We are a senior Mueller reporter and former federal investigators who worked on some of the biggest cases since Watergate. Ask us anything.
Robert Mueller’s nearly two-year old investigation has finished, and President Donald Trump is celebrating a partial victory: no Russia collusion, but questions on obstruction. It’s a big moment, one which represents a significant mile-marker for the White House while adding more fuel onto the already heated congressional debate over whether to impeach the president.
While the special counsel’s work is done, the road ahead still remains unclear.
Let’s help break down where we are in a conversation with three investigators who worked under people who have been in Mueller’s shoes before: Ken Starr, Patrick Fitzgerald and Lawrence Walsh. Their experiences span three-plus decades of recent American history, giving them a unique perspective on what Mueller just completed.
More about us:
Darren Samuelsohn is a senior POLITICO reporter originally assigned to the “shenanigans” beat during the 2016 presidential campaign as Democrats scrambled to deal with the hackings later attributed to Russia. He’s been following the Mueller investigation from the beginning.
Julie Myers Wood was an Associate Independent Counsel who worked on both the Whitewater and Lewinsky investigations, and was one of writers of the Starr Report submitted to Congress. She has more than 24 years of experience in the public and private sector working on regulatory and enforcement issues from many perspectives, including as compliance consultant, defense counsel, government investigator, federal prosecutor, and Independent Monitor. She’s currently the CEO at Guidepost Solutions, a leading global investigations, compliance, and security firm.
Randall Samborn was the spokesman for the Special Counsel investigation of the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity and the resulting prosecution of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. He’s a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and Public Information Officer at the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois (Chicago; 1995-2015). Currently, he has his own communications consulting firm, Randall A. Samborn & Associates LLC.
John Q. Barrett was Associate Counsel in the Office of Iran-Contra Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh from 1988-1992. Barrett worked there on various criminal investigations, prosecutions, and legal matters, including cases against Oliver L. North, John M. Poindexter, Elliott Abrams, and Caspar W. Weinberger, as liaison to intelligence agencies on national security matters, and on Independent Counsel Walsh’s final report to the court that appointed him. From 1994-1995, Barrett was Counselor to Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich in the U.S. Department of Justice. Currently he’s a law professor at St. John’s University in New York City, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure, and Legal History.
Ask us anything.
Edit: Thanks for all the questions, everyone! We're hopping off now but we'll check back in later today to answer a few more, so feel free to keep dropping in any questions below.
Great question. If I knew the answer I would be rich. Seriously, though, we are now in a waiting period – one that I’d say will take months, not weeks -- while Attorney General William Barr and his aides go through the weeds of the report looking to remove classified and grand jury information that is not allowed to be made public. In his letter yesterday, Barr said he’d be consulting with Mueller to help find all that information “as quickly as possible.” He also said he needs to be cognizant of other “ongoing matters” like open investigations, so that will slow things down a bit, since he doesn’t want to release a report that undermines potential prosecutions. Barr reads the papers and knows there’s lots of clamor for this document. So he’ll be under pressure – especially from Democrats - to get something more out. – Darren
(Quick update on 3/27: A DOJ official said Tuesday [the day after this AMA] that Barr’s review would take “weeks not months” so that could mean around mid-April is when we go through this whole routine again without maybe as much of the anticipation.)
John here: I agree with Darren -- this will take a lot of consulting, including with intelligence agencies, so it will take at least weeks, I' think.
Julie here: I generally agree with Darren, but think that the pressure from Congress to receive the full report is going to be substantial and Congress is not going to want to wait weeks or months. One possibility is that DOJ could file a request with the Court to have all (or some) of the Grand Jury information in Mueller's report made available to the Congress so that the full report could be sent to Congress for their consideration. This is what happened for the Starr report. If the full report is sent to the Hill, Congress could release (or leak) the report very quickly.
What do you think the odds are the full report actually becomes public without having everything meaningful redacted?
John here: Much of the evidentiary material is likely to be redacted, either because it's grand jury information or classified or both. That makes it extra-important for Congress to proceed with interviews and public testimony--Congress can't get, at least not easily, transcripts of what people testified to in grand juries, but it can call those same people as its witness and cover the ground in its proceedings. And if/when classified questions come up in Cong. hearings, such public events will create pressure on the President to declassify what is needed to answer the questions. Plus, of course, the President right now can waive all privileges and, if national security permits, declassify info. that might be classified in Mueller's report.
Are you satisfied with barr's summary? Or do you think it's suspect and that the full report needs to be released?
John here: Middle ground. I don't think one can really assess Barr's summary without seeing Mueller's report. But I don't think there is a basis to suspect to "suspect" Barr or Mueller of anything nefarious--they are people of integrity.
I basically agree with John, although I believe it's critical to see Mueller's report. I also think that Barr should be more transparent about why he decided to provide his and other's assessment of the obstruction evidence and what his reasons were for doing so. It's not clear that Mueller invited Barr's evaluation of the evidence or if he intended for Congress to grapple with the issue. Absent greater explanation from Barr, critics could claim that the President found a loyal protector to be his Attorney General, undermining confidence in the process.
– Randall Samborn
As an average Joe reading about this and seeing endless news coverage about Trump, it seems so obvious that there was collusion and at least obstruction of justice, but there's also things like bias and spin that get introduced before I even see/hear about anything that gets reported. Since you have such close experience with the information before it hits all forms of media and gets spun in a million directions, are there major public misconceptions you think we should be aware of?
EDIT: Thanks for the response! Also thanks to me for disabling inbox replies.
Randall here: I think there is a common misconception that Mueller was tasked with providing information and answers that go beyond the realm of a criminal investigation, which is not the vehicle for resolving purely political issues. The political fractures that exist online and on cable TV, unfortunately, constructed a red and blue divide over the course of the investigation during the last two years, making it difficult to set realistic expectations over the limited purpose of a criminal inquiry. The media gloss is further complicated when a Special Counsel appropriately follows the rules and remains mute outside of court and legal documents.
Are you surprised?
Yes, on two points. I did not expect that Mueller would punt the question of obstruction to Congress, although I understand it makes sense if we assume that he was never going to make a decision to indict the President. I think Attorney General Barr inserted a plot twist yesterday by superimposing his own judgment about obstruction in the absence of any Special Counsel regulation or authority calling for him to make that judgment.
– Randall Samborn
John here: With regard to Mueller’s bottom lines, not really. It makes sense that Mueller, who is an underling, not the boss of DOJ, would make the prosecution declination decision when he found insufficient evidence that Trump or any other U.S. person conspired with Russia to affect the '16 election--declinations are what underling prosecutors do. It also makes sense that on the other question--did the President endeavor to obstruct justice?--where the evidence & legal questions were closer & complicated, Mueller sent it all upstairs to his bosses Barr & Rosenstein for them to decide.
Julie here - I am a little surprised that Mueller did not make a decision regarding a prosecution or declination decision regarding the potential obstruction of justice, given that Mueller was likely in the best position to know the underlying facts and the relevant regulations relating to the Special Counsel, 28 CFR 600.8, provide that the closing report should “explain the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel.” Mueller, of course, could have determined that such a decision with respect to the President was inappropriate given the guidance on whether a President could be indicted, but Barr’s summary does not make this clear.
To what extent does the fact that Trump was not interviewed by Mueller/his team impact the credibility of the investigation, particularly the obstruction of justice conclusions?
Julie here: Given what we know now, it is hard to consider the obstruction investigation complete without Trump’s testimony. However, Trump’s written answers, combined with his considerable public statements, may be compelling and provide context for why these aggressive prosecutors did not push harder to interview Trump.
Randall here: I agree but also think that Mueller simply made a strategic decision at some point not to subpoena the President and engage in a year or more of litigation that not only would have delayed completing his mission, but would risk an adverse ruling in the Supreme Court with consequences lasting well beyond the Trump presidency.
What is the point of an independent special counsel if the decision whether to prosecute is made by the attorney general? Isn't the entire point of a special counsel to avoid the specter of a politically motivated cover up by the president and his cronies?
Randall here: Unfortunately, and at least for now, I think the Attorney General's insertion of his judgment that there was no obstruction of justice does, in fact, undermine the Special Counsel apparatus. It is critical that politics not cross the threshold of DOJ, and the Special Counsel regulations exist to ensure that politics are not infused into investigations and prosecutions that affect the Executive Branch and have political overtones and repercussions. Unless or until Barr explains why he took it upon himself to declare no obstruction, public confidence in an independent process could be legitimately questioned.
John here: Mueller is not an "independent" special counsel--he is a special counsel within the Department of Justice, appointed by the Attorney General (in this case, DAG Rosenstein in 2017 as Acting AG) and subject to his supervision, and to supervision by not-recused AG Barr's following his appointment. Yes, they all work for the President, and that relationship creates the appearance of possible conflict of interest when a SC/AG decides that the president is not a criminal. The U.S. Congress chose to accept this risk in 1999, when it permitted the Independent Counsel law, which provided for court-appointed prosecutors (such as my former boss Lawrence Walsh, & Julie's former boss Ken Starr), to expire. In taking that risk, Congress was avoiding the risk that a court-appointed IC would turn out to be in fact a less-sound decisionmaker than would an AG, whatever his or her possible conflicts of interest. These are political process, policy decisions about how best, under the Constitution, to structure federal prosecution responsibility. Even assuming everyone's honesty and talent, no approach will be perfect or satisfying to all in every situation.
Just this morning, it was announced that the Supreme Court would not review a lower-court order requiring an unnamed foreign-owned corporation to comply with a subpoena that is part of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. - Washington Post
That being said, can we really consider the Mueller probe to be complete? Do you think Barr called an early end to the investigation, or did Mueller pass evidence outside of his scope to other prosecutors?
Thank you for your time and for answering our questions!
Hey PresidentBowser! You running in 2020? If so, POLITICO might want to hear about your campaign platform.
Seriously, though, to your question about the Mueller probe being complete, I'll give you a technical answer and then a layman one. Technically, Mueller is done. His office turned in its final report and it's downsizing staff and before too long even Mueller himself will be back in retirement (or some other job we don't know about yet).
As for the active cases, yeah, that SCOTUS decision today deals with something close to my heart, as we at POLITICO got the scoop that this was even related to Mueller. I do think Mueller -- likely handing the case off to U.S. attorneys from the D.C. office -- will press on seeking this information via subpoena of the foreign-owned company.
And there are other Mueller-related cases that will live on too, including the Roger Stone trial set to begin Nov. 5 in DC. I've been asking my sources what happens if Stone did shift from pleading not guilty to guilty and became a government cooperator. That's a big hypothetical, but I'd presume anything he offers in such a situation would end up in DOJ/FBI hands. - Darren
What's your take on Trump's subdued twitter usage since Friday?
For once, it looks like the president listened to his lawyers. All along, they have been trying to temper his instincts to tweet often and tweet loud, knowing his social media posts could become part of the case against him. (See this story I did back in June 2017 quoting Randall's former independent counsel colleague Peter Zeidenberg saying the tweets would be a "gold mine" for investigators).
I interviewed Rudy Giuliani on Thursday night where he said he was trying to lay low in anticipation of the report coming out. He said they anticipated it would be good news, and it seems they may have prevailed upon Trump to not step on it with off-message tweets. It probably helped that he was flying down to South Florida for a Mar-a-Lago weekend full of golfing and family time -- distractions that kept POTUS away from his phone. -- Darren
Could this really go on for years before it is ever made public?
Randall here: Certainly, if Congress and the Administration engage in a court battle involving executive privilege to gain access to the full report, we might have litigation that could go on for a good year or longer.
Can you explain the paradox in the letter that says that the report neither incriminates Trump nor exonerates him for obstruction? That bit confuses me.
Randall here: My take is that Mueller has laid out evidence on both sides of the ledger – some of which played out in public –that he believes both incriminates and exonerates the President regarding whether or not he engaged in obstruction of justice, which rests in large part on the President’s subjective intent. Because Mueller apparently felt bound by DOJ policy against indicting a sitting President, rather than make his own determination, he is passing along the information he gathered for others to decide. The Attorney General has done that and now Congress will also have its turn.
John here: Barr's letter quotes Mueller as saying that his report "does not exonerate" the President. It does not say that nothing incriminates him--i.e., that there is no evidence suggesting that the President committed any crime.
Why do you think that Mueller did not interview Jared Kushner or Don Jr.?
Mueller did interview Jared Kushner at least twice that we know of including in its pursuit of Michael Flynn back in late 2017 and again in the early part of 2018. Here's a CNN interview with Kushner's lawyer, Abbe Lowell (who worked for House Democrats defending Bill Clinton on impeachment), explaining what his client talked about.
As for Don Jr., it's unclear whether Mueller interviewed the president's oldest son. We know there have been subpoenas and requests to talk with Trump Org. officials - from federal prosecutors in New York.
One more thing: I think it's safe to say a certain someone at 1600 Penn Ave would have blown a gasket if Don Jr. had been called to testify. There have been a good many gasket explosions from the White House over the last two years, so, let the speculation live on about why said explosions happened.
Will Trump now have a reason to come out and pardon all those found guilty by the Courts from the Mueller investigation? Aside from Cohen probably.
How is this going to affect Roger Stones legal proceedings? Will they be dropped/ discredited?
Hey Leather_Boots, that's potentially one of the biggest questions ahead for Trump and whether he indeed will begin pardoning/commuting sentences for all the people pulled into the Mueller probe.
First, let me share with you a quote from Rudy Giuliani, who I interviewed yesterday morning (before the Barr summary came out) and posed this exact question. His reply is great: "No, God forbid, no. No. No... If we haven’t thought about pardons and commutations up until now and fought off all the questions about it, no, there’s not going to be any thought about that.”
I think you are right that Michael Cohen is not going to get hooked up with a pardon, nor do I think he'd accept one if he got it (which would be kind of weird, if you think about it, given he's about to go to jail for three years).
But anyway, this really applies to Paul Manafort, who is not going to be a free man until the end of 2024 by my calculation unless the president tosses him a lifeline. No doubt, a pardon or commutation would set off all manner of political problems, and maybe some legal ones too if you consider that Manafort agreed to cooperate with Mueller's prosecutors but then got caught lying to them.
So, I can envision a Manafort reprieve stirring things up quite a bit and perhaps even becoming an article of impeachment against Trump. Fun times ahead for all involved. - Darren
Why do you think Mueller left it up to the AG as to whether or not any further indictments we're made?
Julie here: A repeated criticism of other Special Counsels and Independent Counsels is that they dragged on too long and wandered into unrelated areas. By closing the report and handing many significant investigations off to other prosecutors, Mueller signaled that he answered the two core questions he was asked, and appropriately referred side prosecutions elsewhere.
Now that the general conclusions of the Mueller report have been released, how do you feel the course of Russiagate has compared to Watergate in terms of scope, impact, and its indelible impact on defining the respective presidency? What other burning questions do you have about Trump's presidency that Mueller didn't investigate that you wish he did, given that it appears Mueller's investigation seemed fairly limited in scope?
John here: As a criminal and a government oversight investigation, this isn't Watergate yet. There, in 1973, the Senate's Ervin Committee was very actively investigating, including by taking lots of private testimony and then by holding extensive, continuing public hearings, and that was producing many serious allegations of presidential and senior White House official criminality. Soon it produced information on the existence of White House tapes, and that led to the Special Prosecutor issuing subpoenas and, in Oct. 1973, winning litigation to get some of the tapes. Here, the House is not yet doing that kind of investigation, at least not visibly. It's also not clear that that there is that kind of evidence, from insiders, pertaining directly to the President being a criminal. Of course seeing Mueller's report on evidence of the President's possible obstructions of justice could add a lot to the current public picture.
What was the biggest challenge your team has had to face in the last few months in related to this investigation?
Howdy Lt. Toodles!
Sleep. Eating healthy. Getting exercise.
Thank god for my wife & cats, too, who played a big role keeping me sane.
Seriously, though, this has been a journey like no other covering this over the last two-plus years. Actually, for me personally, it started around the summer of 2016 when one of my editors assigned me to what we called at the time the "shenanigans" beat cause we didn't really know what it was that was happening -- we just knew something weird was happening.
There were lots of difficult aspects to covering this whole thing, starting with the sheer cloak and dagger aspect of something that isn't really supposed to be taking place in public. I've had a lot of beats over the years, but not in the national security/intelligence/law enforcement world before 2016, so that was a challenge. Also just keeping tabs on everything that has happened -- and trying to stay on top of it all in a news environment that is very different than the one I got started in back in the 1990s (clunky computers, beepers, pay phones).
At Politico, we aren't anywhere near as big as the other giant media outlets like NYT and WaPo and AP and all the networks. So, we really tried to pick our punches and right elevated stories that helped connect the dots.
Speaking of dots, one more thing I'd tout that helped me keep everything in order was this award-winning graphic we constructed at the start of 2018 that put all the different people pulled into the Russia saga into one graphic. Enjoy! -- Darren
Since the report found no illegal activities or collusion will there still be a pursuit by Democrats to investigate obstruction?
Will making the report public, in it's entirety, change anything?
Julie here: Absolutely, there will still be a pursuit by the Democrats to investigate obstruction. Mueller appropriately focused on whether criminal cases can be made. Members of Congress, particularly the relevant oversight committees, believe that they have independent obligations to review the facts. They will be looking at information to support criminal cases as well as political attacks (and potentially reputational smears). Although members of Congress and others are salivating to get the full Mueller report now, my view is that the full report will not be satisfying. They will still want more.
Randall here: I think it's extremely unlikely that any further investigation of obstruction will yield any evidence that adds or subtracts from Mueller's two-sided ledger. It's reasonable to assume that he conducted a thorough investigation and gathered all the evidence that exists and either incriminates or exonerates the President. What is left for the Democrats and the entire Congress is to assess that evidence and decide if there is a political course, where there was not a criminal justice path. Making the report public will allow the public to decide in 2020 whether the Attorney General and Congress acted appropriately on Mueller's findings.
How was Richard Nixon like in person? I always heard he was a paranoid guy.
John here: To my regret, I never got to meet him. In the vast library of Nixon studies, including on Watergate, I recommend Nixon White House counsel and then Watergate criminal and whistle blower John Dean's The Nixon Defense. I mean that sincerely--it is a very fact based, careful assessment.
I don't know if it's accurate, but how do you become an investigator? What is qualification required and how do you apply for investigating agencies?
John here: I went to work for the U.S. government as a lawyer/investigator following law school, and after clerking for a federal judge. I was hired into DOJ through the AG's Honors Program. I then was hired by Independent Counsel Walsh and worked for him on aspects of Iran-Contra. The starting point is, I guess, interest in public service generally and law enforcement specifically. I found in seven years of work for Walsh and in Main Justice, and in my dealings with people since then, that federal law enforcement, and I'm sure state government law enforcement too, is filled with smart, honest, hard-working, and non-political people. I think that puts the U.S. way ahead of many other countries.
I want to ask Mr. Barrett about your views on AG Barr's credibility in light of his role in the pardons after the Iran-Contra Affair. What was the mood of Lawrence Walsh's team after President Bush issued those pardons? To what extent do you feel like Barr played a significant role in those pardons and to what extent did you find his motivations nefarious? Finally, to what extent should we the general public be willing to trust Barr's summary of principle conclusions of the Mueller Report?
John here: Barr has explained, in an oral history interview that he gave after his first stint as AG, that he was very involved in advising President Bush 41 to issue Iran-Contra pardons on 12/24/1992. As we (Walsh's office) were two weeks from starting a trial (Weinberger) and had another one (Clarridge) coming in a few months, it was disappointing. Neither Barr nor the White House consulted with Walsh's office about possible pardons, so they thought what they thought on their own. I think that they proceeded from misimpressions and it was not good decision making. But it was, assuming nothing corrupt, within the President's constitutional powers--IC Walsh criticized the pardons but did not contest their legality. Re trusting AG Barr now, I have no reason to doubt his integrity. But we can't assess the caliber of his summary of Mueller's report or the soundness of his (Barr's) decision that the evidence that President Trump obstructed justice is insufficient without seeing Mueller's report.
What do you make of the argument that the finding there was no "underlying crime" is relevant to the state of mind for obstruction? Does that hold in this case, where the "underlying crime" is exceptionally vague, and where actors may be motivated politically at least as much as by the search for truth? That is to say, could Donald Trump have been confident enough that he did nothing wrong for this assumption to hold?
Randall here: I think the argument is specious. A prosecutor is like an umpire calling balls and strikes and when sand is thrown in his face, it makes it more difficult to determine what other crimes might or might not have been committed. As a result, there might be obstruction without being able to determine an underlying crime. Attorney General Barr conceded in his letter that finding an underlying crime is not necessarily determinative. Certainly, there have been and will be appropriate prosecutions for obstruction where the only crime is interfering with a grand jury or agency proceeding.
What is your opinion on the various experts who think the only reason why Mueller didn't make a final conclusion on obstruction is because of the DOJ precedent to not indict a sitting president?
Julie here: It is hard for us to know whether the DOJ precedent factored into Mueller’s reasoning not to make a final conclusion on obstruction, particularly since the relevant regulations specifically ask the Special Counsel to explain prosecution and declination decisions in a final report. However, the Mueller team was very aggressive during its tenure, and I would expect that they had a solid reason for their reporting decisions. It is important to note that in the Starr investigation, we were operating under different regulations as an Independent Counsel and some provisions did not relate to indictment, but to potential impeachment. Under the relevant section of law (595c), during the Starr investigation, we were required to advise the House of Representatives of “any substantial and credible information” that may constitute grounds for an impeachment. We were not reporting to the Attorney General, and thus could not refer the evidence back to DOJ for its decision.
John here: They might well be right. Of course it would help everyone's analysis to read Mueller's analysis.
Do you think the Democrats will be weighed down by this? Or will they be able to distance themselves from the Russia accusations, since they weren't as much of a driving force for those specifically?
I really don't think the Democrats will be worried about this. The Democrats believe the first two years of Trump's administration were largely oversight MIA, and they are showing no signs of being satisfied just with seeing Bill Barr's version of Robert Mueller's work. Just look at the Pelosi-Schumer joint statement where they basically take down the AG saying he is "not a neutral observer and is not in a position to make objective determinations about the report." So don't expect the Democrats to back down from investigating Russia and Trump. After all, one other big thing to keep in mind is Mueller wasn't charged with investigating with the purposes of looking for impeachable offenses. That's on Democrats and Congress at large to investigate.
If you are asking this question in a pure political context, I think Democrats will try to keep their focus on bread and butter issues like the economy and health care headed toward 2020 but they also see good messaging for their base in going after Trump on all manner of corruption topics. If this drip, drip, drips for the next two years I don't think Democrats would mind. - Darren
Was there any way Robert Mueller could have, or even should have submitted his findings to insulate them from the narrative attorney general Barr seems to be ascribing? To be blunt, the job Mueller had was to present the findings but not to define them (ex. So and so had a meeting with Russian agent 1 vs So and so colluded with Russia via agent 1) and this seems to be a slow pitch PR opportunity for the Trump administration. Was Mueller playing this by-the-book with indifference to possible the optics grab or was there simply no other way to narrate the findings?
Julie here: Mueller appears to have appropriately submitted a final report to the Attorney General as required by the relevant regulations governing the Special Counsel. Under the regulations, the Attorney General makes the decision what to release based on the public interest. There was really no way for Mueller to game this under the relevant regs.
Yes, 1.with Mueller having handed off many things to different states and people, does this mean that the probe never ended in the first place? 2. What will the Felix Sater testimony do this week to change things? 3. Could Trump and his family have indictments slapped on them from the many other investigations still going on? 4. should the Mueller report be public?
Hey ExoticWear! We got question No. 3 in your list a bunch this weekend, so I'll take a stab at it here. Short answer, sure, it's possible Trump and his family could still face indictments down the line from the other investigations.
We know SDNY is looking into the Trump campaign finance spending out of the Michael Cohen case, as well as the inauguration committee. I'll point you to a story I wrote back in February (feels like years ago) quoting some former SDNY types saying they wouldn't rule out indictments against the president, especially given he is "Individual 1" in the Cohen case.
And while I'm touting all of my work from the last two years, here's a story I wrote that I think still very much applies that Trump's 2020 reelection won't just be about him winning a second term, it also could be a trigger point for him to face indictments he can't otherwise face while he's in office.
Lastly, don't forget as well the NY AG is also looking into the president's business enterprise. - Darren
When will the Mueller report be made public?
Edit: Thank you for your replies. For a project of such public significance, it’s understandable that people expect more than a 4 page summary provided by a newly-arrived political appointee.
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