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Turkey Prepares for Military Operation as US Troops Start Leaving Syria

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  • The Trump administration announced Sunday that it would be stepping aside to let Turkey launch a military operation against Kurdish forces in Syria.
  • Many condemned the move and argued that the U.S. was clearly abandoning U.S.-backed Kurdish forces that have been on the frontlines fighting against ISIS alongside U.S. troops in the region.
  • On Monday, U.S. officials confirmed that troops in Syria were already being removed following the announcement.

White House Announcement

U.S. troops began withdrawing from Syria on Monday, following a controversial announcement by the White House a day prior that U.S. forces will stand aside as Turkey launches a military offensive in Northern Syria.

The statement, made by White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham, followed a phone call between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the statement said. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”

The statement went on to say that the U.S. has “pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused.”

“The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer,” it continued. “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial ‘Caliphate’ by the United States.”

It is unclear from that statement whether or not all of the nearly 1,000 troops in the region will be removed. What is clear is that the announcement comes as a major shift in U.S. policy in the region that many on both sides of the aisle oppose.

U.S. Kurdish Allies

The announcement comes as a clear sign that the U.S. is abandoning its main ally in the fight against ISIS: Kurdish forces near the Syrian border.

U.S. forces on the ground in Syria have recruited and trained the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces for years. Those forces have done the majority of fighting on the ground against ISIS fighters.

That is also not all they have done. Despite the claim in the White House’s statement that the U.S. is holding captured ISIS fighters at the taxpayer’s expense, it is actually Kurdish forces, and not the U.S., that have kept ISIS fighters and their family members in makeshift camps in Northern Syria.

For a while, Erdogan has been critical of the U.S.’s alliance with the Kurdish forces. Turkey has a separatist movement near its border with Syria made of Kurds, called the PKK. Turkey claims that the YPG and PKK are allied and considers them both terrorists.

The Turkish operation is geared to use military force to clear “terrorists” east of the Euphrates river, a region controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces and YPG.

When Turkey says it is going to target terrorists east of the Euphrates River, many believe it is a clear message that they plan to remove Kurdish forces from their borders.

Response

Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers in the U.S. have also warned that allowing Turkey to go forward with a military operation will send a bad message about U.S. commitment to its allies.

But any bloodshed and damage a Turkish military operation against the Kurds in Syria will bring is not the only concern for the U.S.

Sunday’s announcement reportedly also goes against the recommendations of top U.S. officials in the Pentagon and the State Department.

Military officials have also argued that the U.S. needs the Kurdish forces to fight against an ISIS resurgence, as well as to guard the facilities where ISIS militants and their families are being held.

Those concerns were echoed in a series of tweets from the SDF on Sunday, where the group argued that a Turkish attack would “Reverse the successful effort to defeat #ISIS, where #SDF sacrificed 11K martyrs.”

The SDF also said that the move will lead to “The return of leaders of #ISIS” and that ISIS would break out the nearly 12,000 prisoners held by Kurdish forces.

A great number of prominent lawmakers, including some of Trump’s main allies, also responded to Trump, condemning the move.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) wrote a laundry list of tweets Monday criticizing the move, calling it a “disaster in the making,” and claiming it “will be a stain on America’s honor for abandoning the Kurds.”

“If this plan goes forward will introduce Senate resolution opposing and asking for reversal of this decision,”  he wrote. “Expect it will receive strong bipartisan support.”

“By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible – America is an unreliable ally and it’s just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways,” he later added.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) also responded while speaking Fox News.

“I want to make sure we keep our word for those who fight with us and help us,” he said. “If you make a commitment and somebody is fighting with you, America should keep their word.”

Speaker of the House Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also spoke out against the president’s efforts.

“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup,” he said in a statement. “American interests are best served by leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal.”

Trump Defends Himself

Trump still defended his decision on Twitter.

“When I arrived in Washington, ISIS was running rampant in the area. We quickly defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate,” he wrote, before going on to say that Europe has refused to take back captured ISIS fighters the U.S. is holding. “As usual, that the U.S. is always the “sucker,” on NATO, on Trade, on everything.”

 “The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades,” he continued. “It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.”

“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their ‘neighborhood,’” he added. “They all hate ISIS, have been enemies for years. We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!”

Withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria was a big campaign promise of Trump’s. In December 2018, the president made a sudden announcement that ISIS had been defeated and that he was withdrawing all military personnel from Syria.

That decision received significant backlash from both Democrats and Republicans, as well as military and foreign policy personnel in the Trump Administration. 

However both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence doubled-down on the claim that ISIS was defeated in the region, even after Islamic State agents took responsibility for a suicide bombing in January, that left 19 people, including four Americans, dead in a U.S.-controlled city in Syria.

Toward the end of February, the Trump administration made a significant reversal and announced that it would leave about 400 troops in the region. In early March, several members of Congress wrote Trump a letter urging him to keep troops in Syria. Trump responded to that letter, writing “I agree 100%” 

Now, the administration’s most recent decision seems to be a definitive shift towards troop removal, and critics of the plan appear to have similar precautions as last time Trump made a similar effort.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (Axios)

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Mnuchin To Cut Off $455 Billion In Stimulus Money and Move It Out of the Biden Administration’s Reach

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  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has asked the Federal Reserve to return $455 billion in stimulus funding for key emergency lending programs when they expire at the end of the year. 
  • Previously, the Treasury Department was expected to extend those programs as the pandemic is still raging. Because it’s now pursuing the opposite, the Fed has rebuked Mnuchin’s decision, a rare move to see from the agency.
  • Other critics have called Mnuchin’s move political, saying it appears to be a blatant attempt to hamper Biden’s transition into the White House in January.
  • Still, the Fed has agreed to return the funding, and it’s now being reported that the money will be placed into an account that Mnuchin’s likely successor, Janet Yellen, will need Congressional approval to access.

Mnuchin To End Emergency Funding Without Extension

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that he doesn’t plan to extend $455 billion in key emergency lending programs past the end of the year. Instead, he’s planning on stashing that money in a fund that his successor can’t reach without Congressional approval.

Mnuchin has asked Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to return the $455 billion in unused funding. Notably, that money is meant to fund programs stemming from the $2 trillion CARES Act — the only stimulus package Congress has agreed upon thus far. Those programs are meant to prop up the economy by providing financial assistance and loans for struggling businesses and local governments.

In his letter to Powell, Mnuchin said the Fed programs “have clearly achieved their objective” because “Markets responded positively, spreads tightened, and banks continued lending.”

While he also said that Congress will later be able to use that $455 billion for other purposes, such as PPP and grants, his decision has been so controversial that even the Fed criticized it. That’s highly unusual because the Fed isn’t usually keen on inserting itself within sensitive political issues.

The Fed has said that the programs are necessary while the pandemic rages on. In fact, it even noted the “important role” of these programs “as a backstop for our still-strained and vulnerable economy.”

The Treasury Department cannot simply reallocate that money on its own. Instead, it needs agreement from the Fed. Despite the Fed’s criticism, it ultimately gave that agreement on Friday.

Critics Blast Mnuchin’s Plan as an Attack on Biden

Top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Patrick Toomey have backed Mnuchin’s decision. Last week, McConnell described it as “fully aligned with the letter of the law and the intent of the Congress.”

Among some Republicans, there is a concern that leaving the programs operational for too long could distort markets.

On top of that, only about $20 billion of that $455 billion has actually been used, likely because the program’s loan terms for small- and medium-sized businesses are very restrictive. Still, that’s not to say this money hasn’t been useful. As The New York Times pointed out, “Some programs calmed market conditions merely by reassuring investors.”

Connected to that and similar to the Fed’s arguments, economists are concerned that Mnuchin is pulling the plug on these programs too soon, arguing that they should not be ended before the markets have fully recovered.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the largest lobbying group in the country — said that Mnuchin’s decision to end these programs “closes the door on important liquidity options for businesses at a time when they need them most.” 

The chamber also added that it “unnecessarily ties the hands of the incoming administration.”

“This appears to be a political move by Team Trump to limit what President-elect Joe Biden can do next year to boost the economy, especially if Congress fails to pass a big stimulus,” Jaret Seiberg, an analyst at Cowen Inc., added.

“It’s not just closing the store down for Biden,” policy economist Ernie Tedeschi said. “It’s burning the store down.” 

Mnuchin has said that this decision isn’t political. He also argued that in the “unlikely event” that these programs need to be re-established, the Fed can still request approval from other emergency funds.

Yellen Would Need Congressional Approval to Access Funds

Still, as The New York Times noted last week, this move could prevent President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming Treasury secretary from quickly restarting the efforts at scale in 2021.

That incoming secretary is expected to be Janet Yellen, who Biden chose for the role on Monday. Notably, if confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first female Treasury secretary. 

On Tuesday, it was reported that Mnuchin is planning on moving that $455 billion into the Treasury’s General Fund, which means that Yellen would need Congressional approval to access any of that money.

That would then leave Yellen with only $80 billion at her discretion. While that might sound like a lot of money for the average person, it’s much less than the nearly half a trillion dollars currently set to be removed from play. 

It also comes at a time where coronavirus cases are spiking, local and state governments are once again employing more restrictive lockdowns, and millions of people are set to lose their unemployment benefits at the end of the year.

Bharat Ramamurti, a Democratic member of the congressional watchdog panel overseeing the $455 billion, said on Twitter that Mnuchin’s move is illegal and that it can be reversed next year.

A spokesperson for the Treasury has asserted that Mnuchin’s move is legal under the CARES Act. 

In the summer, Mnuchin initially extended the fund’s expiration date, which is why it now expires at the end of the year.

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (Axios) (Bloomberg)

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GSA Official Emily Murphy Finally Approves Biden Transition. Here’s What Comes Next

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  • On Monday, the head of the General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, admitted that Democrat Joe Biden is the “the apparent president-elect.”
  • While this much focus isn’t usually placed on the GSA administrator, Murphy had previously refused to allow Biden’s transition team to access valuable resources ahead of his inauguration. To note, GSA transition approval does not certify Biden as the winner of the 2020 Presidential Election.
  • The news comes as Biden has made several recent announcements detailing key cabinet positions, including his picks for the first female Treasury secretary and the first Latino Homeland Security secretary. 

Trump Official Authorizes Transition

The U.S. government has finally begun the process of allowing President-elect Joe Biden to transition into the presidency, despite Donald Trump’s repeated refusal to concede.

On Monday, the administrator of the General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, admitted in a letter that Biden was the “the apparent president-elect.” 

The GSA is an independent branch of the government that has the power to direct the flow of transition resources to an incoming president. Murphy’s letter now gives Biden several notable resources, including access to millions in federal funds. He and his transition team are also now able to begin holding meetings with government agencies to discuss policy changes ahead of his inauguration in January. 

Usually, the GSA administrator’s role goes unnoticed following elections, but Murphy’s refusal to sign transition documents until Monday drew sharp criticism. In fact, several leading medical groups have urged President Trump to share vital COVID-19 data with Biden, a move they said could “save countless lives.”

Because of her initial refusal, many accused Murphy — who is former attorney for the Republican National Committee — of being influenced by the White House.

In her Monday letter, Murphy denied that claim.

“I have dedicated much of my adult life to public service, and I have always strived to do what is right,” she said. “Please know that I came to my decision independently, based on the law and available facts. I was never directly or indirectly pressured by any Executive Branch official — including those who work at the White House or GSA — with regard to the substance or timing of my decision.”

Murphy also noted in her letter that she had “recevie[d] threats online, by phone, and by mail directed at my safety, my family, my staff, and even my pets in an effort to coerce me into making this determination prematurely.”

As far as why Murphy took so long to sign this letter, according to The Washington Post, those close to her said she wanted more certainty before making the call. Reportedly, she wanted to see if battleground states would begin certifying their individual elections while Trump’s legal battles played out in court. 

On Monday, Michigan certified its results. On Tuesday, both Pennsylvania and Nevada certified their results. In all three cases, Biden was officially declared the winner. 

As The Post notes, there was also the prospect of becoming the target of Trump’s anger and the risk that he would fire her or other top aides. Only recently have multiple, major Republicans who support Trump started to break with the president and admit that it’s time for him to concede for the benefit of the country.

Trump Still Won’t Concede

Still, Trump is refusing to concede. 

In a Monday tweet thanking Murphy, he said, “Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good fight, and I believe we will prevail! Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.” 

However, Trump’s legal challenges appear to be anything but strong. Case after case has failed to hold up in court, including in front of judges that Trump himself appointed. 

Trump also appears to either be taking credit for Murphy’s decision to kick start Biden’s transition process or seemingly admitting that he did, in fact, pressure Murphy to hold off on signing this letter.

That comes despite the fact that The Post reported Murphy’s team told the White House Counsel’s Office on Friday that she planned to designate Biden the winner on Monday. According to the outlet, her office never received a response.

Biden’s Cabinet

In addition to Murphy’s letter now clearing the way for Biden to access vital resources needed to begin building his government, he has also recently announced several of his cabinet picks. 

On Sunday, Biden announced Antony Blinken as his secretary of state. Notably, Blinken is the former deputy secretary of state under President Obama.

Unsurprisingly, Blinken is also expected to be a massive departure from current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. For example, Blinken has been highly critical of Trump’s “America First” policies, saying that they’ve isolated the U.S. and provided opportunities for adversaries. 

Blinken is expected to help the U.S. rejoin major global agreements or organizations, such as the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organization.

On Monday,  Biden has chosen Alejandro Mayorkas as his secretary of Homeland Security. Like Blinken, Mayorkas was a deputy secretary of his respective department under Obama. 

He also previously served as the director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

As a Cuban-American, he will be the first Latino to lead the department, which is doubly notable because he’s expected to overhaul most if not all of Trump’s hardline immigration policies.

“When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge,” Mayorkas said on Twitter Monday. “Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.”

Among other notable picks, Biden has tapped Janet Yellen to become Treasury secretary. Previously, she served as the chair of the Federal Reserve under Obama but was not reappointed by Trump after he won the 2016 election.

If confirmed by the Senate, she would become the country’s first female Treasury secretary. 

Regarding climate change, former Secretary of State John Kerry has been chosen to become the special presidential envoy for climate. Kerry will not need to be confirmed by the Senate for this role.

“This marks the first time that the [National Security Council] will include an official dedicated to climate change, reflecting the president-elect’s commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent national security issue,” the Biden transition team noted.

In addition to that, Biden has chosen Jake Sullivan as his national security adviser, a position he also held for Biden in a vice-presidential capacity during part of Obama’s second term. Sullivan played a key role in negotiations concerning the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (The Washington Post) (CNN)

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Press Secretary Falsely Claims Trump Wasn’t Given an “Orderly Transition of Power”

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  • Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany falsely claimed that President Donald Trump was not given “an orderly transition of power” after he won the 2016 election. 
  • In reality, Hillary Clinton conceded defeat the day after the election, and President Obama Obama met with Trump to start work on the transition two days after. Trump himself even thanked Obama for making the transfer peaceful and smooth in his inauguration speech.
  • By contrast, Trump has launched an unprecedented effort to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. He’s directed key members of his administration to block the transition process and filed dozens of lawsuits aimed at overturning election results, despite the fact that a growing number of Republicans have encouraged him to start the transition process.

Kayleigh McEnany’s Claims About Trump Transition

Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany falsely claimed on Saturday that President Donald Trump was not given “an orderly transition of power.”

Her comments came during her first press briefing since the election was called for former Vice President Joe Biden, where she was asked about Trump’s refusal to concede and start the transition process.

“While, in 2016, President Trump became the duly elected President, many sought to undermine him, discredit him, delegitimize him, and deny his victory,” she continued. “There were no calls for unity; there were no calls for healing.”

“So while every legal vote is counted, let us not forget the inexcusable transition, or lack thereof, that President Trump had to endure in 2016 and four years into his presidency.”

McEnany’s claims are flatly wrong for a number of reasons. Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, conceded the morning of Nov. 9, the day after the election.

“Donald Trump is going to be our president,” Clinton said in her concession speech. “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”

Help From Obama

Later that same day, then-President Barack Obama also acknowledged Trump’s win and emphasized the importance of a smooth transition process. The day after that — less than 48 hours after the election had been called for Trump — the president-elect went to the White House to meet with Obama and start the transition process.

“As I said last night, my number one priority in the coming two months is to try to facilitate a transition that ensures our president-elect is successful,” Obama told reporters while sitting beside Trump.

“We want to make sure that they feel welcome as they prepare to make this transition, and most of all, I want to emphasize to you, Mr. President-elect, that we now are gunna wanna do everything we can to help you succeed,” he continued. “Because if we succeed, then the country succeeds.” 

In fact, Trump himself even thanked Obama for helping to ensure the peaceful transfer of power while speaking at his inauguration.

“Every four years we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition,” he said. “They have been magnificent. Thank you.” 

Notably, as the Associated Press pointed out, Trump’s transition was indeed chaotic, but that was almost entirely due to Trump’s own doing. While the Trump transition team did receive standard cooperation during the transfer, they largely ignored advice and offers of help from Obama staffers.

Beyond that, Trump also fired the head of his transition, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and scrapped months of transition planning he had prepared over a feud between Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Christie, who in his previous role as a U.S. Attorney had put Kushner’s father in jail for tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign contributions.

Trump’s Tactics

McEnany’s blatantly false assertion appears to be an attempt to downplay and justify the unprecedented actions Trump has taken to block Biden from assuming the presidency during a pandemic, even as numerous experts warn that if the president does not start sharing COVID data with the president-elect and his transition team, cost countless lives could be lost.

In addition to Trump’s own refusal to concede, he has also directed those in his administration to play ball as well.

Most significantly, Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration (GSA) — the agency tasked with handing hand transition resources off to Biden’s transition team — has refused to sign off on the process.

By contrast, the GSA under the Obama Administration gave Trump’s transition team the reins the day after the 2016 election. 

Trump and his allies have also filed dozens of frivolous lawsuits in an attempt to overrule the will of American voters in key swing states. According to reports, the campaign has now either lost or withdrawn over 30 of those suits.

As their legal strategy starts to fall apart, team Trump has taken a new direction: getting Republican-controlled legislatures in states that gave the popular vote to Biden to basically overrule the will of the people by choosing a pro-Trump slate of electors to send to the electoral college.

Usually, the party of whichever candidate wins the popular vote in a given state gets to designate electors who will go to the Electoral College in December to cast the state’s electoral votes for the chosen candidate. 

However, a state legislature could hypothetically claim that the results of the popular invalid and invoke their constitutional right to step in and choose a slate of electors they believe more accurately reflects the election results of their state.

Many believe that such a move would be illegal or at the very least incredibly undemocratic as it would amount to nothing more than a full-blown attempt to steal the election and defy the will of voters.

But Trump and his cronies have been pushing Republican legislators in states he lost narrowly to take this route. On Thursday, the president gathered state legislators from Michigan at the White House to pressure them to either send a slate of his electors to the Electoral College or not certify the election results at all.

The legislators appeared to deny that they would go against the will of their people because of baseless claims of fraud.

“We have not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan and, as legislative leaders, we will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors, just as we have said throughout this election,” they said in a statement. 

Republicans Urge Trump to Start Transition

While some of Trump’s allies have continued to support the president’s tactic and spread his baseless claims and conspiracy theories about election fraud, other top Republicans lawmakers have been encouraging Trump to start the transition process.

On Saturday a federal judge in Pennsylvania rejected yet another lawsuit brought by the Trump campaign, effectively ending the president’s only attempt to challenge statewide results. After that ruling, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) called on Trump to accept that he had lost and start the transition process. 

“With today’s decision by Judge Matthew Brann, a longtime conservative Republican whom I know to be a fair and unbiased jurist, to dismiss the Trump campaign’s lawsuit, President Trump has exhausted all plausible legal options to challenge the result of the presidential race in Pennsylvania,” Toomey said in a statement, before going on to note that Trump’s loss in his follows “a series of procedural losses for President Trump’s campaign.”

On Sunday, Senators Kevin Cramer (R-Nd.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak.) also followed suit.

“President Trump has had the opportunity to litigate his claims, and the courts have thus far found them without merit,” Murkowski said. “A pressure campaign on state legislators to influence the electoral outcome is not only unprecedented but inconsistent with our democratic process. It is time to begin the full and formal transition process.”

Those remarks were also echoed by Christie, who, despite being removed from Trump’s 2016 transition team, has maintained a close relationship with the president and his staff. While speaking to ABC News Sunday, the former governor called the conduct of Trump’s legal team “a national embarrassment.”

“Listen, I have been a supporter of the President’s. I voted for him twice, but elections have consequences, and we cannot continue to act as if something happened here that didn’t happen,” he said. 

“If you are unwilling to come forward and present the evidence, it must mean the evidence doesn’t exist,” Christie continued. “The country is what has to matter the most. As much as I’m a strong Republican and I love my party, it’s the country that has to come first.” 

See what others are saying: (The Associated Press) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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