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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

Questions that combine Donald Trump and some form of unethical behavior continued to dominate the mailbag.

Q: If Donald Trump doesn't get brought up on federal charges until after he leaves office, how can he self-pardon? You can't pardon yourself for something you aren't yet charged with, can you? C.M.W., Myrtle Beach, SC

A: As we've written this week, self-pardoning probably doesn't fly under any circumstances. We won't know for sure, however, until the Supreme Court weighs in.

As to the other element of your question, it is possible to pardon someone without their having been charged with a crime. Most famously, Richard Nixon was granted a blanket pardon without ever being charged. Though note that such pardons only cover past offenses, and not ongoing or future ones.

Q: If this administration has done anything well, it's that it has exposed some serious flaws in the powers of the president. The pardon is one of those weak areas. You proposed the idea of the Senate confirming presidential pardons. It seems to me that would create one more political, partisan mess. What would be the pros/cons of limiting the number of people a president could pardon during his/her term, and/or limiting the pardon power to crimes currently charged or convicted? S.B., New Castle, DE

A: You're right; requiring Senate approval could create another messy quagmire.

Originally, the pardon power was particularly intended for use as a bargaining chip in the case of domestic insurrections. With Shays' Rebellion very fresh in their minds, and recognizing that the newly created federal government would be a very delicate thing for many years, the authors of the Constitution wanted to give the president a tool for resolving rebellions peacefully. It worked out pretty well; the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was brought to a swift end, in part, through the use of the pardon power. Since that time, of course, domestic insurrections of that sort have become rather uncommon. However, the pardon power has evolved into an instrument of mercy, and a means of correcting miscarriages of justice.

Limiting the number of pardons available would run contrary to both of these purposes, but in particular to the use of the pardon power for mercy/correcting injustices. If a Donald Trump (or even a Bill Clinton) has one pardon left, and has to choose between a close friend/associate and a wrongfully convicted federal inmate, who do you think gets the pardon?

As to limiting pardons to crimes charged/convicted, there is certainly some merit to that. It would hamstring the use of the pardon power for reining in insurrections (since insurrectionists aren't generally charged mid-rebellion), but since that doesn't seem to be much of an issue anymore, the loss is probably not too great.

Q: With Donald Trump trying to get Republican officials to overthrow the will of the people in their state and installing pro-Trump electors, isn't he committing treason (or conspiracy to commit treason) and asking these officials to do the same? K.R., Boston, MA

A: No. Treason requires the existence of a state of war, and involves giving aid to the enemy.

What Trump is doing is in the ballpark of fomenting insurrection, but he would never, ever be convicted on the basis of his actions to date. Encouraging politicians to push the Constitution to its limits is not quite the same thing as encouraging people to take up arms against the federal government.

Q: I just read your response to M.J.V. from Ramsey, in which you affirmed that Donald Trump can run for president in 2024 even as a convicted felon. In 2013, when Silvio Berlusconi was found guilty of a crime by an appellate court in Italy, part of the sentence prohibited him from holding any public office for two years. That sentence was subsequently declared valid by the Italian version of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Corte di Cassazione.

Would a similar clause that, say, prohibited Trump from running for office for 4 years, be legal under the U.S. legal system?
G.B., Buffalo, NY

A: No. The only body empowered to disqualify someone otherwise eligible from being elected president is Congress. Even if it's just a two- or four-year "time out," the courts can't do it.

The only other way Trump can be disqualified from running for president (beyond running into the term limits established by the 22nd Amendment), is if he renounces his citizenship (either as part of a plea deal, or as part of fleeing to another country).

Q: How do billionaires with private planes (or pretend billionaires, like Donald Trump) arrange for international travel in their own planes? The closest non-extradition treaty country is Andorra, which is within range of Trump's Boeing 757. How easily can Trump get out of the country without his passport, if a judge orders him to surrender it? S.B., Los Angeles, CA

A: While you usually have to show ID to leave the United States, you don't have to show a passport. So, he wouldn't have any difficulty leaving.

Where the passport matters is when he (or anyone else) arrives in a foreign country. Rich people on fancy jets have to go through customs like anyone else (although they are often given personal service in a private office, rather than being forced to go through the normal line). If a country agreed to grant asylum, they would presumably overlook the lack of passport, and would let Trump enter. Otherwise, he can hang out at the airport, or he can refuel and take his chances in some other non-extradition country.

Q: You quoted a Trump supporter saying, "If I'm being manipulated by Trump...then he is the greatest con man that ever lived in America." Do you think that's true? Is Trump the greatest con man that ever lived in America? I would guess he's at least in the top five. S.S., West Hollywood, CA

A: Well, the identity of the greatest con artist of all time is surely unknown, since he or she was so effective as to avoid detection. Beyond that, Trump is certainly way up there, along with Bernie Madoff, Charles Ponzi, P.T. Barnum, Frank Abagnale Jr., and Benny Hinn. It depends on precisely what sort of con rates most highly (or most lowly).

Q: This is a serious question (even if it sounds like a joke). What could possibly go into a Trump Presidential Library? He didn't allow notes to be taken. He has probably destroyed (or will destroy) a ton of documents that are, or might be, incriminating. Other than The Art of the Deal, really, what is there to actually put in the Trump "library"? They're not going to put the full, uncensored Mueller Report in it. This appears to be the most thoroughly undocumented presidency ever. K.F.W., El Dorado Hills, CA

A: It is true that Trump himself produces fairly little paperwork (and that he famously tears up much of the paperwork he does produce). However, he does produce some documents (including the tweets). Further, the library is a repository of all materials produced by an administration, including the work of Trump's many underlings, as well as the various incoming documents (like letters). And finally, the (former) president gets some voice in the design of the library but, since 1955, the actual materials are the property of the government and are curated by professional librarians. So, the Mueller Report will definitely be there, since Trump does not get a veto.

Q: How much federal money do ex-presidents get to build their library? L.B., Parish, NY

A: Zero. Not only are ex-presidents expected to raise all the funds themselves, they must also have an endowment in place that covers 20% of the library's operating expenses in perpetuity before NARA will agree to take over management of the library.

This may not forestall grift; Trump could pay himself $5 million a year as a chair of the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library Committee. However, the federal government will not be funding any of that grift.

Q: In your opinion, how much credit does Donald Trump deserve for the recent establishment of diplomatic relations between the two Arab countries and Israel? K.R., Berkeley, CA

A: Very little. The fact that, for example, Israel has had a secret embassy in Bahrain for a decade is pretty compelling evidence that the Abraham Accords merely recognized and formalized an existing state of affairs, as opposed to being some sort of fundamental change in direction.

Q: My question is about two items that ran on Tuesday which seem to be in conflict. On the one hand, Donald Trump is hurting Republicans by continuing to suck up all the oxygen in the room by refusing to accept the election results and threatening to carry his grievances all the way to 2024. On the other hand, Trump's base-only strategy failed, and Republicans have to do something about that. So, what could they do? Do they have to identify an issue to scare and anger more people (since that seems to be the only thing they're good at)? Or is it possible we're overestimating Trump's influence going forward and there's an opening for a more traditional conservative? A.R., Los Angeles, CA

A: We are sorry to say that we have no idea. What makes us feel a little better about our ignorance, however, is that the Republicans have no idea, either.

On one hand, Trumpism served the Republican Party well in 2020, in that they overperformed expectations up and down ballot, possibly holding the Senate, gaining seats in the House, and coming within shouting distance of holding the White House. Further, Trumpism gives the Party an organizing principle at a time when it doesn't seem to have too many other clear organizing principles.

On the other hand, the Republicans did lose the White House and they may still lose control of the Senate. Also, the politics of outrage retain their saliency for only so long, particularly when they are in response to a basically genial old white guy, as opposed to a Black guy who was perceived by some as elitist and snobbish. Even more problematic, the base that Trump was pandering to is shrinking, and he has yet to show any real ability to transfer their loyalty to anyone who is not him. He can ruin careers, but he can't make them.

If you asked the GOP pooh-bahs right now what their ideal 2024 candidate would look like, they would probably tell you that they would like a less unhinged version of Trump, someone like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The idea would be to keep Trump's base in the tent while also winning back some of the Never Trump Republicans. However, we doubt that kind of candidate can actually work out as planned. The very things that make Trump unhinged are, by and large, the things that make his base so fanatically loyal. A more restrained version of Trump might get some of the Never Trumpers back, but they are unlikely to get infrequent, socially isolated voters to the polls the way that Trump did.

Q: Before September 11, 2001, Muslims typically registered (80%) as Republicans. In stark contrast, by the 2016 election, 82% Muslim Americans voted for Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump. My question is: How did this group vote in the 2020 election? A.E., Oakland, CA

A: The Council on American-Islamic Relations did an exit poll, and reported that 69% of Muslim Americans voted for Joe Biden while 17 percent voted for Trump.

Q: In your judgment, did/does the application of statistical firepower such as that used by FiveThirtyEight for their analysis of things political add enough to be worth the effort? Your efforts at divining the meaning of polls and related matters this election cycle seems equal to or better than say that of 538 on a cost/gain basis. M.O., Arlington, VA

A: You raise a fair point; you can only bring so much precision to something that is subject to last-minute swings and other random fluctuations. On the day of the election, FiveThirtyEight gave Joe Biden an 89% chance of winning, and guessed the likeliest outcome was Biden 348 EVs, Trump 190. We don't do percentages, but we had Biden with 350 EVs (of which 273 were likely/strong) and Trump with 170 EVs (of which 126 were likely/strong), along with the 18 EVs in Ohio as a tie. From where we sit, FiveThirtyEight's numbers and ours were saying the same thing: Biden is a strong favorite to win, but his victory is not guaranteed.

If you want to talk in terms of results, FiveThirtyEight had 48 states and D.C. correct, in terms of awarding their electoral votes. The site was wrong about North Carolina and Florida. We had 47 states and D.C. correct. We were wrong about North Carolina and Florida, and we had Ohio as a tie. However, we also had verbiage that day that said we expected Ohio to go for Trump. So, FTE vs. EV is either a 48-48 tie, or it's a 48-47.5 win for them.

The one thing we don't particularly like is that, because of the use of percentages/odds, FiveThirtyEight has set itself up to always be "right." With Joe Biden winning, Nate Silver says "See? We had him at 89% to win." And if Donald Trump had won, Silver would have said (as he did in 2016) "See? We told you there was a chance." This seems a little intellectually dishonest, we think.

Q: Now that the election is over, are you ready to draw a conclusion on whether the large number of presidential candidates helped or hurt the Democrats, or whether it didn't matter? J.K., Seoul, South Korea

A: They certainly didn't hurt, since the Democrats won the White House, and there was no internecine struggle like the one in 2016.

It's possible that the long list of candidates helped, first by making sure Joe Biden was battle-tested, and second by persuading Democratic voters of all stripes that their views were given a fair forum. That said, we doubt this. As a four-decade senator, former VP, and three-time presidential candidate, Biden was already pretty battle-tested. And the Democratic unity we saw was probably not because all of those 80 million voters felt heard, but because all of those 80 million voters agreed that Donald Trump had to go, at all costs.

Q: Which state has the longest streak of voting for the losing presidential candidate? B.J., Boston, MA

A: In terms of the electoral vote winner, every single state has been on the winning candidate at least once in the last two cycles. So, the streak there is "one," held by all the states that went for Donald Trump this cycle. As to the popular vote, the answer is also not terribly exciting. Lots of states have gone Republican for each of the last four cycles. None of those states went for John Kerry in 2004. And so, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming are tied, having failed to support the popular vote winner four times in a row.

Q: Considering that it took about three weeks to resolve the Georgia presidential election results, won't it take about as long to resolve the Senate elections if they are at all close? What about mail-in votes; will they be counted in a hurry? Might we have to wait until after January 20 to know who will control the Senate? M.G., Los Altos, CA

A: Doubtful. Although Georgia will again wait until polls close to start counting absentee ballots, there will be fewer ballots this time, and they will have just two races on them to count, as opposed to 15-20. Note also that Georgia voluntarily did a (slow) manual recount before doing the machine recount the Trump campaign requested. There are not likely to be two recounts this time, and there may not be one.

Q: The Georgia Senate runoff elections are on Jan. 5. The electoral vote count presented to Congress is on Jan. 6. If there was to be a dispute with a slate of electors from a given state that needed to be resolved by both houses, would the winners in these elections be able to participate in the Senate vote? R.H.D., Webster, NY

A: Probably not. The results won't take until Jan. 20 to be known (see above), but they aren't going to be compiled and certified, with credentials issued, and the winner having time to travel to Washington, in 12 hours. Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) would surely put his foot on the gas pedal if those two senators were somehow the key to Trump being reelected, but the best he could do is maybe Jan. 7 or Jan. 8, and that's not going to be an issue this year, anyhow.

Q: When the rubber hits the road (or when the ballots hit the boxes, as the case may be), do you really think there's a chance that the two Georgia Senate seats go to different parties in the runoffs? S.K., Sunnyvale, CA

A: A small chance. It's improbable there will be substantial ticket splitting, with people voting for one Democrat and one Republican. However, sometimes people don't vote in races where they don't know the candidates or don't have an opinion. If the two races are both close, we can see a situation where Raphael Warnock gets 40,000 or so more votes than Jon Ossoff does, and that is enough to send Warnock to victory and Ossoff to defeat.

Q: You wrote that "an incumbent who won reelection this year promptly came out as non-gender-conforming." Who is this? H.B., Acton, MA

A: It was Joshua Query. However, while our original source (NBC) said the coming out happened after the election, others say it happened a bit before, or even months before. In any event, Query was not out when originally elected.

Q: In your rundown of potential Secretary of Agriculture candidates, I was a little surprised that Rep. Collin Peterson (DFL-MN) didn't make your list. He is a Democrat (although just barely), knows the players, the processes, and the policies as well as anyone, and he will be looking for a new job soon.

I know he lost his election, but if you look at the precinct level results in MN-07, he won in most of the Township precincts made up mostly of farm families. It was in the towns that he lost. Joe Biden could curry a lot of favor with farmers by having Peterson in the cabinet.
A.R.C., Moorhead, MN

A: Keep in mind that being qualified for the job is just the first step. Biden has strongly favored people he knows and has worked with in the past, and Peterson does not fit that particular bill. Further, while choosing Peterson might please some farmers, it would aggravate pro-choice Democrats (since he's outspokenly pro-life) and it would positively infuriate many Democrats who recall that he was one of the only Democratic representatives to vote against impeachment.

Q: Getting way, way ahead of ourselves, let's imagine a scenario in which Joe Biden has to step down as president for some reason sometime in the next 4 years. Who are the most likely candidates for vice president in a Harris administration? Would a white male be the favorite, under the assumption that America is not ready for an all-woman or all-person-of-color ticket in 2024? M.M., Newbury Park, CA

A: Barack Obama has conceded that he chose Joe Biden, in large part, to lessen the racist backlash against a Black presidential candidate. The last four years would seem to suggest that the country is still having some issues when it comes to racism, so we would have to guess the same consideration would be in effect for Harris.

Beyond that, she would want someone who is well respected, who wouldn't put any key resources (like a Senate seat) at risk, and whom she felt she could work with. How about...Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL)? They know each other, they are both former prosecutors, and he's "safe" to white people, while also admired by many Black voters. We also wouldn't be surprised by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), or John Kerry. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) would be a pretty good fit, too, if either he or Harris changes their state of residency (in anticipation of a 2024 Harris-Schiff ticket).

Q: I'm hoping you can explain a Senate rule that has always puzzled me. I've seen it exercised a number of times by leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. The way it works is there is a close vote on something the leader supports. As the voting period comes to an end, it is clear that the vote will fail. Then, at the last second, the leader changes his vote from "yes" to "no" in order to preserve his right to bring the issue back up for another vote. How does that work? What is the rationale for the Leader (and apparently only the Leader) to be able to bring up something he votes against for another vote but loses that right if he votes for it? L.S., Greensboro, NC

A: This isn't unique to the Senate, or to Congress, it's a longstanding element of normal parliamentary procedure. The general idea is that you don't want someone on the minority (a.k.a. "losing") side to keep bringing up an issue again and again and again. So, the only people who can ask for reconsideration of a motion are those who are on the majority (a.k.a. "winning") side, since they might legitimately have a change of heart. Since the Majority Leader controls the Senate's agenda, then he (whether Reid or McConnell) will sometimes deliberately switch to the majority side (usually the "no" side), so he can re-raise the motion later (in search of a different result).

Customarily, when a bill passes one of the two chambers of Congress, the presiding officer will immediately announce that "without objection, a motion to reconsider is laid on the table." If nobody objects (and they usually don't, since they just voted, after all), then the vote is final, and even those on the majority side no longer have the right to bring up the matter again.

Q: I've been watching the CNN series on First Ladies and have really enjoyed the different perspectives and experiences. When I watched the episode on Lady Bird Johnson, I noticed some of the historical clips and videos showed President Johnson speaking with a teleprompter in front of him. This got me wondering: When exactly did this technology begin and by whom was it developed? I also wanted to know if you can give us your thoughts on when someone used a teleprompter to deliver a great speech that has stood the test of time. M.D., San Tan Valley, AZ

A: The teleprompter was developed by...wait for it...the TelePrompTer Corporation in the early 1950s. Like "Escalator" or "Frisbee," the brand name TelePrompTer fell into the public domain, and is generally not capitalized anymore. The key figures in the development of the device were an actor (Fred Barton, Jr.), a scientist (Hubert Schlafly), and an investor (Irving Berlin Kahn). As the original purpose of the device was to free actors from having to memorize their lines, there was no need for transparency, because there was no audience view being blocked. So, the original TelePrompTers used rolling scrolls of paper. Pretty quickly, several folks noted the potential utility for public speakers, and by the mid-1950s, the current design (words reflected on transparent glass) had been developed.

As a general rule, teleprompters are used for indoor speeches, but not for outdoor speeches (because they don't work well in outdoor lighting). So, many of the great speeches since the 1950s (Reagan's "Tear down this wall," Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you," etc., were done the old-fashioned way, and you can clearly see that they were working from printed copies of their speeches held in their hands). The most lasting teleprompter speech we can think of is Barack Obama's keynote at the 2004 DNC.

Q: Several weeks ago was the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast of Ken Burns' "The Civil War." I enjoyed the series when it debuted and have watched it at least once since then. Burns has since created multiple other documentary miniseries that are worthy of praise.

The 30th anniversary of the series, combined with the Confederate monuments issue, inspired the "serious media" to invite evaluation and commentary on the series. There was quite a bit of criticism. First, that "The Civil War" focuses on the narrative of the war, in a military history way, rather than a more modern historical approach. Second, that it downplays the importance of slavery. Third, that it gives too much screen time to Shelby Foote, who also appears to downplay slavery and is thought to have been sympathetic with Lost Cause thinking.

Anyway, I'm curious what the resident historian thinks about the series.
E.M., Milwaukee, WI

A: If you want to read more on this subject, the historian Robert Brent Toplin edited a book titled Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond, in which prominent historians examined the documentary from various perspectives. As a general rule, they wrote that the film was good, but that it really could have used more X, where X is that particular historian's area of interest (women's history, race history, etc.).

(Z)'s opinion is that we must begin by considering the constraints Burns was operating under. The film is less than 10 hours, and while that seems like a lot, it's actually very little when it comes to telling a story so complex. He also has to tell a basically linear tale, with a fairly conventional plot structure, including climax and resolution at the end. Finally, the documentary has to be engaging, and also acceptable to viewers in all parts of the country.

Anyhow, given those constraints, Burns did very well. It's true that Shelby Foote is basically a spokesperson for the Lost Cause (an interpretation of the Civil War that plays down the less noble elements of the Confederate War effort, like slavery, and plays up the more admirable elements, like Robert E. Lee). However, Burns at least took care to balance Foote with Barbara Fields, who takes an emancipationist perspective (an interpretation of the Civil War that posits that the key story of the war was the ending of slavery, and the aftermath of that development).

And Burns himself, at least in his capacity as filmmaker, is neither a Lost Cause advocate nor an emancipationist. He's pretty squarely in what is known as the reconciliationist tradition, which frames the war as a great "trial by fire" that, while bloody and difficult in the short term, ultimately made the nation stronger and more unified. It is instructive that the final shot of the film is grizzled old (white) Confederate veterans and grizzled old (white) Union veterans shaking hands and putting their differences aside at the 75th reunion of Gettysburg in 1938.

Inasmuch as the film was going to air on PBS San Francisco and PBS Nashville, Burns could hardly have pushed anything more lefty than a reconciliationist vision of the war as his main thesis. And the film got a lot of people interested in history, and in the history of the Civil War, which is a good thing.

Q: I was surprised to read that the term Latinx was an invention of white activists. Do you know which white activists in particular invented it? M.M., Santa Cruz, CA

A: A few linguists and other folks have tried to figure out exactly who coined the term, and thus far have only figured out that it began to show up in academic literature (and in Google searches) in 2004. The source, beyond that, remains a mystery. However, because the articles (and other works) in which the term first showed up were written in English, and by white folks, it's pretty clear that the convention came from white people. Further supporting that conclusion is the fact that by de-gendering Spanish, Latinx is something of an offense against that language and that culture.

Q: In your reply to H.F. from Pittsburgh about the Tubman $20, you talked about the long design period. But hasn't most of that work already been done? As I recall, they were supposed to launch fairly early in the Trump administration. 2018 or perhaps a little earlier? Some vague or non-existent reason was given for delay, and they were quietly swept under the rug.

I'm also curious about the economic and social effects of those Tubmans. I can see a small but significant portion of the populace refusing to use or even accept them. I haven't lived in the States for over 20 years, but back then the $20 was the backbone of currency use, since that's what ATMs issued. Would resistance to the Tubman bill cause some sort of shift in currency use? I'd be interested in your thoughts on the matter (particularly Z's since he's still stateside).
D.L., Uslar, Germany

A: Part of the reason that it takes so long is that there are a lot of stakeholders who have approval rights, and if any one of them demands changes, then it's back to the starting line. Each time the folks working on the Franklin $100 got close to being done, a new presidential administration would take over, and a whole new set of concerns would have to be accommodated. Complicating things further is that the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing is required to make use of the latest anti-counterfeiting technology. All of these things being the case, the nearly finished Tubman $20 surely isn't "nearly finished" anymore.

(Z) is doubtful that anyone will refuse to use Tubman 20s when they become available, because that would be impractical. There are lots of people who really loathe Andrew Jackson, but we've never heard of refusal to to use Jackson 20s that was broad enough to affect a shift in currency use.

Q: Which 5 books had the greatest influence on U.S. history? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: (Z) has thought a fair bit about this, because he's thinking about writing a series of books; the 50 most important events in U.S. history, the 50 most important songs, the 50 most important films, the 50 most important people, the 50 most important books, and so forth.

Anyhow, here are his top five books, in reverse order:

  1. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson: It is not too much to say that Carson's book inspired the modern environmental movement.

  2. On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin: Beyond spurring a scientific renaissance at the very time that the U.S. was emerging as a world power, Darwin had an enormous influence on American reformers, particularly the progressives. Of course, he also inspired some less savory folks, like those who embraced eugenics and/or forced sterilization of the "unfit."

  3. Common Sense, by Thomas Paine: Technically a pamphlet, but we'll count it. The men who led the Revolution were intellectuals who made intellectual arguments for independence. Paine made those accessible to the general public, helping to win mass support for the cause.

  4. Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe: When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he greeted her as "the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." The Northern public may have included relatively few abolitionists (radicals who called for an immediate end to slavery), but don't ever doubt that moral opposition to the "peculiar institution" was still a major motivation behind the Union war effort.

  5. The Bible: The easiest choice on the list. Whether one is a believer or not, it is nearly impossible to find an important historical event or political struggle where the words of the Bible were not deployed as guidance, weapon, motivation, justification, or all of the above.

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