorney general, who responded: “Why don’t you tell me?!?! There are none, Sen. Wyden! There are none! This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pressed Sessions on why he was talking about some private conversations with Trump but then clamming up about others. “I just don’t understand the legal basis for your refusal to answer,” he asked. “I am protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses,” Sessions said. “You’re being selective,” King replied. “No, I’m not intentionally,” said Sessions.

— Yesterday’s hearing offered a fresh illustration of a long-term trend away from senatorial deference:

  • The watershed moment was 1989, when Democratic senators rejected John Tower’s nomination to be secretary of defense despite his 24 years as a senator from Texas.
  • In 2013, Republicans tried to blockade Chuck Hagel – a former GOP senator from Nebraska – after Barack Obama appointed him as secretary of defense. They used the confirmation fight to try extracting information about Benghazi. It was the first time a pick for defense chief had ever been filibustered, though he eventually made it through.
  • In January, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) spoke against Sessions at his confirmation hearing — the first time in U.S. history that a sitting senator had testified against a colleague’s nomination for a cabinet post. Booker said he could not stay silent, even though he knew some of his colleagues weren’t “happy that I am breaking with Senate tradition.” “In the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country,” he said.
  • Just last week, senators also excoriated Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who until last year was a Republican senator from Indiana, when he declined to discuss whether Trump asked him to try reining in Comey’s investigation.

— Part of this shift is generational. A changing of the guard is underway. Booker is 48. Harris is 52. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who lectured Sessions on the rules of executive privilege during yesterday’s hearing, is just 45. These are relative youngsters by Senate standards.

Other Democrats fell more into the throwback category. “You and I are about the same vintage,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who is 69, told Sessions, who is 70. Manchin politely referred to Sessions as “sir” and noted that the attorney general understands what it’s like to be a senator. “All in all, it’s better on that side,” Sessions replied with a smile. “Nobody gets to ask you about your private conversations with your staff!”

— Friendly Republicans on the committee helped Sessions offer a full-throated defense:

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) read a statement in the attorney general’s defense from the Center for the National Interest, which hosted Trump’s April 2016 speech at the Mayflower Hotel, where the AG acknowledges he might have interacted with Kislyak for a third time. Lankford asked Sessions: “Do you have any reason to disagree with that?” He did not, of course. “You speak as a man eager to set the record straight,” Lankford told him.
  • Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) noted that senators meet with ambassadors all the time, and even run into them at the grocery store. He asked Sessions, “Is that a fair statement?”
  • It’s very rare for a top administration official to bring his wife to what he knows is going to be a contentious oversight hearing. But Mary Sessions sat in the front row yesterday, offering moral support to her husband of 48 years. “It’s good to see Mary,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said at the start of his five minutes of questioning. “I know there are other places you’d both probably rather be.” Blunt praised the couple for approaching public service as a joint enterprise. “I’ve been blessed indeed,” said Sessions. “I agree with that,” Blunt replied.

— Meanwhile, after the hearing, some Democratic members who used to be friendly with Sessions said that the attorney general’s unwillingness to give straight answers only stiffened their resolve to pursue him as part of the ongoing congressional inquiries. Dick Durbin, who is number two in Democratic leadership, voted against Sessions in January, but he reminisced about how they worked out together in the gym and came up with a compromise on drug sentencing after one workout. In a statement last night, the Illinois senator said: “It is hard to see how he can continue to serve.”

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer complained that Sessions “repeatedly refused to answer pertinent questions … without offering a scintilla of legal justification for doing so.”

Franken called Sessions’s testimony “very unsettling” and said he didn’t buy his explanations. â€œI believe he’s trying to downplay the gravity of and whitewash the fact that he misled the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath and failed to correct the record until he was forced to do so seven weeks later after reporting by the Washington Post,” the Minnesotan said in a statement.

HOW THE HEARING IS PLAYING:

The New York Times’s Frank Bruni, widening the aperture in his column, calls Sessions “a flustered Gump in the headlights”: “The appearance … didn’t bring us much closer to understanding what did or didn’t happen … But as I watched him … I saw a broader story, a dark parable of bets misplaced and souls under siege. This is what happens when you draw too close to Trump. You’re diminished at best, mortified at worst. You’ve either done work dirtier than you meant to or told fibs bigger than you ought to or been sullied by contact or been thrown to the wolves. … For all Trump’s career and all his campaign, he played the part of Midas, claiming that everything he touched turned to gold. That was never true. This is: Almost everyone who touches him is tarnished, whether testifying or not.”

Pro-Trump conservative commentators rallied to the AG’s defense:

“Democrats created enough fodder on executive privilege to drive some negative news coverage over the next 12-18 hours,” National Review Editor Rich Lowry argued, “but otherwise the hearing has been a nothing burger.”

WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

— BREAKING: A gunman opened fire on a Republican congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, this morning, injuring House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told The Post that Capitol Police informed them that Scalise had been shot. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said in a televised interview this morning on CNN: “I hear a loud ‘bam’ and I look around and behind third base … I see a rifle, and I see a little bit of a body and then I hear another “bam” and I realize there’s still an active shooter. At the same time I hear Steve Scalise over at second base scream — he was shot.” The local NBC affiliate just reported, citing an unnamed congressional aide, that Scalise is in stable condition at George Washington University Hospital. This is a developing story. We’ve just launched a live blog. Go to washingtonpost.com for the latest.

President Trump just tweeted:

— Republican Ed Gillespie barely prevailed and Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam easily won in the Virginia gubernatorial primaries. Gregory S. Schneider reports: “The nation was watching Virginia as a political laboratory for how the political parties handle the deep divisions that followed last year’s election of President Trump. The establishment forces seemed to win out, as Virginia voters resisted efforts to pull further to the right or left. … Overall, Democrats turned out in far greater numbers than Republicans. About 540,000 voters cast ballots in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, while just over 360,000 voters cast ballots on the Republican side.”

— In the race for lieutenant governor, Republicans nominated state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, and the Democrats chose former federal prosecutor Justin Fairfax, who would be the first African-American to win statewide since Doug Wilder in 1989.

— The president’s presence loomed large over the results, both in Democratic turnout and in diehard Trump supporter Corey Stewart’s surprisingly strong showing. Robert McCartney reports: “Hostility to Trump spurred strong turnout among Democrats, raising their hopes that … Northam can retain the governor’s mansion for the party. On the GOP side, enthusiasm for the president lifted outspoken Trump supporter Stewart to an unexpectedly strong finish in his race against the GOP establishment’s favored candidate … Although Stewart came up short, his showing in the primary creates a new challenge for Gillespie in the general election. Gillespie had hoped to keep some distance from Trump to help him with Virginia’s notably centrist voters. But now he may need to warm up to the president to bring along the Republican base.”

— Stewart had faced ridicule for modeling his primary campaign off Trump’s since the president lost Virginia to Hillary Clinton in November. Paul Schwartzman reports: “But Stewart insisted that he understood Virginia’s electorate and refused to abandon his divisive rhetoric and raw-toned defense of Confederate monuments that drew support from white nationalist groups. On Tuesday, Stewart proved himself something of a political sage, astounding Virginia Republicans by coming within a shade over one percentage point of upsetting Gillespie, the front-runner throughout the campaign who was far better-known and raised more than $4 million more than his opponent. Standing before a cheering crowd of supporters, Stewart refused to concede, saying he would not support Gillespie as the party’s nominee and promised ‘to continue the revolution that Donald Trump started.’”

— Stewart’s decision to embrace Confederate statues struck Republican strategists as a recipe for disaster, but it may have helped his image as an enemy to liberals. The University of Virginia Center for Politics’ Kyle Kondik said this last month when attempting to explain Stewart’s strategy: “If you’re an underdog candidate looking for something to get attention with, Stewart has certainly gotten attention for this … Just the name ID can be more than half the battle … Sometimes it matters not so much what your own position is, but who your enemies are. Maybe Stewart’s calculation is if he can fire up these protesters, those are people that conservative Republicans think are riffraff. Therefore, he becomes an enemy of the left, and that generates more support on the right.”

— Gillespie seems to have sensed the hard-right edge among voters late in the game, reportedly running last-minute digital ads in which he promised to protect Confederate statues from being removed — something that will come back to haunt him in the general.

— Gillespie also included a “get the facts” section on his website, which highlighted this Politifact article debunking Stewart’s claim that Gillespie “would not mention (Donald Trump’s) name unless he was condemning him.” 

— Gillespie’s half-hearted support of Trump illustrates his tough road ahead on the way to November, the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin reports: “The surprisingly close Republican contest foreshadowed Mr. Gillespie’s quandary heading into the general election: how to handle a president who remains broadly popular on the right but is politically toxic among the broader electorate in Virginia, the only Southern state carried by Hillary Clinton.”

— The Democratic primary was noteworthy for being called so early. Tom Periello, a progressive former congressman who had received endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, suffered a double-digit loss. After conceding, he quickly endorsed Northam and called for unity:

— But Perriello’s loss delivers another blow to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which, as Politico’s David Siders explained recently, has been unable to pick up victories that reflect grassroots energy: “Nearly a year after Sanders’ presidential run fell short, one thing is missing in the afterglow — a reliable string of victories at the ballot box.”

— Before Perriello’s fate was sealed, the New York Times published an op-ed from Sanders entitled (you really can’t make this up) “How Democrats Can Stop Losing Elections,” in which he stood by his message of economic populism. Sanders writes: “The Democrats must develop an agenda that speaks to the pain of tens of millions of families who are working longer hours for lower wages and to the young people who, unless we turn the economy around, will have a lower standard of living than their parents … While Democrats should appeal to moderate Republicans who are disgusted with the Trump presidency, too many in our party cling to an overly cautious, centrist ideology … If the Democrats are prepared to rally grass-roots America in every state and to stand up to the greed of the billionaire class, the party will stop losing elections.”

— But Northam’s win provides further evidence that, in many cases, Democratic candidates still need establishment support to succeed. The Atlantic’s Clare Foran wrote yesterday before the polls closed: “If Northam prevails, it may be a sign that candidates who win the backing of establishment Democrats in their state remain in the best position to win intra-party contests.”

— Democratic strategist Jon Cowan, president of the centrist think tank Third Way, pointed to Perriello’s loss as evidence that much of the country is not ready to get behind a Sanders-like liberal agenda. “The lesson [of Northam’s win] is that liberal populism is not what Democratic voters are seeking in purple and red regions,” he said in an email. “Perriello deserves praise for raising important issues and running a positive campaign. But he was too populist for the state. If Democrats are to have a successful 2018 and begin to stop the madness of Trump, the lesson of Virginia is to not force an agenda that works in the bluest parts of the country onto the places with ideologically diverse voters. It just won’t work, and the stakes for failure are just too high.”

— Away from the governor’s race, a Democrat who would be Virginia’s first openly transgender lawmaker won her primary and will next face off against Robert G. Marshall, who proposed a “bathroom bill” in the House of Delegates. Fenit Nirappil reports: “Danica Roem, a former Gainesville and Prince William Times reporter, beat three rivals Tuesday to join the largest slate of Democratic House candidates in recent memory, joining the launch of a general election campaign in which the party hopes to retake control of a legislative chamber that has a staggering Republican majority. The Democrats — many of whom say they were inspired to run after the election of President Trump — will compete in 87 of the state’s 100 House districts in November, making for the largest number of contested races in at least 20 years.”

— Nearly 200 Democratic lawmakers have agreed to file a lawsuit accusing the president of violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause. Tom Hamburger and Karen Tumulty report:  â€œThe lead senator filing the complaint in federal district court, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), said Tuesday that the lawsuit has already drawn more congressional plaintiffs — 196 — than any legal action previously taken against a president. No Republicans had joined in the lawsuit so far, although they will be invited to do so, Blumenthal said. An advance copy of the legal complaint reviewed by The Washington Post argues that those in Congress have special standing because the Constitution’s ‘foreign emoluments clause’ requires the president to obtain ‘the consent of Congress’ before accepting any gifts. The legal effort, led in the House by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), is likely to escalate tensions between the White House and Capitol Hill.” Trump and Blumenthal have faced off before, with the president tweeting (here, here and here) about his Vietnam war record.

  • Speaking of questionable Trump Organization transactions, secretive shell companies have become the predominant buyers of Trump’s companies’ real estate. USA Today’s Nick Penzenstadler, Steve Reilly and John Kelly report: “Over the last 12 months, about 70% of buyers of Trump properties were limited liability companies – corporate entities that allow people to purchase property without revealing all of the owners’ names. That compares with about 4% of buyers in the two years before. USA TODAY journalists have spent six months cataloging every condo, penthouse or other property that Trump and his companies own – and tracking the buyers behind every transaction. The investigation found Trump’s companies owned more than 430 individual properties worth well over $250 million.”

— A number of fatalities were reported from a fired that whipped through a west London apartment complex. Griff Witte and Karla Adam report: “A thick plume of smoke could be seen for miles around, while witnesses reported people jumping from open windows near the top of the 24-story building after being trapped by the advancing flames. Hundreds of other residents, many who had been asleep when the blaze broke out shortly before 1 a.m., were forced to flee down dark and smoky stairwells. The building, which is located in a poverty-stricken pocket of one of London’s wealthiest neighborhoods, was engulfed within minutes, said locals. ‘It was like a horror movie, smoke was coming from everywhere,’ said building resident Adeeb, who hobbled down nine flights of stairs on crutches with his wife and three children.”

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Embattled Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced an indefinite leave of absence from the company, as the ride-hailing service seeks to recover from a months-long string of controversies. In the interim, Uber’s board is slated to conduct an overhaul of existing workplace culture, including the implementation of “independent” board members and the creation of an oversight committee to improve corporate ethics. In another embarrassing fumble for Uber, one of its board members was forced to resign after making an “inappropriate” comment about women while attending a company-wide meeting meant to address sexual harassment. (Craig Timberg and Brian Fung)  
  2. Rolling Stone is paying $1.65 million to a University of Virginia fraternity, moving to settle a defamation lawsuit. (T. Rees Shapiro)
  3. The jury in Bill Cosby’s sexual assault trial could not yet deliver a verdict after 12 hours of deliberation. They will reconvene this morning. (Manuel Roig-Franzia)
  4. The “Pizzagate” shooter wrote a letter apologizing to his victims and seeking a lenient sentence. Edgar Maddison Welch will be sentenced June 22 after pleading guilty to a District assault and a federal firearms charge in March. (Spencer S. Hsu)
  5. NBC is reportedly holding crisis meetings over the backlash from Megyn Kelly’s interview with Alex Jones. At least one advertiser has already pulled ads because of the interview, which is set to air Sunday. (Page Six)
  6. President Trump’s disapproval rating hit a record high. According to Gallup, 60 percent of Americans disapprove of the president, one percent point higher than his previous record, set in late March. (The Hill)
  7. United was forced to apologize (again) after a video emerged showing an employee shoving a 71-year-old passenger over a ticket dispute. (Samantha Schmidt)
  8. Government contractor DynCorp International faced charges that employees attempted to bilk the State Department out of millions. The corporation is also confronting an unrelated civil case by the DOJ. (Rachel Weiner)
  9. Nancy Pelosi is expected to announce today the House Democratic Diversity Initiative, meant to bring about more representative House staffs. The concept derives from a plan first pursued in the NFL. (Ed O’Keefe)
  10. Emily’s List has named former Maine state legislator Emily Cain as executive director. Cain led Maine Democrats to a majority in the state House in 2010, and members of the influential women’s political group hope she can do the same for their endorsed candidates. (Philip Rucker)
  11. A French historian tasked with retracing the lives of U.S. pilots whose planes crashed in German-controlled territory during World War II has allegedly been stealing the dog tags of dead American heroes and auctioning them off on eBay for personal gain. If convicted, he could face up to a decade in prison. (John Woodrow Cox)
  12. Ever paid for a therapeutic massage that’s felt a little, well, off? If so, you may be seeing one of the many licensed professionals and sports trainers who have replaced pricey massage equipment with power tools. One popular, cost-friendly substation is the Jigsaw — so long as its users first remember to file down an extremely sharp saw blade on the device. (Wall Street Journal)
  13. Tracy K. Smith was named the new U.S. Poet Laureate. (Ron Charles)

WHAT TRUMP REALLY THINKS:

— The president privately told a group of Republican senators yesterday that the House GOP health-care bill is “mean” and that he expects the Senate to “improve” the legislation considerably. Sean Sullivan and Kelsey Snell report: “Trump’s comments, during a White House lunch with a group of 15 GOP senators from across the ideological spectrum, signaled that he may be willing to embrace a less-aggressive revision of the Affordable Care Act than Republicans have previously promised. The meeting came as Senate Republicans were struggling to build support for their health-care rewrite among conservatives who are concerned that the legislation is drifting too far to the left … Following the meeting, several top Republicans sought to temper expectations that leaders could produce a final health-care draft by the end of the week, as had previously been expected … Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also declined to say whether the Senate would hold a vote on the bill before the July 4 recess.” Don’t forget: When the House’s health-care bill passed, a very long six weeks ago, Trump held a celebration in the Rose Garden.

SOUNDING THE ALARM:

— Paul Ryan warned his caucus yesterday that they should prepare for a potentially brutal 2018 election season. Mike DeBonis reports: “[Ryan] and Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told lawmakers in a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning at the Republican National Committee to expect a difficult political landscape ahead of the midterm congressional elections next year. They cited increased grass-roots engagement on the left and robust fundraising for Democratic candidates in recent special elections in urging lawmakers to accelerate their own political efforts in response … [Stivers] warned that the NRCC has already spent some $10 million on special elections in 2017 — far outstripping amounts from previous non-election years. From 2009 through 2016, the committee spent about $9.7 million combined on special elections. In an interview Tuesday, Stivers said he simply reiterated sage advice for any election cycle — ‘You always need to be ready for every race.’”

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN:

— Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and counsel in the Russia investigation, Marc Kasowitz, has boasted to friends and colleagues that he played a “central role” in the March firing of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger and Justin Elliott report: “Kasowitz told Trump, ‘This guy is going to get you,’ according to a person familiar with Kasowitz’s account. Those who know Kasowitz say he is sometimes prone to exaggerating when regaling them with his exploits. But if true, his assertion adds to the mystery surrounding the motive and timing of Bharara’s firing … Kasowitz’s claimed role in the Bharara firing appears to be a sign that the New York lawyer has been inserting himself into matters of governance and not just advising the president on personal legal matters.”

Preet had a colorful response on Twitter:

— Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has been spending a lot of time at the White House recently—maybe too much time. Foreign Policy’s Jenna McLaughlin and Elias Groll report: “Current employees and veterans of the intelligence community are wondering whether the former Indiana senator is being kept on a tight leash by the administration. Twelve weeks into the job, Coats … is rarely seen at the office’s so-called Liberty Crossing headquarters in McLean, Virginia. Instead, Coats typically works out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where he has an office and frequently attends meetings with the president and his top advisors.”

THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS: 

— The idea of firing special counsel Robert Mueller was first floated publicly by Newsmax’s Christopher Ruddy on Monday night, and official Washington spent yesterday signaling to Trump that he shouldn’t even think about it. Philip Rucker reports: “To some of Trump’s most loyal allies, terminating [Mueller] as special counsel of the expanding Russia investigation is a tantalizing idea — one that has gained currency on the right and, according to one of Trump’s friends, has been considered by the president himself … Trump has been counseled strongly against trying to remove Mueller and appears unlikely to take such a drastic step … But neither [press secretary Sean] Spicer nor other Trump aides would explicitly dispute Ruddy’s assertion that the president has considered firing Mueller.”

And Trump himself repeatedly ignored questions on whether he would fire Mueller. “Reporters asked Trump four times during a health-care meeting at the White House whether Mueller should be fired, and the president gave no answer,” Phil reports. “They asked again as he walked across the South Lawn to board the Marine One helicopter, and again he gave no answer. Reporters asked once more as Trump stepped off Air Force One in Milwaukee, and once more he had no answer.” But Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has been in charge of the Russia investigation since Sessions recused himself, testified before Congress yesterday that he would not fire Mueller “without good cause.” 

— But Trump firing Mueller is not completely off the table. The New York Times’ Glenn Thrush, Maggie Haberman and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report: “People close to Mr. Trump say he is so volatile they cannot be sure that he will not change his mind about Mr. Mueller if he finds out anything to lead him to believe the investigation has been compromised. And his ability to endure a free-ranging investigation, directed by Mr. Mueller, that could raise questions about the legitimacy of his Electoral College victory, the topic that most provokes his rage, will be a critical test for a president who has continued on Twitter and elsewhere to flout the advice of his staff, friends and legal team.”

— The Fix’s Philip Bump designed a flowchart to explain how Mueller could potentially be ousted:

— Former Republican Rep. Bob Inglis (S.C.), who helped to draft the articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton, argues that the charges against Trump are far more serious. He writes: “If Comey had angered a President Hillary Clinton by restarting the investigation into her private email server and she had fired him, Republicans would be howling. Rightly so … In the current case, Comey was exploring the possibility of American involvement in the Russian plot, a treasonous offense. While it’s not time to start drafting articles of impeachment, it is time to pursue this investigation into Russian meddling in our presidential election with vigor, without friends to reward and without enemies to punish.” 

— Nancy Pelosi said she believes Trump will “self-impeach” – seeking to implore Democrats to wait for the Russia investigation to play out before publicly pushing for his removal from the White House. Politico’s Heather Caygle and John Bresnahan report: “Pelosi also believes that if Trump fired Mueller … it would be enough to push Republicans to begin seriously considering acting against the president on their own. In the meantime, Pelosi argued, Democrats risk turning the spotlight on themselves when it should remain on Trump and his actions during the ongoing congressional and independent investigations.”

— Jack Goldsmith, who led the DOJ’s powerful Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush, assessed the potential consequences of Mueller being dismissed on the Lawfare blog: “This seems like such a bad idea — for the nation, and for the President — that I have a hard time believing it is a live possibility. I hope it is no more than wishful thinking or encouragement on the part of the Trump allies … Nonetheless, in the hope that this proves to be an irrelevant exercise, I sketch below what I think would happen if Trump did, in fact, decide he wanted Mueller gone.”

  • Unless Trump comes up with a clinching reason for firing Mueller that is now hard to fathom, it is hard to see how Rosenstein carries out the order. He will resign.”
  • Goldsmith says the more unpredictable question is how Congress would — or would not — choose to respond: â€œ[How much of a backlash would] be enough to cause Republican leadership to intervene strongly with the President, and ultimately with impeachment?” Goldsmith says this depends on the reasons Trump gives for his firing and how DOJ officials responded. “If the crazy scenario that got me to this point in the hypothetical decision chain materializes, Congress would rise up quickly to stop the President, and the pressure on the cabinet would be enormous as well. If I am naive in thinking this, then we are indeed in trouble.”

— Post columnist David Ignatius explains why the consequences of Trump firing Mueller would be disastrous: â€œThe protection against lawless behavior in a democracy, in the end, isn’t the institutional framework set forth in our Constitution, but the will of public officials to make that system work — and the ability of the public to put aside factional differences and support the rule of law. If Trump is wise, he’ll leave Mueller in place and let this investigation run its course. But if he tries to sack the special counsel, he will be making a bet that the country is too weak and disoriented to stand together behind its constitutional structure of law — which, really, would be the saddest outcome of all.”

MORE ON THE HEALTH-CARE DEBATE:

— To replace the Affordable Care Act, Senate GOP leaders are increasingly relying upon a somewhat unlikely ally: Ted Cruz. Sean Sullivan and Kelsey Snell report: “Senate leaders are struggling to build conservative support for their emerging bill, with GOP aides and senators voicing growing skepticism that hard-right Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) can be persuaded to back it … But Cruz, after building a national brand stoking tensions with McConnell and his top deputies, is, in his own words, trying to ‘get to yes.’ The former presidential hopeful has spoken positively about the negotiations, which he helped kick-start. His investment in the talks has generated cautious optimism among many Republicans that he won’t walk away from a delicate effort from which McConnell, with a 52-seat majority and Vice President Pence as a potential tie-breaking vote, can afford only two defections.”

— The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services released an analysis yesterday claiming that the House-passed AHCA would “only” leave 12.6 million more people uninsured. Politico’s Paul Demko reports: “The coverage estimate is well below the 23 million more uninsured that the CBO has projected under the American Health Care Act. The congressional scorekeeper additionally estimated that the American Health Care Act would reduce spending by only $119 billion over a decade. The disparity is a result of differing assumptions about whether cost-saving measures in the House bill will work. The CMS actuary and CBO have disagreed in the past on the budgetary effects of legislation … Most of the coverage losses stem from the anticipated rollback of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.”

— John Kasich joined a growing chorus of moderate Republican voices in favor of a gradual phaseout of the Medicaid expansion. The New York Times’ Robert Pear reports: “Ohio’s influential Republican governor, John R. Kasich, said he could accept a gradual phaseout of the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, but only if Congress provides states with more money than the House health care bill included and more flexibility to manage the health program for the poor. Mr. Kasich’s statement could prove significant as Senate Republicans try to find near unanimity on a bill to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement. His position points to a compromise that moderate Senate Republicans could embrace — but that could challenge the chamber’s most conservative members.”

— Aetna reversed course and announced that they may provide Obamacare plans in Nevada. The Hill’s John Bowden reports: “In August, Aetna announced that it would significantly scale back its participation in the ObamaCare markets to just four states, down from 15 the year before. Nevada was one of the state exchanges that Aetna announced it would depart. In a statement Tuesday, Aetna wouldn’t commit fully to offering plans next year. ‘We’ve filed rates based on a contractual obligation with the state, but no final decision on our participation has been made,’ the company said in an email statement.”

— To see where the Obamacare exchanges might have zero insurance options in 2018, check out this graphic from Kim Soffen and Kevin Uhrmacher.

THE TRUMP AGENDA:

— During his visit to Wisconsin yesterday, Trump touted the importance of job-training programs, but his proposed budget could hurt the people those programs help. John Wagner explains: “As Trump has pushed workforce development this week, critics have charged that other actions he is pursuing would hurt the people he says he wants to help. Trump has proposed cutting the Labor Department’s budget by 21 percent in fiscal 2018. That includes a 40 percent cut to the Labor Department’s Wagner-Peyser Employment Service, which supports about 14 million job seekers annually and last year helped nearly 6 million people find jobs. The proposed cuts also include a $1.3 billion reduction to programs that operate under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which Congress reauthorized in a bipartisan move three years ago.”

— The FDA announced an indefinite delay in new Nutrition Fact labels in the latest reversal of an Obama-era policy. Caitlin Dewey reports: “The labels, championed by former first lady Michelle Obama, were supposed to add a special line for “added sugars” and emphasize calorie content in large, bold text. They had been scheduled for rollout in July 2018, with a one-year extension for smaller manufacturers. The delay is the latest reversal of the Obama administration’s nutrition reforms under Trump. On April 27, the FDA also delayed rules that would have required calorie counts on restaurant menus. A week later, the Department of Agriculture loosened the minimum requirements for the amount of whole grain in school lunches and delayed future sodium reductions.”

— The acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement outlined to Congress yesterday how his agency would expand if it received the funding increase outlined in Trump’s budget proposal. Maria Sacchetti reports: “Thomas Homan told lawmakers at a hearing on Capitol Hill that the agency is churning out detainer requests, adding thousands of cases to its docket and deputizing an increasing number of local law enforcement agencies to help enforce federal immigration law. ‘If you’re in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable,’ Homan said. ‘You should look over your shoulder.’”

  • As a sign of this crackdown, ICE authorities arrested 19-year-old Ecuadoran immigrant Diego Ismael Puma Macancela Thursday—on the day of his senior prom. Samantha Schmidt reports: “The high school student has become immigration activists’ latest example of how the Trump administration has intensified arrests of undocumented immigrants — even those without a criminal record.”

— Jeff Sessions asked congressional leaders in a letter last month to undo federal medical marijuana protections that have been in place since 2014, citing the opioid crisis as the impetus. Christopher Ingraham reports: “The protections, known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, prohibit the Justice Department from using federal funds to prevent certain states ‘from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana’ … Sessions’s citing of a ‘historic drug epidemic’ to justify a crackdown on medical marijuana is at odds with what researchers know about current drug use and abuse in the United States … A growing body of research … has shown that opiate deaths and overdoses actually decrease in states with medical marijuana laws on the books. That research strongly suggests that cracking down on medical-marijuana laws, as Sessions requested, could perversely make the opiates epidemic even worse.” â€œWith more than 59,000 opioid overdose deaths past year alone, the real urgent need is obviously to arrest a bunch of people buying Kush Krisp Kookies at their local dispensary in Colorado or California,” The Plum Line’s Paul Waldman quips.

— Has Trump changed his tune on the Federal Reserve? The Wall Street Journal’s Nick Timiraos and Kate Davidson report: “[Trump’s] fierce criticisms of the Federal Reserve in the final weeks of the 2016 election campaign suggested the central bank would face a rough time with the new administration. Instead, the nation’s two most powerful economic-policy players—the president and the leader of the central bank [Janet Yellen]—are off to a surprisingly smooth start … The newly-placid relationship also reflects the leading role played by Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, who meets regularly with Yellen and Steven Mnuchin. “Mr. Cohn has emphasized to colleagues in the administration the importance to markets of not publicly second-guessing monetary-policy decisions … [and] takes pride in convincing Mr. Trump of the economic benefits of respecting the Fed’s independence.”

— The House Freedom Caucus wants a smaller debt ceiling increase than the $2.5 trillion the White House reportedly wants. Politico’s Rachael Bade reports: “The Freedom Caucus has not taken an official position on a specific number. But Chairman Mark Meadows emerged from a group meeting Tuesday night saying some of his conservative colleagues are looking at a $1.5 trillion lift in the nation’s borrowing cap … Freedom Caucus members want to address the [debt ceiling] before the [August] recess, but they’re asking for spending reforms and debt-payment prioritization to accompany any lift in the nation’s borrowing limit. GOP leaders, however, have all but thrown out that idea and are signaling that they’re more likely to work with Democrats since the debt ceiling has to pass the Senate, meaning it will need eight Democratic votes.”

— Trump had a message for the mayor of a Chesapeake Bay town facing rising sea levels: don’t worry about it. Travis M. Andrews’ reports: “It began a week earlier, when CNN aired a story about Tangier, Va., which sits on Tangier Island, about 12 miles from both the Virginia and Maryland coasts in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The small island, now only 1.3 square miles, shrinks by 15 feet each year, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which points to coastal erosion and rising sea levels as the cause … ‘Donald Trump, if you see this, whatever you can do, we welcome any help you can give us,’ [Tangier Mayor James Eskridge] said in the CNN piece, later adding, ‘I love Trump as much as any family member I got’ … [When Trump called,] ‘He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,’ Eskridge said. ‘He said that “your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.”’”

THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

— North Korea’s release of 22-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier could indicate more direct talks between the United States and Kim Jong Un in the future. David Nakamura and Karen DeYoung report: “Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative to North Korea, had persuaded his boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to bless the rare, face-to-face dialogue with senior North Korean Foreign Ministry officials after assuring him that the agenda would focus on the status of four American citizens imprisoned by the Kim regime … Yun scored a breakthrough when the North Korean delegation agreed to allow Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang, who handle U.S. affairs there, to visit the American prisoners, including [Warmbier] … A June 6 meeting led a week later to Warmbier’s sudden release Tuesday after 17 months of captivity. He was medically evacuated in a coma; the other three Americans remain in captivity. Whether the back-channel diplomacy will lead to broader talks with North Korea may depend on Warmbier’s condition, and White House officials declined to comment on the geopolitical implications of his case.”

— Anna Fifield has more on Warmbier’s bizarre, tragic case: “The family said they were informed that North Korean officials had told American envoys that Warmbier became ill from botulism sometime after his March trial [last year] … and has remained in a coma since … There was no immediate confirmation from U.S. officials of North Korea’s version of events — notably whether Warmbier was stricken with botulism, a potentially fatal illness that is caused by a toxin but is not usually associated with loss of consciousness … North Korea has woefully inadequate medical care, and it is not clear how its doctors had been caring for Warmbier for more than a year in an unconscious state.” Warmbier has not been seen in public since his “trial” last spring, where he was sentenced to 15 years of prison with hard labor.

— Trump gave Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports: “With the new authority, Mattis could authorize deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan, something commanders on the ground have been requesting for months. Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and his direct superior, U.S. Central Command head Gen. Joseph Votel, have both made cases for sending a ‘few thousand’ more troops. If sent, the forces would help the fledgling Afghan military regain portions of the country that have fallen to the Taliban since U.S. forces ended their combat mission there in 2014. The decision from the White House comes the same day Mattis told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘we are not winning’ in Afghanistan. Mattis said the Taliban was surging throughout the country.”

THE EUROPEAN CRACK-UP:

— During a joint press conference yesterday with British Prime Minister Theresa May following her Conservative Party’s dismal showing in last week’s parliamentary elections, French President Emmanuel Macron offered a suggestion: consider staying in the EU. The Guardian’s Jessica Elgot and Anushka Asthana report: “[Macron] has claimed the door to the EU will remain open to Britain during Brexit negotiations that get underway next week. In remarks that will be taken as an encouraging sign by opponents of a hard Brexit that there may be room for compromise, the newly elected French leader said the decision to leave the EU could still be reversed if the UK wished to do so … Asked whether her failure to secure a majority in last week’s election … would lead Britain towards a softer Brexit, May said she remained determined to make a success of Brexit but wished to maintain a ‘deep and special partnership’ with the EU.”

— The E.U. launched legal proceedings against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for refusing to take in asylum seekers — reigniting a fight that is likely to widen as the bloc seeks unity amid ongoing Brexit negotiations. The Wall Street Journal’s Valentina Pop reports: “A majority of EU states voted in 2015 to distribute around the bloc up to 160,000 asylum seekers who had arrived … infuriating many in Central Europe who saw it as an unfair imposition from Brussels. [But] by mid-June, near the planned two-year end date of the program, just 20,869 people were relocated. Poland and Hungary refused to take any asylum seekers, while the Czech Republic took 12 last year … Legal proceedings against member states can end up in EU’s top court and bring financial penalties unless the countries reverse course.”

THE FOURTH ESTATE:

— Television reporters covering the Capitol were told to stop filming interviews in Senate hallways on Tuesday – a dramatic break with tradition that comes as lawmakers face mounting pressure to respond to Trump news and controversial legislative initiatives, such as the GOP health-care plan. Elise Viebeck reports: “Correspondents from major television networks said staff from the Senate Radio and Television Gallery told them they could no longer conduct impromptu interviews with lawmakers in the hallways without prior authorization from the Senate Rules Committee and the lawmakers’ own staff.”

  • NBC News’ Kasie Hunt said reporters were conducting business as usual in the Senate hallways Tuesday when gallery staff appeared to issue the new directive and tell them to stop filming. “Gallery staff told us the decision was from the Senate Rules Committee and to call them for future interview permission,” she said on Twitter.
  • Bloomberg’s Kevin Cirilli also said he was told Tuesday that he could not stand outside of a Budget Committee hearing room to interview lawmakers. He also noted that his previously-scheduled interview with Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) was shuttered at the last second because of the alert.

— But then Senate Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby denied his panel has placed any additional restrictions on reporters, and staff stopped enforcing them: “The Rules Committee has made no changes to the existing rules governing press coverage on the Senate side of the Capitol complex,” Shelby said in a statement. “The Committee has been working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules in an effort to help provide a safe … Once again, no additional restrictions have been put in place by the Rules Committee.”

— Ranking Rules Committee Democrat Amy Klobuchar told reporters the policy was not formal and said Shelby assured her Tuesday that he would not move forward on a major shift without first consulting her. “He seemed to imply they weren’t going to change the policy, but I’m not going to put words in his mouth,” the Minnesotan said. And in the event he did attempt to advance the new restrictions, Klobuchar vowed to oppose them – calling it an “assault on the First Amendment.”

WAPO HIGHLIGHTS:

— “America’s new tobacco crisis: The rich stopped smoking, the poor didn’t,” by William Wan: “After decades of lawsuits, public campaigns and painful struggles, Americans have finally done what once seemed impossible: Most of the country has quit smoking, saving millions of lives and leading to massive reductions in cancer. That is, unless those Americans are poor, uneducated or live in a rural area. Hidden among the steady declines in recent years is the stark reality that cigarettes are becoming a habit of the poor. The national smoking rate has fallen to historic lows, with just 15 percent of adults still smoking. But the socioeconomic gap has never been bigger.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Reactions to Jeff Sessions’s Senate appearance poured in:

In particular, viewers of the hearing questioned Sessions’s memory:

As news coverage focused on Sessions, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) offered this piece of advice:

Mike Huckabee was offered a civics lesson after tweeting this:

Journalists and lawmakers responded to the restricted press access on Capitol Hill:

People responded to Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-Calif.) questioning of Sessions’ during yesterday’s hearing:

And from the senator herself:

Trump’s complaint that the House’s health-care bill was “mean” came under scrutiny:

President Trump’s tendency to block fellow Twitter users returned to the spotlight:

On Trump’s low approval rating:

Meet the Press host Tim Russert was remembered on the anniversary of his death yesterday:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

— The New York Times, “The Man Behind Trump’s Voter-Fraud Obsession,” by Ari Berman: “The A.C.L.U. has filed four suits against [Kansas Secretary of State Kris] Kobach since he was elected in 2010. All of them challenge some aspect of his signature piece of legislation, the Secure and Fair Elections Act, or SAFE Act, a 2011 state law that requires people to show a birth certificate, passport or naturalization papers to register to vote. Kobach has long argued that such a law is necessary to prevent noncitizens from registering to vote, a phenomenon that he has repeatedly claimed is both pervasive and a threat to democracy. The A.C.L.U. has countered that the real purpose of the law is not to prevent fraud but to stop the existing electorate from expanding and shifting demographically.”

— The Guardian, “Revealed: reality of life working in an Ivanka Trump clothing factory,” by Krithika Varagur: “The reality of working in a factory making clothes for Ivanka Trump’s label has been laid bare, with employees speaking of being paid so little they cannot live with their children, anti-union intimidation and women being offered a bonus if they don’t take time off while menstruating … The workers’ complaints come only a week after labour activists investigating possible abuses at a Chinese factory that makes Ivanka Trump shoes disappeared into police custody.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Lawmaker Breaks Chicken’s Neck On Camera To Announce Anti-Abortion Bill,” from HuffPost: “Republican state Rep. Mike Moon of Missouri posted a video of himself slaughtering a chicken on Monday to spotlight his new bill to ban abortion in the state. In the Facebook video, Moon breaks a chicken’s neck and rips its heart out while explaining to the camera that Gov. Eric Greitens has called lawmakers back for a special session this summer to limit abortion. Then, wearing a blood-spattered white t-shirt, Moon announces his own legislation. ‘So we’ve been called back to this special session for the primary purpose of supporting life,’ he said. ‘[Today], I’m filing a bill that will lead to the stopping of abortion in the state of Missouri …’ [Some commenters] were disturbed by Moon’s video and his implication that slaughtering a chicken is similar to abortion.”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“’Broad City’ will bleep Donald Trump’s name in Season 4,” from USA Today: “Broad City joins the ranks when it returns to Comedy Central for its fourth season (Aug. 23, 10 ET/PT), which is ‘deeply rooted in this time,’ says co-creator Ilana Glazer … [And while] the inclusive comedy hasn’t been afraid to get political in the past, even inviting Hillary Clinton on for a brief guest spot last year … you’ll never actually hear Ilana or Abbi say the president’s name. ‘There’s no airtime for this orange (person),’ Glazer says. ‘We bleep his name the whole season.’” “We wrote (Season 4) being like, ‘Here we go! Hillary for president!’ ” Glazer said. But after “this game-show host became president of our country, we rewrote a lot.”

 

DAYBOOK:

President Trump will give a speech at the Department of Labor for the Apprenticeship Initiative kickoff in the afternoon and later sign an executive order.

Vice President Pence will give a speech at the National Association of Home Builders’ legislative conference and have a call with the president of Northern Cyprus before joining Trump at the Department of Labor. 

 

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

— The heat will (mildly) subside today with chances of showers starting in the late morning, the Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “We’re not as hot as the past few days, but the mugginess remains as temperatures head toward highs in the mid-to-upper 80s under partly cloudy skies. With a frontal boundary nearby, there could be a few showers and storms late morning into the afternoon, so you’ll want to have the umbrella handy just in case.”

— The Nationals beat the Atlanta Braces 10-5.

— The D.C. Council unanimously approved $13.9 billion budget that will provide more education funding, Peter Jamison reports.

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Stephen Colbert heard from “Melania Trump” about her move to the White House:

Michelle Ye Hee Lee dug into Trump’s claim that Americans built the Golden Gate Bridge in four years and the Hoover Dam in five:

Libby Casey explains how television crews usually operate at the Capitol:

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