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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Set to Meet With Rosenstein Thursday; Another Kavanaugh Accuser Comes Forward; Second Woman Accuses Kavanaugh of Inappropriate Sexual Behavior. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 24, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:07]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: It is only Monday, folks, only Monday.

THE LEAD starts right now.

It's a decision that could leave the fate of the Russia investigation in question. Is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who supervises the investigation, staying on the job, or is he being fired, or is he resigning? It will all come down to a face-to-face with President Trump.

Then there's a second woman accusing Brett Kavanaugh of inappropriate sexual behavior, as the first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, agrees to testify Thursday. But Democrats are now saying about that hearing, hey, not so fast.

Plus, these two major stories all unfolding while President Trump is in New York at the U.N. Will he be ready to focus on threats such as North Korea, Iran and Syria, or might he be distracted by all the D.C. drama?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with high drama in Washington, drama that could have a major impact on the Russia investigation. President Trump just moments ago discussing the fate of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after sources say Rosenstein submitted his resignation to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly this weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm meeting with Rod Rosenstein on Thursday, when I get back from all of these meetings. And we will be meeting at the White House. And we will be determining what's going on. We want to have transparency. We want to have openness. And I look forward to meeting with Rod at that time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: It will be a meeting of tremendous consequence, given that Rosenstein oversees the Mueller probe.

Sources telling CNN that Rosenstein was expecting to be fired today at a meeting with Chief of Staff Kelly at the White House. President Trump is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting. This turmoil comes after the stunning "New York Times" report that Rosenstein considered secretly recording President Trump, and that he talked about trying to gain the support of Cabinet officials to potentially invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office.

Rosenstein has reportedly denied both of those claims.

Let's get right to CNN's Laura Jarrett. She's at the Justice Department.

Laura, Rosenstein's fate, and potentially, potentially that of the Russia investigation hang in the balance until Thursday.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. Major confusion over here at the Justice Department today, as officials tried to dust off that old succession plan, perhaps ready to rearrange the deck chairs over here at the Justice Department to figure out who would be the new number two in Rod Rosenstein's place.

And while things appear to have stabilized for now, the storm isn't likely over yet.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JARRETT (voice-over): Drama and uncertainty this afternoon regarding the future of the Russia investigation. The man in charge of the probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, may be out of a job in the next few days.

After meeting with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly today and talking on the phone with the president, the White House announced Rosenstein will meet face-to-face with President Trump on Thursday, saying in a statement: "At the request of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he and President Trump had an extended conversation to discuss recent news stories. They will meet on Thursday, when the president returns to Washington, D.C."

Rosenstein's fate was unclear after "The New York Times" reported Friday that Rosenstein had suggested he wear a wire to secretly record the president and even discussed recruiting Cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment in order to remove Trump from office.

According to a person close to the president, Trump was too concerned with the news about his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, to focus on his deputy attorney general.

TRUMP: I think it's a very sad story. And people are obviously -- we are looking into it. But it's a very sad state of affairs when something like that could happen.

QUESTION: But will you fire Rod Rosenstein, based on this treachery?

TRUMP: I don't want to comment on it. I don't want to comment on it until I get all of the facts. I haven't gotten all of the facts. But, certainly, it's being looked at in terms of what took place, if anything took place. And I will make a determination sometime later. But I don't have the facts.

JARRETT: Sources tell CNN Rosenstein over the weekend discussed with Kelly the prospect of resigning, but wanted to control the timing. This morning, White House sources tell CNN they believe Rosenstein had every intention of quitting today, but Justice officials tell CNN, when Rosenstein went to the White House this morning, he instead expected to be fired.

Neither of those things happened. If Rosenstein does get fired or quits, who then takes over the Russia investigation? Those duties would go to Solicitor General Noel Francisco, since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the investigation.

As solicitor general, Francisco is responsible for arguing cases for the administration before the Supreme Court, as he did last year with President Trump's travel ban.

[16:05:07]

Francisco was narrowly confirmed among party lines one year ago.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: The yeas are 50, the nays are 47. The nomination is confirmed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JARRETT: Jake, meanwhile, the president's personal attorneys are weighing in on the potential shakeup over here at the Justice Department. Jay Sekulow saying on his radio show this afternoon that if a new person is in charge of the Mueller investigation, then there should be a time-out of the inquiry -- Jake.

TAPPER: Laura Jarrett, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Let's discuss with my experts.

I want to start with Major Garrett.

Major, I should note you have a new book out, "Mr. Trump's Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams, and Occasional Blackouts of an Extraordinary Presidency."

It's a rollicking and insightful read. Congratulations on that.

MAJOR GARRETT, CBS NEWS: Thank you very much, Jake.

TAPPER: Let me ask you, based on what you know of President Trump, do you think Rod Rosenstein's job is in jeopardy? And separate question, do you think the Russia probe is in jeopardy?

GARRETT: I don't sense the Russia probe is in jeopardy. I sense Rod Rosenstein wants a resolution of this, thought there would be one today. I write in the book in some great detail about an episode involving the attorney general last year when he did resign, tried to resign, gave the letter to the president, and he didn't accept it, or he sort of held it in abeyance, and the chief of staff intervened, then Reince Priebus, to dramatically stop that from happening.

Why? Because Jeff Sessions wanted to resign on the day Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel. Kind of a chaotic political environment that the chief of staff quite understandably wanted to avoid.

We're sort of in that same vortex right now. One of the things I write in the book is the dichotomy between that's not possible and it just happened defined the first year of the Trump presidency. Quite obviously, it's defined the second year as well.

TAPPER: Kaitlan, Laura just pointed out that Jay Sekulow, one of the president's attorneys, seized on the news of Rosenstein's potential departure to make a point. I want you to listen and then get your response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's important that we take a step back here and then a review.

And I think it's a review that has to be thorough and complete and a review that has to include an investigation of what has transpired with all of these statements and all of these allegations going back to the Strzok and Page and Bruce Ohr and basically a time-out on this inquiry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, Sekulow seizing on this. Rudy Giuliani told The Daily Beast he agrees with Jay Sekulow. They're seizing on the news, if Rosenstein goes, there should be a time-out on the Russia probe.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Pretty convenient for them to say this, of course.

And Jay Sekulow isn't trustworthy because he's been contradicted multiple times of things he said. President Trump wasn't involved in this, and then we only find out that he did. But, of course, they're seizing on this, because this is what they want. They want the Russia investigation to come to an end. They said it was going to come to an end on September the 1st. Clearly, that didn't happen.

And so that is really just something they're using this to their political gain to message something about the Russia investigation.

But, of course, we know actually that President Trump and Rod Rosenstein's relationship had improved in recent months. It was really bad at some points. He was telling people he's no ally of mine, he's weak, he's not on my team, all of those things.

And, lately, they have started to get along a little bit better. There haven't been as many tweets negative about Rod Rosenstein. They meet frequently at the White House. So that's why this reporting, on top of that, President Trump was skeptical about "The New York Times"' reporting, because they came from the memos of Andy McCabe, who he had fired because he did not like him, and he doesn't trust him.

So he's skeptical about this. It's interesting to see how wary the president is being when people thought he would be really volcanic in response to this "New York Times" reporting.

TAPPER: What's your take on this? Do you think Russia -- the Russia probe is in danger? Do you think Rod Rosenstein's job is in danger?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Job is in danger, yes.

When I see him talking about resigning, that suggests one of two things to me. Number one, maybe he did something that was wrong and he's going to go say, I'm sorry, I have got to get out.

Number two, and people don't talk about this outside of this city -- I'm sure he talked to his family over the weekend and said, how long am I going to do this?

But in terms of the Russia probe, why the heck would we have a pause? Why? The Trump team stays the same. They have been investigating now for more than two years. The special counsel has been around since, what, spring of '17. It's like we're in the midst of the NFL season and we're changing the general manager. Let's take a couple games off.

Why not? There's a little chaos in the front office. We're not going to do the Monday night game. I don't under -- it's a clear political move, but like it's Goofy, plus Mickey and Minnie. It makes no sense to me.

Of course the probe is going to go on, unless somebody says, Mueller, you're gone.

TAPPER: Would you, as a prosecutor -- you're a former prosecutor. If you worked for the Mueller team, would you be concerned about the solicitor general, Noel Francisco, taking over? Would you think, uh- oh, he's not going to protect us as much as Rod Rosenstein did?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think they have all along known that Rod Rosenstein has been vulnerable through his entire tenure.

This has been contemplated by them, I'm sure, about the line of succession, including the solicitor general at some point in time. And so they are already aware of this being a possibility. If I were the prosecutor on this team, I would realize I do have some oversight with the person who is the deputy attorney general.

[16:10:02]

But, largely, they function autonomously. And that's a good thing and they're supposed to by virtue of the mandate that they have. And so they're supposed to truck along. They have some clearance issues about whether or not I can go forward on everything I want to do. Can I get the indictments, can I get the grand jury subpoena power, can I farm some things out, as they did for the Michael Cohen case? They have operated under this guise of uncertainty all this time.

This probably won't impact it all that much for them.

TAPPER: Major, take a listen to President Trump from Geraldo's radio show this morning. Obviously, the White House officially nominated Rod Rosenstein as deputy attorney general. But listen to the president distance himself from that decision.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

TRUMP: He was hired by Jeff Sessions. I was not involved in that process, because, you know, they go out and they get their own deputies and the people that work in the department.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's factually correct, but he did formally nominate him.

GARRETT: Oh, Jake, thank you so much for that softball. Read my book. Read the 10 days in May where I recount the 10 days in which many of these decisions were set in motion, starting with the firing of James Comey.

And I repeat and quote the president and his vice president directly about the sterling credentials that Rod Rosenstein brought to the job to which he was appointed by President Trump. That's a fact. It's an inescapable fact. Foundationally, are trying to undercut everything Mueller by undercutting Rosenstein? Clearly.

But that doesn't take away what he himself said about the person he nominated as president of the United States, backed up by his vice president. It's all there. The president would like to forget that. He puts a lot of things in the forget me machine. Happily, sometimes, there are books to counter that.

TAPPER: Phil, I want to read you something Rosenstein said just 11 days ago in a speech to the Justice Department.

He said -- quote -- "Most people are familiar with the first clause of our oath, the requirement to support and defend the Constitution. But some overlook the final clause to well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office."

Do you think he has a little message there that he's trying to send to the president or to those who would doubt him?

MUDD: I think that there is a message there, and I think that message will go beyond what happens this week. If you're working next to Rosenstein or directly below him, you're saying, look, we weren't elected by the American people, but the rule of law transcends whatever the president of the United States does over the next week.

So if you're Rosenstein, to cut to the chase, he's got to be there sitting with the staff saying, you're going to go on. It doesn't matter if I'm here or not. But the mission to execute an appropriately opened legal case has to go on. And nobody can stand in the way of that in this country.

TAPPER: And there are a lot of critics of the president who say he seems to think the Justice Department is like his own private law firm.

COATES: He does. He thinks it actually his minions and a brigade at that.

But, in reality, they are supposed to be -- although they fall under the umbrella of the executive branch, they're not supposed to act at the whim of the president, particularly when it is their -- his own campaign they are investigating.

Remember that part. There's not a tangential relationship of the president of the United States to the subject of the inquiry. In fact, it's part of his campaign. Now, he may not be a target or a subject quite yet or if at all, if he ever will be, but members of his campaign are.

So for him to assert himself in this way is not only toxic. It's particularly transparent as to why he would want to do so. And it's a problem.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around.

We have a new line of attack from Republicans as a second woman is accusing Brett Kavanaugh of sexually inappropriate behavior with a particular focus on one word. What is that word? That's next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:36] TAPPER: We're back with our other top story in the politics lead.

The man whose confirmation to the Supreme Court once seemed inevitable now just got even more complicated. A second woman, Deborah Ramirez, has now come forward with an allegation of inappropriate sexual behavior by Brett Kavanaugh when they both were in college. This comes just after Christine Blasey Ford reached an agreement to testify publicly before the Senate Judiciary Committee this Thursday. She says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.

Despite extensive effort, CNN so far has not spoken to anyone who is willing or able to corroborate Deborah Ramirez's story, which was reported by the "New Yorker."

Kavanaugh has forcefully denied both women's allegations, writing in a new letter this afternoon to the Senate Judiciary Committee, quote: These are smears, pure and simple. I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process. The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out. The vile threats of violence against my family will not drive me out. The last-minute character assassination will not succeed, unquote.

Let's get right to CNN's Jessica Schneider.

And, Jessica, Democrats want to halt Thursday's hearing with Christine Blasey Ford in the wake of the second accusation. Is that possible? Would that even happen?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, not likely, Jake. Senator Grassley's team is standing firm here. This hearing will happen on Thursday, and there will be two witnesses only, Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. And as the anticipation slowly builds toward Thursday, Judge Kavanaugh's denials have become more and more forceful.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, Supreme Court justice nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, denying an allegation reported by "The New Yorker" he exposed himself to now 53-year-old Deborah Ramirez at a dorm room party in the 1983-'84 school year at Yale.

Kavanaugh in a two-page letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking member Dianne Feinstein, saying: Once again, those alleged to have been witnesses to the event deny it ever happened. There is now a frenzy to come up with something, anything, that will block this process and a vote on my confirmation from occurring. These are smears, pure and simple.

Ramirez never told anyone about the incident and two of the male classmates Ramirez alleges were involved in addition to three others dispute Ramirez's account of events.

Reporter Ronan Farrow stands by the story.

RONAN FARROW, THE NEW YORKER: The fact that she took several days to carefully think about whether she wanted to cast herself into this maelstrom is I think certainly, you know, an acknowledgment of the fact that there were gaps in her memory, as is so often the case with traumatic memories influenced by alcohol.

[16:20:08] We did receive, however, several direct accounts from people who said they were told right after or saw her describing it right after.

SCHNEIDER: CNN has not corroborated Ramirez's claim and her lawyers told CNN no comment when asked to confirm the details in the "New Yorker" story." "The New York Times" reports it has interviewed several dozen people over the past week and could find no one with firsthand knowledge of the alleged sexual misconduct.

The president continues to defend his nominee.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Judge Kavanaugh is an outstanding person. And I am with him all the way. For people to come out of the woodwork from 36 years ago and 30 years ago and never mentioned it, all of a sudden it happens, in my opinion, it's totally political. It was totally political. SCHNEIDER: On Capitol Hill, protests erupted outside senators'

offices, including Republican Susan Collins, a key undecided vote, whose aide tried to appease demonstrators.

The plan is still to move forward with Thursday's testimony from Judge Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the first woman who accused him of sexual assault. Chairman Chuck Grassley spokesman says the committee will also look into this new allegation of sexual misconduct by Ramirez, but Democrats are demanding an immediate postponement of the confirmation proceedings and renewing their call for the FBI to investigate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And this afternoon, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, blamed Democrats for all of these allegations, saying they're doing all they can to destroy Kavanaugh's personal and professional life on the basis of decades-old allegations.

And, Jake, judge Kavanaugh will be continuing his own vigorous defense. He'll be on Fox News tonight in an interview alongside his wife and really it's an unprecedented move for a Supreme Court nominee.

TAPPER: Yes, never heard of anything like that.

Jessica Schneider, thank you so much.

Let's go back to our experts here.

Kaitlan Collins, what does the fact that Brett Kavanaugh and his wife are doing an interview on a network that I think it's fair to say is generally friendly to the Trump administration? Is it desperation? Is it smart politics? How do you see it?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it shows how worried they are about these allegations and the mounting number of them coming after them. They're pretty concerned about that. That's why he's sitting down.

It's no accident his wife is going to be there with him, clearly showing a pretty strong sign of support in light of these allegations, allegations of sexual assault that are upsetting a lot of women voters out there. But you could take into consideration that, obviously the White House approved this. They have been working hand in glove with his confirmation team and White House aides this week as they have been prepping for that hearing with Ford and for her to give her testimony.

But pair that with her, Christine Blasey Ford, and her letter to Chuck Grassley said she had also been inundated with requests to do television interviews and said no to all of them. And she was waiting for the senators on Capitol Hill Thursday. So we're going to instead of just hearing from her and then hearing Brett Kavanaugh defend himself against her, we are going to hear from him first and then again on Thursday, which is going to ruffle some feathers for people, I think.

TAPPER: Interesting.

And, Symone, the White House has been looking at this new story in the "New Yorker," about Deborah Ramirez and allegations she is making about Brett Kavanaugh at Yale and trying to find holes and the story is very nuanced. And there's a lot of -- there's a lot of gray there. And they've been e-mailing out sections from the "New York Times" report about it, including this one that says Ramirez herself contacted former Yale classmates, and told some of them she could not be certain Mr. Kavanaugh was the one who exposed himself.

And "The New York Times" editor has come out and said they're not trying to disprove the New Yorker story, just doing their own story.

What do you make of all of this?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think this is a very compelling case, Jake, for why there needs to be a reopening of the background investigation into Judge Kavanaugh --

TAPPER: By the FBI.

SANDERS: -- by the FBI. This is a fairly common practice. It's happened more than ten times in the last three months, reopening a background investigation.

And so, I think what Chuck Schumer and Senator Dianne Feinstein have called for, and many other Democratic senators, is not something out of the norm.

If we want the facts, if we want to get to the bottom of it, if we wanted to all come out, why not reopen the investigation?

TAPPER: Why not?

ALFONSO AGUILAR, PRESIDENT, LATINO PARTNERSHIP FOR CONSERVATIVE PRINCIPLE: I think Judge Kavanaugh has been through five, six background checks. Those are very rigorous security checks. They haven't found any type of pattern of sex abuse. So to think that they're going to open an investigation and suddenly find in a new background check evidence that he, in fact, has engaged in sexual harassment, it's ridiculous.

I think -- look, let's be honest. Let's look at this objectively. This is an effort to delay or derail the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh.

TAPPER: Do you think the women are lying?

AGUILAR: I don't know. But the truth is that these are allegations that happened decades ago.

[16:25:06] I think that at least with Dr. Ford, she should have the opportunity to testify. She's going to do it on Thursday.

In the case of Deborah Ramirez, I mean, that's a very sketchy allegation. She didn't remember very well.

TAPPER: She's had a lot to drink, she said, but --

AGUILAR: She had a lot to drink. She actually didn't initiate the process of coming forward with the allegation. I mean, she was contacted by the Democrats.

I mean, look, I don't -- I'm sensitive to the pain of these women. But I think they're surrounded by Democratic activists that are trying to use this, again, to delay or derail this confirmation process.

TAPPER: Major, take a listen to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking on the Senate floor just a few minutes ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: But even by the far left standards, this shameful, shameful smear campaign has hit a new low. A smear campaign, pure and simple.

It sounds like a choreographed smear campaign.

Democrats wouldn't let a few inconvenient things like a completely lack of evidence or an accuser's request for confidentiality to get between them and a good smear. But the smear campaign didn't stop there.

Let's put aside this last minute, unsubstantiated smear. Let's return to the facts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Starting to get the impression there's a message he's trying to convey.

GARRETT: What's the word, Jake?

TAPPER: The word is smear.

GARRETT: There we go. Thank you. All right. In fact, my book, because it's important for --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Just to remind people, "Mr. Trump's Wild Ride," Major Garrett's new book about covering the Trump White House.

GARRETT: So what is a part of this Brett Kavanaugh story is two things that relate to the first year of the Trump presidency, Neil Gorsuch being confirmed and the process by which the Federalist Society, Don McGahn, the White House counsel, not then, top Trump attorney then, but White House counsel now, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put together the political impetus, first of all not to have a hearing for Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee to succeed Antonin Scalia, spent that whole year laying the question of the fate of the Supreme Court before the electorate, now feeling vindicated by the Trump election. They are using every procedural tool to ram this confirmation through, even up against all of this political backlash. That is the subtext for where we find ourselves.

And you talk about the process. Mitch McConnell complains about the process. Democrats say cry me a river. Don't give us this process garbage, because you didn't even give Merrick Garland a hearing, let alone a confirmation vote.

So, all of this simmering rage about the future of the Supreme Court, what did or didn't happen in 2016, is playing itself out. Tactically, politically, and potentially if Kavanaugh is confirmed, legally for the next 20 years.

AGUILAR: Major, let me push back on something you said. I don't think Republicans are trying to ram the process. We had a hearing. These allegations come after the hearing, at the very last minute.

I mean, let's try to be a little bit objective here. I mean, it's not -- does it cause a suspicion that the allegations come at the very last minute? They're not substantiated?

SANDERS: No.

AGUILAR: No?

SANDERS: And they could be substantiated, if you will, if there was an investigation. I think the Senate majority leader calling this a smear campaign is a small dog whistle to the base of the Republican Party. Maybe even Trump's base, talking about -- suggesting he doesn't believe these women, suggesting that there's no there there. Because a smear campaign means if you really believe this is a smear campaign, you believe these are made-up allegations by these women.

So how can in one breath you say Dr. Ford will get a fair hearing and in the second breath say this is a smear campaign?

AGUILAR: This is not a court of law.

SANDERS: It's not.

AGUILAR: They're going to provide due process in the context of a confirmation hearing. And what the Senate has to do is provide consent and advice. They're going to hear her.

(CROSSTALK)

GARRETT: Right, but (INAUDIBLE) Mitch McConnell announced this nominee would be confirmed before the midterms. He established the date long before. That was their imperative.

Why? For a couple of reasons. Trump wants two nominees confirmed. They also know they face an uncertain environment after the midterms. It is imperative for the objectives of this administration, Mitch McConnell and not incidentally the White House counsel, all of which work together in 2016 to see this --

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We've got more to talk about.

Are there other allegations the Senate Judiciary Committee is aware. We're going to talk to a Democratic member of the committee, Senator Chris Coons, next.

Stay with us.

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