The Trump supporter puts an intellectual shine on partisan hackery
“It is hard work to read widely and broadly, and on both sides of the political aisle,” conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt wrote in a July 2014 explanation of why he had decided to, in his words, “embarrass” a young Huffington Post journalist during an interview on his radio show by quizzing him about what books he had read about the war on terror. “Time consuming. Not very fun actually. But necessary. If you intend to be taken seriously. More importantly, if you intend the country to endure.”
Since then, NBC hired Hewitt as a political analyst, The Washington Post brought him on as a contributing columnist, and MSNBC has now announced that it is handing Hewitt a weekly show airing on Saturday mornings. These media outlets fell for the idea that he is a different type of conservative talker, the “antidote” to “bombastic personalities” like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh. In reality, his actions during the 2016 presidential election campaign and the early months of the Trump administration have showed that he simply puts an intellectual gloss on their same brand of partisan hackery.
In recent weeks, while pundits who share Hewitt's reputation for erudition have castigated the president as dangerously unlearned and incurious, Hewitt has instead stood alongside the president's media sycophants, laying down cover fire for Trump. Hewitt supported Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating his campaign's connections to the Russian government; he downplayed reports that Trump had revealed highly classified information in a meeting with Russian officials; after numerous outlets reported that Comey had kept notes of a meeting with Trump in which the president suggested he halt an investigation into a Trump aide, Hewitt's focus was on whether Comey, not Trump, had behaved appropriately.
A breakout media star of the campaign, Hewitt garnered numerous glowing profiles stressing his intellectual heft and curiosity: the “necessary bookshelf” of national security tomes he promotes on this website; how he opens interviews by asking his guests if they know who Alger Hiss is and have read Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower*; his friends on all sides of the political debate; his regular interviews of prominent mainstream journalists; his experience in politics, law, and academia; and in particular the way those features make him distinct from other conservative radio and cable news hosts.
But Hewitt set aside his concern for the life of the mind and voted for Donald Trump for president, a man of manifest ignorance and intellectual laziness who is unaware of basic historical facts and legal principles, uninterested in policy nuance or detail. As Hewitt had noted in demolishing a 31-year-old journalist, it is “hard work to read widely,” and Trump never bothered to try -- it seems plausible he has read fewer books as an adult than he is credited with writing. Asked to name the last book he had read in an interview last May, Trump commented, “I read passages. I read -- I read areas, I read chapters. I just -- I don't have the time."
For Hewitt, reading widely was necessary to credibly comment on foreign policy, but not to make it.
Hewitt, who remained neutral during the Republican presidential primary, frequently provided Trump with friendly access to his audience; he was “the very best interview in America,” according to the host. In none of those interviews with a man who was seeking to be the potential next leader of the free world was Hewitt nearly as aggressive as he had been in his interview with a young Huffington Post reporter.**
In their first interview, in February 2015, Trump acknowledged that he hadn’t read The Looming Tower, couldn’t name any works of fiction that he’d read, and admitted that he could not speak about nuclear submarines in any real detail (“I just know this. Military is very important to me.”). None of this seemed to strike Hewitt as a problem.
Hewitt could perhaps be forgiven for not going after Trump with guns blazing at that time, before Trump had announced he was running for president, when many commentators thought that his potential run was a joke. But as the months passed and Trump became and remained the Republican front-runner, Hewitt never pivoted to consistently scrutinizing Trump’s intellectual stature.
Hewitt drew attention and praise for their seventh interview in September 2015. Saying that he was finally going to give the Republican front-runner “commander in chief questions,” the radio host quizzed Trump about major terrorist leaders and international events. “I’m looking for the next commander-in-chief, to know who Hassan Nasrallah is, and Zawahiri, and al-Julani, and al-Baghdadi. Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?” Hewitt asks at one point. “No, you know, I’ll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed. They’ll be all gone,” Trump replied.
Commentators praised Hewitt for having “stumped” and “tripped up” Trump. Hewitt himself takes issue with those characterizations, and indeed, if you review the interview transcript, you’ll find Hewitt repeatedly bringing Trump back from the ledge that the candidate’s ignorance put him on.
Hewitt let Trump get away with saying it was appropriate for him not to learn about foreign policy issues until he’s elected and claiming that he wasn’t willing to talk about hypotheticals because he didn’t “want the other side to know” what he would do. At one point Trump openly rejected the entire premise of Hewitt’s purported worldview, saying that because he’s a “delegator” who hires “great people” it’s “ridiculous” to ask him specific questions about prominent figures and world events.
Following the interview, as pundits criticized Trump for his performance, the candidate lashed out at Hewitt as a “third-rate radio announcer.” After initially defending his own performance, Hewitt said that it was his fault that Trump had "misunderstood" his question.
Trump's criticism got results, as the host adjusted his interview style to get back on Trump’s good side. Hewitt interviewed Trump eight more times over the course of the presidential campaign. He never again asked Trump a question intended to demonstrate whether the candidate had specific knowledge, instead focusing on open-ended foreign policy hypotheticals, process questions, and softballs about Clinton’s alleged misdeeds.
In the end, the erudite Hewitt, who cast aspersions at a reporter for commenting on foreign policy without first reading the right books, ended up supporting Trump just as Limbaugh and Hannity did, and for much the same reasons. In the end, Hewitt was a partisan, towing the Republican line and supporting the party’s nominee in spite of Trump’s manifest ignorance.
“Of course I am voting for Donald Trump. You should be too if you are a conservative,” Hewitt wrote in July. His case was a raw appeal to the need to ensure that Republicans gained access to the levers of power. Conservative dominance of the U.S. Supreme Court outweighed all other factors, according to Hewitt; his other arguments included the claim that “Hillary Clinton is thoroughly compromised by the Russians,” that Trump will appoint conservatives to positions of power, and that he definitely really “isn’t a racist, or a dangerous demagogue, a Mussolini-in-waiting, a Caesar off-stage.”
When Hewitt did speak out against Trump -- at times even calling for the Republican National Committee to take action to prevent him from being nominated and urging the nominee to drop out -- his argument was again partisan: that Trump should be replaced because he could not win. Trump was on the ticket on Election Day, and so Hewitt voted for him.
This sort of naked partisanship -- the belief that one’s party is better for the country than the alternative, and thus should be supported as long as its candidate can meet some bare minimum standard (“isn’t a racist, or a dangerous demagogue”) -- is a defensible position. But it’s certainly not the position one would expect from someone with Hewitt’s exalted reputation, especially with that bare minimum very much in question.
Trump’s rise was a revelatory moment that separated out the conservative commentators who had a political principle beyond ensuring the Republican Party gained power from those who did not. Several of Hewitt’s colleagues who are similarly regarded as intellectuals distinguished themselves by condemning Trump, saying that they could not in good conscience support someone with his history of ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity, and demagoguery. Hewitt failed this test, in a manner that clashes with the story Hewitt tells about himself, and the one that others tell about him.
Since Trump clinched the Republican nomination, some in the conservative press have blamed right-wing commentators like Limbaugh and Hannity for being willing to set aside principles and carry water for the candidate. But that behavior was completely in character for the right-wing talk radio hosts, who have long served as standard bearers of the Republican Party.
While his megaphone is much smaller than those of Limbaugh and Hannity, Hewitt presents a bigger problem for the conservative movement. He was one of the few with a reputation as an intellectual force who was willing to sacrifice his principles to back the GOP nominee -- and was rewarded with new posts at The Washington Post and MSNBC as an in-house Trump supporter.
Like other pro-Trump pundits, Hewitt is regularly called upon to defend the indefensible, and he frequently rises to the challenge. His recent missives at the Post include columns headlined "It's time to relax about Trump," "Stop the Trump hysteria," and "Trump’s first 100 days give conservatives a lot to celebrate."
But unlike the Jeffrey Lords and Kayleigh McEnanys, and perhaps because of his strong relationships with mainstream journalists and pundits, Hewitt has largely managed to keep his reputation intact. He doesn’t deserve to.
“I would not go through life ignorant of key facts, especially important facts. So many of the people writing under bylines are willing to do just the opposite today,” Hewitt concluded in his essay about why he embarrasses journalists. “It cannot end well when a free people are choosing leaders based upon the reporting of a class of people both biased and blind as well as wholly unaware of both or if aware, unwilling to work at getting smart enough to do their jobs well.”
Fair enough. But surely it also “cannot end well” when the leaders we choose are also “unwilling to work at getting smart.” That is, perhaps, a key fact of which Hewitt remains ignorant.
Hewitt got his Supreme Court justice. All it cost him was his dignity.
Shelby Jamerson provided additional research. Images by Sarah Wasko.
*Hewitt says he asks about Hiss “because the answer provides a baseline as to the journalist’s grasp of both modern American political history and to a crucial fault-line through it,” and about The Looming Tower because “It is almost journalistic malpractice to opine on any aspect of the West’s conflict with Islamist radicalism without having read Wright’s work, which won the Pulitzer Prize and which is the standard text.” For the record, the author knows who Hiss is, believes the evidentiary record supports the conclusion that he was a Soviet spy, and has read The Looming Tower.
** Hewitt has interviewed Trump 15 times during the campaign, for the following editions of his radio show: February 25, 2015; June 22, 2015; August 3, 2015; August 12, 2015; August 26, 2015; August 29, 2015; September 3, 2015; September 21, 2015; October 22, 2015; November 5, 2015; December 1, 2015; February 4, 2016; February 22, 2016; June 23, 2016; and August 11, 2016.
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Is the era of Trump White House daily press briefings now, for all practical purposes, over?
On Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer held an off-camera “gaggle” where all video and audio recordings were banned. It was only the latest example of an administration obsessed with secrecy and committed to embracing the opposite of transparency. (The White House held a similar “no audio” briefing last week.) That hallmark lack of transparency extends specifically to keeping journalists and voters as uninformed as possible.
Today, White House press briefings are dying on the vine. They’re becoming increasingly scarce and unhelpful. “When Spicer and [deputy Sarah Huckabee] Sanders do take questions from journalists, they increasingly offer nonanswers,” The Washington Post noted this week.
This trend fits a larger, disturbing strategy as the GOP-run Senate scrambles in total secrecy to pass a sprawling health care bill without holding any public hearings, without hearing from any health care experts, and without releasing the text of the bill. Reporters today have no idea what’s in the bill, simply because Republicans won’t make the contents public. (Reporters have to rely solely on Republican sources for legislative information.)
This was my warning just days after Trump’s November victory: “Moving forward, news organizations face a stark, and possibly defining choice in terms of how they respond to any radical efforts to curb the media’s White House access."
Today, some journalists, and specifically the large, influential news organizations they work for, deserve a healthy dose of blame for largely sleepwalking past a dangerous problem for months.
This week, following the outrageous “gaggle” lock-out, CNN’s senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta spoke out, suggesting “collective action” is the only option news outlets have in the face of the White House’s unprecedented attack on newsgathering:
“It's bizarre,” said Acosta, who despite being labeled “fake news” to his face during a press conference with President Trump in February is not known for editorializing his reporting. “I don’t know what world we’re living in right now, Brooke, where we’re standing at the White House and they bring us into the briefing room here at the White House, and they won’t answer these questions on camera or let us record the audio... I don’t understand why we covered that gaggle today, quite honestly, Brooke. If they can’t give us the answers to the questions on camera or where we can record the audio, they’re basically pointless.”
But is it now too late? The time for robust pushback was certainly back in January or February when the White House was still assembling its obstructionist strategy. The press should’ve been raising holy hell from day one. (Following yesterday’s controversy, the White House announced Spicer will be holding an on-camera briefing today.)
Reminder: When the Obama White House tweaked an access policy in a way news organizations didn’t like, they instantly staged a “mini-revolt” by indignantly, and collectively, demanding a meeting with Democratic administration officials to fix the problem.
Acosta's forceful and important commentary on Monday has been the exception, not the rule -- and criticism like Acosta's has not been bolstered by much tangible action from major news organizations.
Why the media’s signature timidity? My guess is it was the dream of access journalism that prevented many in the press from doing the right thing from day one. It was the dream of access journalism that kept reporters, editors, and producers from loudly, angrily, and collectively, demanding traditional access from the Trump White House.
Nervous about having their access cut off -- about not being called on at briefings, about being shut out of gaggles, about having no chance at landing a presidential interview -- many journalists and news organizations sat on their hands and hoped for the best. Nervous of offending a Republican president they deemed as a TV celebrity, journalists backed down. (Or worse, laughed along.)
And leading the access brigade was the White House Correspondents’ Association. No matter how many obstacles the administration erected for the press, the group has routinely seemed to downplay them -- all while stressing the Trump team was providing access.
But of course today the White House does not provide beloved access. It’s doing the exact opposite. The new paucity of on-camera briefings prove that point, as does the fact that when truncated briefings do occur the main objective appears to be to share as little helpful information as possible.
Example: Three weeks ago a reporter at a briefing asked Spicer if Trump believed in climate change. Spicer said he didn’t know because he had never asked Trump. To date, Spicer still does not seem to have an answer for that very simple question.
So yes, journalists sat on their hands while angling for access that never came. Trump hasn’t had a full-fledged press conference since February; it’s been more than a month since he sat down with a legitimate journalist to answer extended questions. And as scandal allegations mount, there’s no reason to think Trump’s personal attorney will allow him to give any in-depth interviews soon.
While networks have gone overboard with airing almost all of Spicer's briefings, on-camera briefings -- even ones in which Spicer is his usual, evasive self -- are still better than nothing in terms of creating a video record of the administration's answers to reporters' questions on important issues.
Nonetheless, the window to save the press briefings is closing quickly. I wish CNN and the rest of the press corps would take Acosta’s current advice (“we should walk out”), and do something.
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Ever since President Donald Trump hired then-Breitbart.com chief executive Stephen Bannon to run his presidential campaign, the press has been struggling to comprehend the “alt-right” movement that his website helped promote. While many journalists have done yeoman’s work catching up on the assortment of white nationalists, misogynists, and conspiracy theorists behind this new wave of fringe media outlets, they’ve been less effective in learning about the tactics those figures use to manipulate the press. That failing was evident over the weekend, as major news outlets reported on Friday night’s “alt-right” interruption of a performance of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
That controversy, which triggered stories by The Associated Press, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications, demonstrated that the news judgment of mainstream news outlets has yet to adjust to the new reality. And it is a sad reminder that the “alt-right’s” greatest strength is its ability to exploit the media for its own ends.
Conservative criticism of the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park, which debuted in late May and concluded Sunday night, hit the public consciousness on June 11 after it came under attack from Fox News. In an appearance on the weekend edition of the network’s Fox & Friends morning show, TownHall.com Political Editor Guy Benson denounced the play for placing a Trump look-alike in the titular role of the Roman leader who is assassinated onstage.
As other conservative media figures and Trump’s own sons joined the chorus, Delta and Bank of America ended their corporate sponsorship of the production. And after a gunman targeted Republican members of Congress practicing on a baseball field last week, wounding Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), right-wing commentators linked the attack to the play.
These arguments are foolish and made in bad faith. Caesar’s assassination is not glamorized in the production -- indeed, the message of the play is that misguided political violence will inevitably breed disastrous consequences. “Likening Shakespeare’s monarchs and politicians to real-life figures is a long-standing performance practice, seized by directors with sometimes illuminating, sometimes boneheaded results,” Slate’s Issac Butler noted after the initial complaints, pointing out that performances of Julius Caesar have featured then-President Barack Obama in the titular role without incident.
The controversy culminated in a "protest" at Friday night’s performance, when the production was interrupted for roughly a minute when the “alt-right” online outlet Rebel Media’s Laura Loomer stormed the stage, shouting, “Do you want Trump to be assassinated?” She was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass. Jack Posobiec, another “alt-right” figure, also interrupted the performance, yelling, “The blood of Steve Scalise is on your hands” and comparing the audience to the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels before being removed from the theater. Posobiec taped the disturbance and posted it on Twitter, where it quickly circulated.
Why did they do it? The incident has the hallmarks of a grift: The disturbances came after “alt-right” personality Mike Cernovich offered a $1,000 bounty to anyone who successfully interrupted the performance, and Loomer is seeking to crowdfund $25,000, supposedly for her legal defense.
It’s not unusual for protesters to use civil disobedience to garner media attention for their cause. But this "protest" had no real aim other than the aggrandizement of its participants. It had all the moral force of a pair of drunken assholes running onto the field to halt a baseball game, and deserved a similar degree of attention from the media. Instead, mainstream reporters have been transfixed by the story, generating reams of coverage that bolster the profiles of Posobiec and Loomer. For the cost of a ticket, they were able to troll the public with their nonsense claims, with mainstream outlets regurgitating their trolling at the top of their stories and burying the reasons not to believe them.
This manipulation of the mainstream press by subversive elements who don’t play by the traditional rules of journalism should be an ongoing concern. We’ve seen the press fall for these efforts time and time again -- indeed, NBC News spent most of last week getting outmaneuvered at every turn by Infowars chief Alex Jones.
Mainstream reporters rightfully feel compelled to cover the rising tide of fringe-right outlets because of their close ties to the president, and the manner in which their seemingly-absurd conspiracy theories have translated into harassment. Their claims about a pedophile ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor led to gunfire at the restaurant; Seth Rich’s family was hassled following their allegations that the murdered Democratic staffer was actually bumped off by Hillary Clinton’s campaign; their lies that the Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax turn the lives of the victims’ parents into waking nightmares.
But the pro-Trump fringe has become adept at taking advantage of those inclinations to increase its own influence. As they come under more scrutiny, these “alt-right” figures are learning how to gin up grievances, manufacture new controversies, and troll the press to garner attention and make money.
Reporters need to show better news judgment when they engage with the “alt-right.” When the movement’s media personalities are stirring controversies that have a real impact on people’s lives, they have earned national attention.
But when the “alt-right” personalities are deliberately screwing with journalists to bolster their own profiles, the best thing journalists can do for their readers is refuse to play their game.
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And his dislike of almost everyone else
The mutually beneficial relationship between President Donald Trump and Fox News has been readily apparent for a while, partly because of the network’s Trump mania during the campaign. But after nearly 150 days of Trump’s presidency, Fox -- and in particular Trump’s favorite morning show, Fox & Friends -- has essentially become a propaganda outlet for the president. In return, Trump has praised Fox and echoed claims made by the network, while also attacking Fox News’ competitors as “fake news.”
One of the main ways Trump shows his adoration for Fox is through his Twitter account, where the president has often been explicit in his appreciation for the network’s coverage. According to a Media Matters search on the Trump Twitter Archive, along with a manual search of Trump’s tweets, between Inauguration Day, January 20, and June 16, Trump has:
tweeted at Fox & Friends (@foxandfriends) 16 times;
retweeted Fox & Friends (@foxandfriends) 15 times;
tweeted or retweeted a link to Fox News or Fox Business’ website at least nine times; and
tweeted at Fox News (@FoxNews) 11 times.
Trump oftentimes retweets misleading or inaccurate Fox reports and graphics. For example, Fox’s tweets highlighting employment gains in the February jobs report failed to note that much of the gains were part of a pattern that preceded Trump’s presidency. In March, Trump retweeted a highly misleading Fox & Friends report claiming terrorists were using religious visas to enter the U.S., even though the report did not cite even one example. And in May, despite his past criticism of anonymous sources, Trump retweeted Fox pushing a dubious report from a single anonymous source who claimed Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, did not suggest to the Russians that they establish a secret communications channel, which was contrary to other reporting.
In addition, Trump has also shared at least 11 Fox videos and graphics, frequently using them to highlight Fox’s misleading portrayal of economic news, which has been framed to look positive for Trump. Trump also seems to nearly exclusively rely on Fox whenever he wants to share footage of himself from events and ceremonies, such as an inaugural ball, the signing of executive orders, and his speech at a NATO gathering. Trump as president has also tweeted links to Fox stories more than to those of any other individual outlet, tweeting at least seven Fox articles.
Trump on multiple occasions has even used his Twitter account to laud Fox’s reporting, saying “@foxandfriends is great,” referencing its “great reporting,” praising its segments, and congratulating the show on its ratings. In return, Fox has at least on some occasions showed or read on air tweets by Trump that mention the network. Most recently, on June 16, Trump retweeted Sean Hannity's tweet that he would have on his show a "monologue on the Deep State’s allies in the media."
Perhaps what makes Trump’s online fawning over Fox most jarring is the sharp contrast to how he talks about other media outlets on Twitter. In line with his administration’s war on the press, Trump has regularly attacked other outlets by name, often calling them “fake news” and even once going so far as to call some media outlets the “enemy of the American People.” Just last week, Trump tweeted, “Sorry folks, but if I would have relied on the Fake News of CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, washpost or nytimes, I would have had ZERO chance winning WH.”
From a Media Matters analysis:
Number of tweets in which Trump invoked “fake news”: at least 49
Number of tweets in which Trump attacked The New York Times: 18
Number of tweets in which Trump attacked ABC: five
Number of tweets in which Trump attacked NBC or MSNBC: eight
Number of tweets in which Trump attacked CBS: two
Number of tweets in which Trump attacked CNN: nine
Number of tweets in which Trump attacked The Washington Post: three
Roger Stone says President Trump should fire special counsel Robert Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for “wasting the taxpayer’s money” in what he called, a “witch hunt” to take down the president.
During an interview with CNN Money, Stone, a close ally and longtime adviser of Donald Trump blasted the investigation into alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russians calling it a wasteful “witch hunt.” Stone’s comments come after Trump tweeted similar remarks earlier in the day calling the investigation a “witch hunt” and cryptically claiming he is being investigated by “the man who told [him] to fired the FBI Director,” an attack presumably accusing Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein of investigating him for firing former FBI Director Comey at his direction.
I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2017
Stone sells himself as Trump’s inside man and has openly talked about his official and unofficial roles in Trump’s presidential campaign. He has been under FBI scrutiny for his role in allegedly “colluding with the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton and put his friend in the White House.” Stone maintains his innocence despite the investigation and continues to downplay his role in coordinating with the Russians during the election.
JEFF ZELENY: Now as the president returns to the White House in this hour, one question above all that he's facing is what is his relationship with the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein? Now, the president has said through his aides he does not plan, at this time, to try and fire the special counsel Bob Mueller, but there's one person recommending he does just that. Jake [Tapper], Roger Stone, the president's longtime friend and associate told CNN Money earlier today this, “I'd fire Mueller and Rosenstein for wasting the taxpayer's money. This is a witch-hunt.” Those words sound familiar.
Gingrich, who accused Bill Clinton of obstruction of justice, claims presidents can’t obstruct justice
In his flimsiest statement yet in his crusade to delegitimize the ongoing FBI investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign, Fox News contributor and Trump adviser Newt Gingrich falsely proclaimed that "technically, the president of the United States cannot obstruct justice."
From the June 16 event at the National Press Club:
Twitter users were quick to point out that Gingrich, during his time as speaker of the House, helped impeach then-President Bill Clinton, in part for obstructing justice.
But this is only the latest instance in which Gingrich has stretched the truth -- or flat-out lied -- to defend Trump. Gingrich and his right-wing media allies are currently engaged in a campaign to discredit former FBI Director James Comey and the current special counsel in charge of the investigation, Robert Mueller, even resorting to baseless conspiracy theories. Gingrich and other conservative media figures are attempting to smear Mueller as biased or having an “agenda,” with Gingrich commenting, “Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair.” These same media figures have praised Mueller in the past, and Trump himself considered Mueller as a replacement for Comey to lead the FBI.
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