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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

On this week's weekly Independent comics page, which is best read while sipping a beverage by a pool: Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy conjures up Lev; Red Meat wants a new pet; Jen Sorensen ponders the future of school lunches; (Th)ink pays tribute to the Year of the Rat; and This Modern World listens to the latest blatherings from The Unbelievable Trump.

Published in Comics

On this week's completely woke weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips talks to Li'l Trumpy about Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan's move to Canada; Red Meat watches as Milkman Dan tries to give Karen a gift; This Modern World returns to the Stupidverse for commentary on the Iran mess; Jen Sorensen ponders Rupert Murdoch's media take on the Australian wildfires; and The K Chronicles has mixed feelings about his son's sudden interest in his old music.

Published in Comics

Anthony Rendon arrived feeling a little punchy. At 51, the speaker of the California Assembly is adjusting to life as a new dad—and his 3-month-old baby hadn’t slept well the night before.

“She was up at 1:30, 3, 4:30. And then once she woke up at 4:30, she didn’t fall asleep until 6,” Rendon said. “So that’s my life.”

The Los Angeles politician—sporting a black hoodie and Converse high tops as he sat for an interview in his district office—assumed one of California’s most-powerful roles in the spring of 2016. As the Assembly’s Democratic leader, he’s negotiated $200 billion state budgets with two Senate leaders and two governors. He’s overseen a political operation that resulted in Democrats winning a historically huge majority of more than 75 percent.

And yet around the Capitol, he’s probably best known for his low profile, rarely calling press conferences and opting not to author any bills so his members can share the spotlight. His style—at turns cerebral and self-deprecating—is unusual in a statehouse that attracts its share of showboats.

So it was with a certain understatement, as well as exhaustion, that Rendon, clutching a cup of coffee, shared his expectations for 2020—in the Capitol, at the ballot and for his family. Here are condensed highlights from our December interview.

So who gives a better baby present, Gavin Newsom or Jerry Brown?

I like Jerry Brown very much. And I’m not asking that he send a present, but he didn’t. Gavin Newsom and his wife sent a very nice gift. … It was a onesie. … It says “One California” or something. Get it? It’s a play on words. It’s a onesie. It’s very cute. And I meant to take a picture of her in it and send it to him, but I haven’t done that. I’m glad you reminded me.

You’re the first speaker in a while to have a young family. Recent legislative leaders either didn’t have children or had much older children. Do you think having a baby is going to impact your ability to do such a demanding job?

It impacts all aspects of my life. I think I’ll have to make adjustments, for sure. … Being speaker is a demanding job. And I’m sure being a parent is a demanding job as well. So something will have to give.

March of 2020 will mark four years that you’ve been assembly speaker. And if you remain speaker until the end of the legislative session—

That’s ominous.

… You’ll become the longest-serving speaker since Willie Brown. So, any fears of restless colleagues who might mount a challenge?

It’s not something that’s on my mind right now. I haven’t heard any rumblings. 

Your caucus grew a lot in 2018 because of the seats you successfully flipped. Then it got even bigger when GOP Assemblyman Brian Maienschein switched parties. What was that like to have a Republican in your caucus? Is it as easy as just switching jerseys and joining your team, or is there any awkwardness in having a former opponent as a colleague?

It probably sounds ludicrous … but I was amazed how seamless it was. When Brian announced that he was switching, I had a meeting with the caucus and said, “Hey, this is what he wants to do, and how do you guys feel about it?” And I almost felt like I was overpreparing them, because they were all like, “Cool.” (Even as a Republican) Brian voted with us so often.

More recently, local Assemblyman Chad Mayes left the Republican Party as well. He’s now registered with no party preference. But if he wanted to caucus with the Democrats, would you allow it?

I don’t know. I’d probably have to ask the caucus how they felt about it. He doesn’t seem to want to. I saw him (a few days ago). He feels pretty liberated to not be a member of a party. … I don’t think he wants to become a Democrat, and I don’t think he wants to caucus with us. I don’t think he wants to caucus with Republicans (either).

How are you feeling about your Assembly races in 2020? Do you think you can hold your 61-seat mega-majority?

I have mixed feelings about it. The weather forecast is complicated. On the one hand, there’s a lot of very anti-Republican sentiment. … With Donald Trump on the ballot, you have to think that we’re going to do very well. That being said, we also know that there is very much an anti-incumbent tendency out there, and we just have more incumbents than they do. People are very angry around the issue of housing affordability and homelessness. We see that polling everywhere, in every district throughout the state. So I don’t think we can say, “Democrat X is running against Donald Trump” or “running against a Republican.” We have to tell a story about what we’ve done. … Just railing against Donald Trump, I don’t think that’s fair to Californians to do that.

Why?

I’m really impressed with the work that we’ve done … and also because … we have candidates who have incredible qualifications and have had incredible life experiences. You take someone like Thu-Ha Nguyen (challenging GOP Assemblyman Tyler Diep) in Orange County, who’s a cancer researcher, and a mom, and a council member. And I think to reduce all of that to just, “She’s battling Donald Trump,” I think is overly simplistic. And it’s also very—it’s a short horizon. I mean, Donald Trump will be gone someday, and the party needs to stand for something. And we will.

So how do you feel about Gavin Newsom’s approach? He’s been very much framing himself as the leader of the resistance and fighting Trump all the time. How do you feel about that?

That works for him. A lot of what he does is about the resources from the federal government, and that’s a different dynamic. It’s not what I do. It’s not what I’m interested in. But I get why he does it. … Whether it’s high speed rail funds or water—that’s very real for (him).

How do you feel about the landscape for the Democratic presidential nomination?

I haven’t been following it all that closely. … I want to be supportive of a Democrat who could beat Donald Trump.

You were a Kamala Harris supporter early on. So with her out of the race, have you picked a candidate you’re going to endorse?

No … I don’t know if I will. I might. I’ve had Mr. Steyer call me, and the South Bend mayor called me. (Rendon turned to his staff member and asked to be reminded of his name.)

A lot of the policies the Democratic candidates are proposing are things that California is already doing to some degree—like $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization, carbon pricing and paid family leave. Do you think that the nation wants to be more like California?

The California label is probably not a good thing in a lot of parts of the country for whatever reason. But I think in terms of policy, the state certainly has a story to tell. So I’m not surprised that some of our ideas are being put up there as models to follow. … We’re proud of our economy, and we’re proud of the $15 minimum wage, and all the stuff we’ve done on the environment. And at the same time, how many tens of thousands of people go to sleep every night in this state without a home? And we have long-lasting water problems, quality and supply. We have too many people in prison. So I think it’s important for us as Democrats to be honest. And it is very difficult to do that in election years.

On criminal-justice issues, California has been on a long course of reversing tough-on-crime policies of the past. Do you think the state has gone too far in any way? Or if you think we haven’t gone far enough, what’s left to do?

In our House, we passed the (parolee right to) vote bill. (ACA 6 would allow parolees to vote after they complete their prison sentences, if voters approve.) I’d like to see that get on the ballot and have Californians take a look at that. What we ask for in our society is for people who’ve done bad things to do their time and then become engaged citizens. And as long as you’re not allowing that, then you’re not living up to your principles.

A few months ago, my colleague Dan Morain wrote about the murder your brother-in-law John Lam was an accomplice to 16 years ago. Jerry Brown reduced his sentence, and Gavin Newsom made a final call allowing his release. Have you had any insights on criminal justice issues from this experience in your family?

I have. He was released on Oct. 10th. He’s in transitional housing. And you know, my wife and I are very fortunate. We have resources at our disposal. I’ve been on paternity leave. My wife is self-employed, so we have a lot of time that we can spend with him, and we take him out a lot. … When I pick him up, I sometimes look at the other guys at the home and wonder to what extent they don’t have those things, and what that means for them moving forward. So in the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about the things that we do or don’t do after (someone is released from prison) and the hurdles that people have. That is something that I’ve taken away from the experience.

Looking ahead, what are your priorities for 2020?

No surprise to you or anybody, wildfires and housing affordability/homelessness issues are on everyone’s mind—this sort of unresolved, you know, enigma, that is PG&E and where that goes moving forward.

So on wildfire, what can you do?

It’s a very good question. People (in Northern California) are constantly talking about insurance issues. 

What about on homelessness?

A lot of what we want to do is relating to oversight of the money and the opportunities that we’ve given to local governments. … It’s incumbent upon cities to do something, and it’s incumbent upon us to provide oversight.

Do you anticipate the Legislature responding to pressure from initiatives that are in the process of qualifying for the ballot? Like the challenge from Uber and Lyft on AB 5, the new California law that treats more contract workers as employees—would you pass a law to keep that off the ballot?

I don’t believe we would. I felt as though we were doing a tremendous favor to a lot of people by even addressing that. We could have easily just let it go and let the court ruling stand. I have no interest in getting involved in that. I think we’ve been quite good to those people.

A few years ago, there was a push to do a constitutional amendment asking voters to repeal the Proposition 209 ban (from 1996) on affirmative action. Given the 2020 electorate, do you want that to be something the Legislature does, give that to the voters this year?

I’m glad you brought that up. … I would like to see 209 repealed. That being said, if we are going to get something on the ballot, and get it passed in November, from a political standpoint, it almost seems too late. You have to raise a lot of money. You have to have your ducks lined up. And I haven’t seen that from any of the activist groups that have been talking about that. It’s disappointing that people sometimes seem to want to jam things on the ballot. Good intentions, but (they) don’t go through the very simple political steps of raising money and having a proper coalition to get something passed by voters.

What about a repeal of the death penalty? Would you want to see the Legislature put that on the ballot for the people?

I’ve been opposed to the death penalty for a long time. … But as long as it’s not being carried out (because Newsom halted executions by executive order), there doesn’t seem to be a rush.

Anything you hope will go differently this year in working with Gov. Newsom?

There were some bumps in the road with Gavin early on. At the time, it was hard to contextualize. It was just irritating. But when you think about it, yeah, it makes sense: It’s a whole new team, whole new relationships. So I think things will get better. And I don’t know that we necessarily need to tweak any individual thing. I think it’s just learning people’s tendencies and learning how people like to communicate

One last question: How do you feel about having another Anthony Rendon in L.A.? (A Major League Baseball player by the same name recently left the Washington Nationals for the Los Angeles Angels.)

It’s a lot. After my wife and I had a baby, our first date with a baby sitter was the night he hit a big homerun in Game 6 of the World Series. And I got 69 texts … That includes people who sent texts saying, “Oh, aren’t you glad I’m not sending you another Anthony Rendon text?” That’s included in that total. Just for the record.

What were most of the texts saying?

“Oh, you hit a home run tonight! Ha ha ha.” Oh, so clever. I’ve never heard that one before. I’ve literally been following this guy since he was Freshman of the Year at Rice University. I know he exists. I don’t need another freakin’ person to tell me that he exists.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

On this week's gluten-laden weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World checks in with the pundits regarding Iran; Jen Sorensen examines the Big Dumb War Cycle; (Th)ink looks in on a chat between Trump and Baby Yoda; Red Meat features another round between Karen and Milkman Dan; and Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy talks "I" words.

Published in Comics

Second verse, same as the first

a little bit louder and a little bit worse.

I was 23 in the run-up to the Iraq invasion—a just-out-of-college reporter for a local newspaper in Florida, part of a generation that had been shocked out of a brief era of unquestioned American hegemony by Sept. 11, 2001. We had just watched an entire country rally, drone-like, around a ground war in Afghanistan.

The Taliban had been routed, and the “peacekeeping” effort had taken its turn toward the generation-old morass we’ve come to know and love. The Bush administration then turned its eyes to a new target—a more dangerous target, we were told. One with Weapons of Mass Destruction. With Nuclear Ambitions. Run by a Madman. An Axis of Evil™. A country that, any day now, would attack the United States, so we had to act now or risk a “mushroom cloud,” as President George W. Bush ominously intoned.

I was skeptical of the Bush administration’s eagerness for war, of the constant drumbeat of stern men warning of immediate danger. But I was also young and naive, or perhaps not yet jaded enough to imagine that my government would wholesale manufacture a justification for war—that it would lie to the world and to the American people as a pretext for war. I distrusted Dubya and his cronies, but I figured there had to be some legitimate casus belli. Besides, for the most part, the national media wasn’t challenging the president’s claims, and neither were leading Democrats.

The Iraq War cured me of such naivete. My government lied to me, to the public, to the world. It did so brazenly and callously. It invented evidence to sell a war of choice—a war its chicken-hawk proponents had been itching to fight for a decade. (The fact that not a single one of the war’s architects is rotting in Leavenworth is a moral stain that won’t be easily erased.)

Although Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and the like had been fantasizing about toppling Saddam Hussein for years, and although these men had been in and around the highest levels of government for decades, no one apparently thought through what would happen afterward. Defeating Saddam—who had no weapons of mass destruction, let alone nuclear capabilities—was easy, but, as we soon learned, there was no plan for the vacuum of power.

Everything soon went to shit.

American soldiers ended up in a sectarian civil war. In time, the chaos gave rise to ISIS, which led to more fighting in Iraq and Syria, which had its own devastating civil war, which produced a refugee crisis in Europe, which prompted a surge of right-wing populism, which led, in part, to Brexit. Iraq’s collapse opened the door for its regional adversary Iran, which seeded Shia militias throughout the Middle East—including those in Iraq—and took steps toward its own nuclear program, and, more recently, engaged in a catastrophic proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

These are just some of the second- and third-order effects of Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that reverberate 17 years later. For all of their foreign policy experience, his war planners never envisioned any of it—or anything like it. They thought it’d be simple; we’d be “greeted as liberators.” Instead, we got war without end.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Qassim Suleimani, the high-ranking Iranian official that the U.S. assassinated via drone strike in Baghdad early Friday. Like most Americans, I’d never heard his name before he was killed. A New Yorker profile from 2013 paints him as a powerful-yet-invisible behind-the-scenes operative in the Middle East, “assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq.” He was also an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another blood-soaked human being who, in the convoluted politics of the Middle East, has been battling ISIS.

Suleimani had arrived in Iraq after Iranian-backed Iraqi militias marched on the U.S. embassy on Tuesday, imprisoning diplomats for 24 hours. (No one was harmed.) That was in response to the American bombing of three Kataib Hezbollah militia sites in western Iraq, and two more in Syria, which killed about two dozen people. That was in response to Kataib Hezbollah allegedly firing 31 missiles into an American base on Dec. 27, which killed an American contractor.

This strike goes well beyond what the military calls a “proportional response.” Though the American government considered him a terrorist, Presidents Bush and Obama had passed on opportunities to kill Suleimani, the ayatollah’s friend and the second-most-powerful person in Iran. (By longstanding executive order, the U.S. does not “engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination,” though “assassination” is never defined.)

President Trump’s move wasn’t just taking out a bad guy. It was an escalation, akin to Iran offing a secretary of defense or a four-star general. It was an act of war—conducted without congressional notification, much less approval.

The context shouldn’t be ignored: Trump is headed into a re-election year with lackluster approval numbers and facing an impeachment trial. The day he authorized the strike, evidence surfaced that he had personally directed the Office of Management and Budget to withhold Ukrainian aid while he was pressuring that country’s president to investigate his political rival, even as the Pentagon worried that doing so was both illegal and contrary to America’s interests. You’d be forgiven for suspecting the dog is being wagged.

But I’m not sure that’s the case, because I’m not sure that much thought went into it. Trump is nothing if not impulsive—and nothing if not driven by an atavistic impulse to prove himself tougher than his predecessor. Obama had negotiated with Iran; Trump was going to kill its No. 2. Iran jabbed; Trump pulled out the sledgehammer. To Trump, foreign policy is a dick-measuring contest; as long as he has to U.S. military to fight for him, he has no need for the soft power of diplomacy.

But there’s a reason Obama—who was never shy about hunting human beings with drones—declined to kill Suleimani. No one knows what happens now, only that it’s probably not good. In its statement, the Defense Department said it took out Suleimani to deter future violent acts. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a video that showed what he said were Iraqis “dancing in the street.”

That seems unlikely to be the final word.

Iran’s supreme leader vowed “forceful revenge.” The State Department told Americans to leave Iraq. Iraq’s prime minister “strongly condemned the assassination,” called Suleimani a “martyr,” and labeled the strike a “flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty, a blatant attack on the dignity of the country, and a dangerous escalation.” He also said it violated “the conditions for the presence of the American forces in Iraq and its role which is supposed to be limited to training Iraqi forces and fighting ISIS.” Foreign-policy experts say a conflict with Iran won’t look like anything we’ve seen before: “It will be fought throughout the region with a wide range of tools versus a wide range of civilian, economic, and military targets.” Oil prices are already rising.

Say what you want about the Bush administration, but they were the A-team of the neoconservative movement. Yet they failed to see beyond the first move. Trump’s foreign policy crew, on the other hand, isn’t the A-team of anything. His National Security Council is a dysfunctional mess. He’s on his fourth national security adviser—the first a convicted felon, the second short-tenured, the third fired via Twitter. The president has sought to purge dissenters and surrounded himself with sycophants. He’s degraded intelligence officials while seeking guidance from talk-show hosts.

As important, Trump has strained the alliances he’d need to fight Iran. The Europeans have been trying to make Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran work despite Trump pulling out. Now that hope is gone. And it’s increasingly likely that Iraq will ask the U.S. to withdraw its 5,000 troops from the country, which might allow ISIS to again develop a foothold. For all of this, Trump’s never had a coherent strategy in Iran; he paints himself as a noninterventionist, yet everything his administration does points toward wanting to force regime change, and those two things usually don’t go together.

Donald Trump is about to face an honest-to-god foreign policy crisis—one that stands to get a lot of people killed. What are the chances that he’s thought through what happens after he waves his dick around?

As with Saddam Hussein 17 years ago, the question isn’t whether we could kill Suleimani. Nor is it whether he deserved to die. The question is whether assassinating him is worth the blood we’re about to spill—and whether we even paused to ask ourselves that.

Second verse, same as the first

a little bit louder and a little bit worse.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International

One of Donald Trump’s few substantive defenses against the allegations that brought about his impeachment last week is that he didn’t try to extort an investigation into Joe Biden and a crackpot DNC server conspiracy theory for his own political benefit—but rather, he sought “a favor” for the good of the country.

The evidence for this, the president and his defenders say, is in the not-quite-a-transcript that the White House released of the July 25 call between Trump and then-newly elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky thanks the U.S. for pressuring Russia through sanctions, then expresses interest in buying more missiles.

And Trump, of course, replies: “I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. … There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the attorney general call you or your people, and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”

Zelensky mentions that one of his assistants had spoken to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. Trump says, “I will ask him to call you along with the attorney general.”

In Trump’s telling, the fact that he referenced Attorney General William Barr shows that he was concerned about corruption in Ukraine.

Put aside that this runs contrary to every known fact about Donald Trump. Instead, focus on how casually Trump lumps in the attorney general of the United States with his lawyer, who’d spent the better part of a year in Ukraine trying to manufacture a sham investigation into the Bidens—and who, incidentally, is reportedly under federal investigation.

In Trump’s mind, they’re the same They’re his guys. That should be a red flag.

The attorney general is not the president’s lawyer. The attorney general is—in theory—the lawyer for the American people, whose fidelity is to the country and the Constitution.

Trump doesn’t see it that way, however. So a year ago, Trump forced out his first AG, Jeff Sessions—the first U.S. senator to endorse his presidential campaign —because he deemed Sessions insufficiently loyal during Russiagate. For his second AG nominee, Trump wasn’t taking any chances.

Bill Barr believes in the unitary executive theory—put simply, the president is essentially above the law and has total control of the government’s law-enforcement system. Barr was also willing to play lackey.

So, for instance, when the Mueller report came in, Barr dashed off a letter to Congress saying—deceptively, it turned out—that Trump had been cleared of wrongdoing, obscuring Mueller’s findings that the president had repeatedly obstructed justice and that he was only not charged with a crime because he Department of Justice policy forbade it.

And when, with Trump staring down impeachment, the DOJ’s inspector general released a long-awaited report demolishing Trump’s batshit claims about a Deep State vendetta against his presidential campaign, Barr sent out an unprecedented statement contradicting his department’s IG. If nothing else, he’s a company man.

More troubling was his speech to the Federalist Society in November, in which he leaned into his role as a partisan actor, accusing anyone to the left of Attila the Hun of “undermining (the) rule of law” and Congress of—as a “pursuit of choice”—“drown(ing) the Executive Branch with ‘oversight’ demands for testimony and documents.”

These are not co-equal branches, Barr believes. If the president finds congressional oversight annoying, he should ignore it.

Also, progressives—what with their “civil rights” and other such nonsense—are snowflakes, while conservatives are grounded in reason and as such at a political disadvantage.

“In any age,” Barr opined, “the so-called progressives treat politics as their religion. … Conservatives, on the other hand, do not seek an earthly paradise.  … Conservatives tend to have more scruple over their political tactics and rarely feel that the ends justify the means.”

Obviously, Bill Barr has never heard the name Mitch McConnell or watched C-SPAN in the last decade or so.

But gaslighting—or, more charitably, being obtuse—isn’t what bothers me most about Barr; that’s par for the course in the modern GOP. It’s this: Earlier this month, Barr told a roomful of cops that “the American people have to focus on something else, which is the sacrifice and the service that is given by our law enforcement officers. And they have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves. … (If) communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”

In other words, show your cops love—i.e., don’t protest if they beat up or shoot a person of color—or, well, you just never know, do you?

This is an attorney general, of course, who has criticized local district attorneys in Philadelphia and St. Louis for calling for police accountability, and has demanded zero tolerance for “resisting police.”

To recap: Trump should be able to do whatever he wants. Trump should have unchecked control over the law-enforcement apparatus. Law enforcement should be able to do whatever it wants. Resisters? Zero tolerance. Protesters? It’d be a shame if something happened to them.

All hail the police state.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International

On this week's gift-return-ravaged weekly Independent comics page: (Th)ink looks at a primary difference between the current president and Hitler; This Modern World listens to Trump's Christmas address; Jen Sorensen ponders ways to enlighten people these days; Red Meat heads for a wintertime survival campout; and Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy checks in with the Saudis.

Published in Comics

On this week's yule log-warmed weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World examines the latest case taken up by Donald J. Trump, detective-in-chief; Jen Sorensen looks at a proposed Ohio law that demands doctors perform a procedure that ... doesn't exist?; The K Chronicles shakes his head at racism in Italian soccer; Red Meat takes in a festive Christmas movie; and Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy engages in some puppetry.

Published in Comics

On this week's multicolored-light-strewn weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World again puts on MAGA-vision; Jen Sorensen ponders all the retro trends; (Th)ink looks inside the mind of Mr. Zuckerberg; Red Meat needs to revise a history paper; and Apoca Clips posits that Rudy's goose may be cooked.

Published in Comics

Happy Thanksgiving! On this week's gravy-slathered weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips learns the real truth behind that ridiculous Tesla truck announcement; Red Meat makes plans for a solo Thanksgiving; This Modern World looks at the perspective of wealthy Democrats; Jen Sorensen wonders what happens if a president commits crimes, but almost half the country doesn't believe it; and The K Chronicles has a Hollywood moment.

Published in Comics

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