The Steele Dossier and the Mueller Investigation: Carter Page

Predictably, the frothy right wants to know whether Robert Mueller investigated the Steele dossier as part of his investigation into the links between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s interference operation in the election, and if not why not. Of the 27 questions Chuck Ross thinks Mueller should be asked about an investigation into Russia’s attack on the US and Trump’s associates ties to Russia, for example, seven are about the Steele dossier in one way or another (while repeating some of the past errors he has made about the dossier).

In his initial question, for example, he asserts as fact both that the FBI was investigating whether Russia was blackmailing Trump and whether there was a well-developed conspiracy of cooperation between Trump and the Kremlin because of the dossier, and suggests that the dossier would be the only reason to investigate such things.

How important was the Steele dossier to the overall investigation?

The FBI relied on the dossier, which was authored by former British spy Christopher Steele, to obtain four Foreign intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The FBI also investigated the allegations in the dossier that the Kremlin was blackmailing Donald Trump and that the campaign was involved in a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation” with Russia to influence the election.

Mueller’s report all but debunked several key allegations in the dossier. That poses a potential problem for investigators if the probe relied heavily on Steele’s reporting.

Leave aside the presumptions in this question. I’d like to take it on its face and — in a series — show what the public record suggests about the relationship between dossier allegations and the investigation into five people:

  • Carter Page
  • Michael Cohen
  • Paul Manafort
  • Mike Flynn
  • Roger Stone

Here’s my logic for focusing on these five. Obviously, the dossier had a role in the Carter Page investigation — though the continued classification of his FISA application permits Republicans to claim it had a larger role than it actually did. I actually suspect the dossier may have had a larger influence on the rapid progress of the investigation into Michael Cohen than Page. The public record on the investigation into Paul Manafort shows the opposite: FBI didn’t get around to substantiating real evidence that could, even still, support dossier claims about him until relatively late in the investigation. Similarly, the real investigation into Flynn seems to have led rather than followed any real inquiry into the sole allegation about Flynn in the dossier, but that’s likely because that allegation was regurgitated public reporting. Roger Stone — who doesn’t show up in the dossier at all, in spite of his public claims to have advance knowledge of what would be released — provides a useful counterpoint to show what an investigation that could not be influenced by the dossier would look like.

We won’t know for sure until either Bill Barr declassifies all the details about the role of the dossier in the investigation or Jason Leopold or Judicial Watch liberates those details in FOIA. But what we know thus far shows that the FBI generally proceeded based on real predication.

The timelines below also appear in combined form in this page.

Carter Page

Much of the public focus of the dossier’s discussion of Page is on an allegation he’d get to broker the Rosneft sale and his alleged meeting with Igor Sechin.

[July 19 report] [A] Russian source close to Rosneft President, PUTIN close associate and US-sanctioned individual, Igor SECHIN, confided the details of a recent secret meeting between him and visiting Foreign Affairs Advisor to Republican presidential candidate Donald TRUMP, Carter PAGE.

According to SECHIN’s associate, the Rosneft President (CEO) had raised with PAGE the issues of future bilateral energy cooperation and prospects for an associated move to life Ukraine-related western sanctions against Russia.

[snip]

[October 18 report] SECHIN’s associate said that the Rosneft President was so keen to lift personal and corporate western sanctions imposed on the company,  that he offered PAGE/TRUMP’s associates the brokerage of up to a 19 per cent (privatised) stake in Rosneft in return. PAGE expressed interest and confirmed that were TRUMP elected US president, then sanctions on Russia would be lifted.

This stuff does get mentioned in Page’s FISA application. But the unredacted discussion of the alleged meeting quotes from the July 19 report directly, not the October 18 one.

[redacted] reported that, during the meeting, Page and Sechin discussed future bilateral energy cooperation and the prospects for an associated move to lift Ukrainian-related Western sanctions against Russia.

Given the week lead time for preliminary application to the FISA Court and the known dates when Steele briefed the FBI, this is unsurprising, as the second report — the one everyone now focuses on — would seem too late to get into an application approved on October 21.

So while the claim that Russia offered Page energy deals for sanctions relief is part of the application, the visible parts of that initial FISA application use the dossier allegations somewhat differently: to suggest a tie between the alleged offer of “kompromat” on Hillary and the policy stances Trump took in July and August. The logic in the application looks like this:

  • FBI targeted Page because they believed Russia was recruiting him as part of their effort to influence the outcome of the election (4)
  • Trump named both Page and Papadopoulos as advisors in March 2016 (6)
  • What the FBI knew so far of Papadopoulos’ activities [and other things] led the FBI to believe that Russia was not just trying to influence the outcome, but trying to coordinate with Trump’s campaign as well (9)
  • Russia has recruited Page in the past (12-14)
  • [Redacted section that probably explains that Page had told the FBI that he thought providing information to people he knew were Russian intelligence officers was beneficial for both countries and, after he showed up in the Buryakov complaint, he told Russia he had not cooperated with the FBI] (14-15)
  • In addition to allegedly meeting with Sechin and discussing eliminating sanctions, he met with someone assumed to be Igor Nikolayevich Divyekin, also “raised a dossier of ‘kompromat’ that the Kremlin had” on Clinton and the possibility of it being released to Trump’s campaign (18)
  • After those July meetings, Trump appeared to change his platform and publicly announced he might recognize Crimea (21)
  • Once these details became public, the Trump campaign not only denied Page had any ongoing connection to the campaign, but denied he ever had, which was false (24)

Here’s how the “kompromat” language tied to Page appeared in the dossier.

[A] senior colleague in the Internal Political Department of the PA, DIVYEKIN (nfd) also had met secretly with PAGE on his recent visit. Their agenda had included DIVEYKIN raising a dossier of ‘kompromat’ the Kremlin possessed on TRUMP’s Democratic presidential rival, Hillary CLINTON, and its possible release to the Republican’s campaign team.

That is, this offer, in a report dated July 19, looked just like what had happened to Papadopoulos three months earlier: at an alleged meeting that would have taken place weeks before before Russian-stolen emails actually did get released, Russians purportedly offered to share dirt on Hillary with someone publicly identified as a foreign policy advisor on the Trump campaign. Both the alleged offer (dated July 7 or 8) and the report (dated July 19) would look to have predicted what happened on July 22, just as the Papadopoulos offer of dirt did (though, unlike the Papadopoulos dangle, Steele’s report did not predict that the dirt was stolen emails; it said the dirt was FSB intercepts from Hillary’s trips to Russia).

And in response to that, seemingly, Trump changed his policy to be more friendly to Russia.

So to the FBI, Page looked like someone who had, in the past, confessed he’d be happy to share information with Russian spies, who had been brought to Moscow for an event well above his pay grade, who had a known desire to be a player in the Russian energy market (which is how Russia recruited him in 2013). The Steele dossier allegations made it look like the same thing that had happened to Papadopoulos happened to Page as well. And Trump’s public stances in the aftermath looked like his foreign policy, under the advice of the guys who had gotten these dangles, was becoming more Russian friendly, possibly as a result.

And with Page, the FBI had two things they did not yet have with Papadopoulos: someone no longer claimed to be tied to the campaign, and someone with an 8-year track record of showing willingness to respond to Russian entreaties.

Both Sheldon Whitehouse and Trey Gowdy — who are, notably, fairly hawkish former prosecutors — have said there was plenty of evidence to justify a FISA order on Page aside from the dossier, though Gowdy has more recently said that a transcript of Papadopoulos’ meeting with Stephan Halper where he says being involved in this would amount to treason is somehow exonerating of either Papadopoulos or Page (which is really hard to understand). So Page might have been targetable on his own right in any case. But it’s clear that the Steele dossier claim that Page had been offered dirt on Hillary, just as Papadopoulos had, made it look like a pattern, and made it look like it was tied to Trump’s public foreign policy stances taken late enough such that he may have been influenced by his two foreign policy advisors who had been offered dirt.

And once FBI started investigating, Page would look still worse. That’s because the FBI would eventually have found evidence that would seem to corroborate this theory in several ways:

  • In an FBI interview on March 30, 2017, Page described meeting the head of investor relations as Rosneft, Andrey Baranov, and discussing Sechin, the Rosneft sale, and the Trump campaign [see Mueller Report Volume I page 100-101]
  • In the days before his trip, New Economic School employee Denis Klimentov alerted Dmitry Peskov’s office about Page’s visit; Peskov (whom Steele said was a central player in the election influence operation) considered arranging a meeting for Page at the Kremlin, but decided not to because “he is far from being the main” Trump foreign policy advisor [these discussions, and one involving Ministry of Foreign Affairs spox Maria Zakharova, could have been picked up on back door NSA searches of Page’s name]
  • After his meetings, Page wrote emails (which would eventually be turned over to the FBI) boasting of the his discussion with the Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich about “a desire to work together toward devising better solutions in response to the vast range of current international problems” [this email would have been voluntarily turned over to the FBI in the summer of 2017, if Page didn’t turn it over earlier during his five meetings with the FBI in March 2017]
  • After the election, Page would return to Moscow, meeting again briefly with Dvorkovich, who asked Page to put him in touch with the Transition team to discuss future cooperation, and who also floated an academic partnership with Page
  • While on that trip to Moscow, according to Konstantin Kilimnik, Page claimed he represented Trump “on a range of issues of mutual interest, including Ukraine”

That is, the FBI would obtain (in significant part through ongoing FISA collection) that Page continued to meet with senior Russians, discussing both policy changes that FBI suspected might be a response to receiving dirt on Clinton, and business deals that would benefit him personally.

All that raises questions about what the Steele allegations against Page were.

It’s possible the report on his meetings in Moscow were the end result of a game of telephone — a hazard of Steele’s remote HUMINT collection — translating the real Dvorkovich meeting into the alleged Diyevkin one. It’s possible it’s disinformation, an effort to use Page (whom Peskov had already determined wasn’t senior enough to merit Kremlin attention) as a way to taint Trump or confuse the FBI and a presumed future Hillary Clinton Administration; if that’s the case, then it may have been generated by someone with a knowledge of both the real operation itself and the contents of the SVR files explaining how you’d recruit Page if you wanted to do so, with business deals.

Or it’s possible there’s some there there: in both sections on Page, there are significant redactions of what must be Page’s grand jury testimony, and in the discussion of charging decisions, the Mueller Report suggests that Page would have been a willing recruit.

And while the Mueller Report never comments on the corroboration, or not, of any Steele claims, with regards to Page, the conclusion remains particularly non-committal.

The Office was unable to obtain additional evidence or testimony about who Page may have met or communicated with in Moscow; thus, Page’s activities in Russia–as described in his emails with the Campaign–were not fully explained.

In other words, Mueller never ruled out the dossier being correct.

The Steele dossier was clearly a part of the reason why FBI decided to open a full investigation into someone they had had counterintelligence concerns about going back 8 years and as recently as March 2016. But that was largely because the Steele allegations paralleled the reported events involving George Papadopoulos. And every source seemed to corroborate the allegations: the Trump campaign’s false denials of Page’s involvement in the campaign, Russian efforts to cultivate him using precisely the enticements the SVR identified back in 2013, and Page’s own instinct to oversell his access. All provided seeming corroboration of the dossier.

That said, there’s a problem with asking about the centrality of the Steele dossier on Mueller’s investigation of Page. That’s because Page was already aggressively investigated before Mueller took over. The only steps taken by Mueller that are recorded in the Report are interviews with the people who interacted with Page in his July 2016 trip to Moscow: Denis Klimentov on June 9, 2017, Shlomo Weber on July 28, 2017, and apparently one of Weber’s family members in June 2017. In addition, Page appeared before grand jury, though it’s not clear whether that happened in March or after Mueller’s appointment.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

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33 replies
  1. sand says:

    Thanks for the piece. I have not commented in a while. I appreciate the steadfastness in continuing to report the truth. I wish I knew better how to get it into the minds of more Americans?

    For example, there is a horrible John Solomon piece in The horrible Hill dated yesterday, arguing that Oleg Deripaska has stories that will create trouble for Mueller. That is ridiculous, but I wouldn’t even know who Oleg Deripaska was if not for emptywheel, so I’m not sure that the ridiculousness would have jumped out quite so much.

    I won’t link The Hill, but I will link to the Columbia Journalism Review (https://archives.cjr.org/feature/something_fishy.php), which has a lengthy and interesting piece on John Solomon. I had not realized that he held such a high position at the Center for Public Integrity at one time. I have been reading their work since 2000, and I was surprised that a person of such dubious integrity could reach a high position there.

    Many Americans will not be able to tell the difference between Marcy Wheeler and John Solomon, and that unfortunate situation limits the impact of journalism on the current situation. I would like to think that Congress could leverage the vast powers of the surveillance state to get to the truth, but they don’t quite seem up to it. I wrote to my Representative and both Senators this week anyway, asking them to provide additional oversight of our incompetent and corrupt Executive. I’m not holding my breathe, but Rayne inspires me to try.

    I also recall something from The Buying of the President 2000 that I think will be relevant in 2020. I’ll never forget the frustration expressed by Bill Bradley’s team over his inability to respond to lies about him. I felt bad for him. He seemed like a man of integrity that was completely unprepared for a presidential race. I roughly recall one scene where he is watching a primary opponent (probably Gore) take some broad liberties with the facts, and he is muttering something like, “They’re lying. They’re just lying. You can’t do that.” One of the senior campaign staff then says something like, “That’s when we knew that he just didn’t get it, and that the campaign was over.” (Quotes are really paraphrased from a vague memory. Sorry.) I did find another commentary that said that only Bradley’s stunning incompetence as a candidate stopped him from cramming the lies back down his opponents’ throats.

    So, my takeaway is that we’re going to need people with integrity that are capable of cramming lies down their opponents throats. I’ve seen a little bit of that so far this year. We’ll need more.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      John Solomon is such an ardent Russophile and Trump fanboy that he’s probably paid in rubles.

      • Peacerme says:

        The reason Dems will lose the election, the reason we can’t stop him from abusing children, is because he refuses to follow the law. This is a fact. He fights in an asymmetrical way. The only solution is to undermine the power he welds when he refuses to follow the law and no one stops him. This is the source of his power. What a crock as to who is electable. No one. The law is the only power over trump but someone must impose it. Truth is not required when your power comes from not following the rules and getting away with it. And the people who follow him respect this kind of power. They don’t care what the truth is. They care that he’s powerful enough to get away with it. That’s all that matters to those people who support him. That he will do what he wants. Gross.

    • Patient Observer says:

      I also read that typically awful Solomon piece and have been checking this site to see Marcy’s dissection of it.

      I will continue to be Patient.

  2. Rugger9 says:

    As noted before, Page’s investigation predated Mueller’s and focused differently. However, someone in Mueller’s shoes would not ignore information dropped in their lap about where to look, especially if it matched up with what was already found. In this way it is no different than for any other information source, one gets it, one checks it out, and one figures out what it means before charging after the next target.

    I think the key here that undermines Gym Jordan and the rest of the GOP’s attempts to muddy the waters is (IIRC) that the Steele dossier was not used in any of the court filings by Mueller’s team as triggering information for warrants, etc. and so cannot really be used to pull the legal rug out from under those searches or actions. Mueller was careful enough to avoid relying on the dossier. Unless the GOP can make the dossier the sole source of information for actions, then Mueller’s testimony on the 17th will destroy the Palace and maybe the GOP too. Good riddance.

  3. bmaz says:

    How about some committee poll’ss Chuck Ross and Solomon in the chair and swears them in. I’ll donate free time to cross-examine. And know a lot of attorneys with experience in cross examination that are far better than I am. I am willing though….

  4. Willis Warren says:

    I’m interested in the possibility that they wanted to throw off a future Clinton administration investigation. Had she beaten him, and he fucked off to Moscow to get his hotel, would she have bothered? or maybe they were worried about something bigger.

      • Willis Warren says:

        They = The Russkies

        “It’s possible it’s disinformation, an effort to use Page (whom Peskov had already determined wasn’t senior enough to merit Kremlin attention) as a way to taint Trump or confuse the FBI and a presumed future Hillary Clinton Administration”

  5. CD54 says:

    @ bmaz at 2:18 pm

    What you’re describing — isn’t that just what British interviewers do on TV every day?

  6. clairence says:

    It seems to me that the Russian hacking and interference extends far beyond the election, was not a one-off exercise, and continues to this day. The tenacity with which Republicans continue to support the Trump crime syndicate, and the odd reversals (Gowdy in this piece, Graham elsewhere) seem to suggest there’s a lot of kompromat being exercised.
    Is it possible Deutche Bank/Danske Bank/Alfa Bank were actively laundering money through the accounts of high profile Americans, perhaps without even their knowledge, and this has been revealed to them and is now being used as leverage for complicity?

    • P J Evans says:

      That assumes they (or their accountants) never ever check the statements for their various accounts.

    • Savage Librarian says:

      I was grateful that the university I attended required all freshmen to take a personal finance class. It provided me with a practical grounding that I had not learned before. It also gave me an unrealistic view of the “orderliness” of the world.

      In real life, I learned that I had many colleagues and friends who never bothered to balance their checkbooks or check their statements. They just took it for granted that the bank was correct. It never occurred to them that, even if the bank was right, other improper or grifty things could happen.

      Credit card statements are another example of things these colleagues never checked. They just sent payments when they were due. It seems to be an open invitation to identity theft. And, in fact, a friend who *does* check her statements was alarmed to find a $600 unauthorized charge one day.

      With amazon not providing paper statements in its deliveries, checking for accuracy has become a bit more challenging. Amazon saves overhead, but customers must step up to make sure items delivered match charges incurred.

      Long ago, a weird thing that happened to me one payday was that I received an extra $1500 in my direct delivery account at my bank. Obviously, the temptation was to keep it and not tell my employer. But it occurred to me it might be some kind of test. Because I was in the midst of a law suit against my employer, I was doubly incentivized to return the overpayment, which I did. I think I would have returned it anyway, but I know people who thought I should not have.

      So, while we are all stuck inside our bubbles where we find it difficult to suspend our disbelief, kompromat is a wily tool. It may sound improbable that government leaders can be duped through their financial institutions but it certainly is not impossible. And we know that cyber mercenaries are relentless and merciless.

  7. Tom says:

    I may be wrong, but I think that when the general public hears “Steele dossier” they think “pee tape.” As no pee tape has surfaced, the public assumes the entire Steele dossier is bogus and with it any other allegations against Trump & his team arising from Russian sabotage efforts in the 2016 election.

  8. Danno says:

    Dear Marcy et al

    I have made this point before but I’ll do so again so someone can properly explained it to me.

    What is it with Americans and the seasons in documenting time? While I admit that being from the Southern hemisphere means I spend a few milliseconds flipping them, but it’s just so damn inaccurate.

    You have two methods of calculating the seasons which means there can be a vague period of over three months implied in a “last summer” reference.

    So … if something happened somewhere in a three month block that coincides with a season, sure, use the term. But you seem to be pretty clear on the month, usually, if not a week either side of a date.

    If there is a really good use for such indecision, please enlighten me.

    Oh, I’m happy with nearly everything else.

    • Rayne says:

      You’ve already pointed to a likely cultural practice — ‘Americans and the seasons in documenting time’. We’re not changing something embedded in culture for your personal predilection.

      You’re also asking for greater specificity; if timing was that goddamn specific that it fell before/after the vernal equinox for example instead of a loose time range, we’d bloody well say ‘March 19’ or ‘March 20’.

      Take a breath and let it go.

      • Eureka says:

        Call it a nesting doll of irony, but all I can think about here is “Hitler in Springtime.”

        • orionATL says:

          creedo:

          “I was never crazy about Hitler…If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win…That’s what they do so well: they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.”— Mel Brooks, in an August 2001 interview[7]…”

          https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Producers_(1967_film)

          😀😁😂🤣😅😉☺😂

          • orionATL says:

            listen, teleprompter or no, i knew that speech cold. and more. if you’d a asked me, i could’a told you the latitude and longitude of the airport!

          • Eureka says:

            Lol, yes, orion & bmaz- this allusion is what I was referring to, though I said it back-asswards– probably because I did also have Hitler in springtime (of ’45) on my mind, for separate reasons, at the time.

  9. Frank Probst says:

    I think that anyone expecting Mueller to get into the weeds when it comes to Carter Page’s FISA applications is going to be disappointed. Mueller will probably restate the information that’s already in the report, and if he’s asked anything beyond that, he’ll only answer in a closed session. There’s also the likelihood that Barr will be selectively declassifying anything that makes it look like the applications relied solely on the dossier, as well as anything exculpatory with respect to Page, while keeping everything else classified. It wouldn’t surprise me if he does this right before Mueller testifies, just to put the Dems on the defensive.

  10. Mooser says:

    Naturally, the slanders and threats against Mueller made by Trump and surrogates will have no effect on Mr. Mueller’s testimony.

  11. mospeck says:

    Information warfare thing we are now clearly in is such a new and interesting phenomenon. And the US courts are so slow in adapting to it.
    Why we really need for the spooks and the NatSecs like Marcy :)
    Predictable characters like Chuck moron Ross and, paid to be moron, Solomon are doing their best. And these guys are so intimidating. I mean, yes, they can punch their way out of a paper bag.
    In sci it is always the originator/progenitor of an idea or experiment that in the end gets credited by history for the origins of the thing. Even if it’s v ugly (if you don’t believe this, then see Hubble’s Law and his godawful data set circa 1929 revealing the expansion of the universe).
    Steele dossier was original back about the thousand years ago when it came out. It was just hard to read his raw intel. Of course it was infested with Russian dezinformazia. How could it not? Right now Russian games players and GOP are going directly after it, trying to discredit the Steele, and playing for checkmate.
    2020 is shaping up to be something to see. Don’t expect Trump and the Russians to repeat in 20 what they did in 16.

  12. orionATL says:

    if i were inviting people to testify before congress i would invite peter strzok. I suppose he would be embargoed by barr, but forcing that would be a point scored – mentioning strzok encourages the public discussion of the so-far hidden counter-intelligence investigation of trump.

    given the remarkably suspect actions of carter page which emptywheel collects together here (while being more fair-minded about conclusions than i am), i’m surprised there has been no leaking of the specific activities or results of that investigation. attny gen barr must be working hard to deep-six this piece of counterintelligence work, not to mention this would be treated as a career-ending and probably criminal action.

    a notable fact about page, papadopoulis, and Manafort is how promptly the trump campaign dumped each them the moment their russian or ukrainian connections were publicly revealed (though Manafort was covertly retained). i say “notable” because trump was notable for ignoring such niceties, witness his caging of the press, his contemptuous smears of his opponent, and his unashamed lying. one could infer from this that trump was working hard to insure that his cooperative work with the russians remained secret (including trump’s public denials about the june 9 meeting in trump tower).

    • bmaz says:

      If Strzok is not willing to follow government instruction, not sure Barr could block him at this point.

      Hope Hicks was willing to throw in with the obstruction. We shall see if Strzok and Page are.

      • orionATL says:

        bmaz –

        thanks. i was assuming strzok was still an FBI employee.

        one way or another the counterintelligence investigation must receive some attention. it is not every day a president is deemed to warrant such an investigation.

        the rightwing media excuse-making about the “deep state” and, more recently, about all those whose actions cast suspicion on trump being fbi plants or operators needs to be knocked into a cocked hat.

        • bmaz says:

          No, Strzok is out. No clue what he will/would do, but he does not have to be as friendly to the Administration as Hicks was.

          That said, he was a CI specialist and may not say much in open, versus closed, session.

          • orionATL says:

            this is very helpful. i’d happily settle for a closed session and whatever strzok would agree to give up, not least because closed sessions will slowly become “open” as info that is really important leaks out.

            ohr and mccabe might fit in here to, to the betterment of their future defense, since trump has signalled he will sic barr on all three of them, plus comey, on spurious charges.

            a key goal would be to do in congress what ew is doing here, administer a forensic scalpling to the “big lie” being manufactured by some of trump’s more literate/legalistic defenders to the effect that page, papadoupolis, et al were merely victims of fbi trickery, rather than the lying, complicitous sons of bitches they actually were.

            “… predictably, the frothy right wants to know whether Robert Mueller investigated the Steele dossier as part of his investigation into the links between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s interference operation in the election, and if not why not…”

            as an aside these presumptuous bastards don’t get to set the agendas.

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