Watergate occurred 50 years up to now. Its legacies are nonetheless with us.


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Trust in authorities was shattered and definitely not recovered. Efforts at reform had been worthwhile and unsuccessful. Both political events had been affected, as was the observe of journalism. And then there was Trump.

June 12, 2022 at 12:00 a.m. EDT

(Rebecca Hendin for the Washington Post)

On Friday, America will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The scandal that riveted the nation and compelled the resignation of a president is taught in faculties as a darkish chapter in historic earlier. It is bigger than that, nonetheless. Its legacies have common the conduct of politics and public attitudes within the path of authorities ever since.

Watergate, alongside with the Vietnam War, marked a dividing line between outdated and new, ushering in a modified panorama for politics and public life — from a interval by the use of which Americans trusted their authorities to a interval by the use of which that notion was damaged and definitely not really restored. “It’s a hugely important historic moment,” talked about Julian Zelizer, a historian and professor at Princeton University. “And we entered a new era when it was over.”

Though not a straight line by any means, the hyperlinks between former president Richard M. Nixon and former president Donald Trump are moreover clearly identifiable, from their ruthlessness to the win-at-any-cost calculus of their politics. That their presidencies carried out out in another case — Nixon resigned amid impeachment proceedings; Trump served his full time interval and can search one completely different irrespective of twice being impeached, though not convicted — is testomony to a further deeply polarized residents, the erosion all through the vitality of democratic establishments and the transformation and radicalization of the Republican Party.

The aftermath of the Watergate scandal opened up the operations of Congress nonetheless in addition to contributed to creating the legislative physique quite a bit a lot much less manageable. The scandal helped change the most effective methods reporters and authorities officers interacted with each other. A further adversarial relationship has existed ever since. The interval spawned reforms that labored and a few that didn’t, from promoting advertising and marketing marketing campaign finance to intelligence.

Politically, each vital events had been affected. A seemingly damaged Republican Party reconstituted itself with a further anti-government ideology. Democrats, led by the massive class of 1974, slowly started a change away from the lunch-pail coalition of White working-class voters and within the path of a further fairly a couple of coalition that now consists of terribly educated coastal elites.

Not every issue that has occurred since Watergate is instantly attributable to the scandal itself. Some modifications in society and politics had been already starting to be felt before burglars had been arrested early on the morning of June 17, 1972, after breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters on the Watergate setting up. But subsequent investigations; the indictments and convictions of Nixon administration officers; the impeachment articles handed all through the House Judiciary Committee; and Nixon’s resignation blended into an occasion that shattered the vainness and idealism of earlier a couple of years.

Garrett M. Graff, creator of the e book “Watergate: A New History,” describes Watergate as a dividing line in historic earlier — the occasion that moved Washington from a sleepy capital dominated by segregationists, veterans of World War I and print newspaper deadlines to a capital dominated by a mannequin new breed of politicians, a further adversarial media now all through the digital age and a rustic deeply skeptical of presidency and politicians.

“The Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate … fundamentally rewrote the relationship between the American people and their government,” Graff talked about, “and caused a collapse in the public’s faith in those institutions that our nation’s leaders are still struggling with today.”

As William Galston of the Brookings Institution put it, “We have been living for nearly half a century in the world that Watergate made.”

The shattering of notion in authorities

The Pew Research Center has a graphic on its net web page that charts the decline of notion between residents and authorities. It is a vivid illustration of the world that Watergate helped to make.

The graphic begins in 1958, close to the tip of the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, when 73 p.c of Americans — majorities of each Democrats and Republicans — talked about they trusted the federal authorities to do what’s true “just about always” or “most of the time.” In the autumn of 1964, regardless of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy a yr earlier, which some folks see on account of the second when the idealism of the interval was damaged, notion peaks at 77 p.c.

By 1968 and the tip of the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, with Americans violently divided over Vietnam and shaken by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the freeway on the chart heads downward, nonetheless nonetheless with a majority expressing notion. From there, it begins to fall farther. By late 1974, after Nixon left workplace, merely 36 p.c of Americans say they notion their authorities.

“The trust has never really rebounded to the pre-Watergate levels,” talked about Joycelyn Kiley, Pew’s affiliate director of research.

The decline in notion affected almost each establishment over time. “One way of thinking about it is that Americans ceased to trust the men in suits — whether those men in suits were lawyers, university professors, the press and especially, especially, the government,” talked about Bruce Schulman, a professor of historic earlier at Boston University.

Kiley talked about further than merely the Watergate scandal has induced all this. But her diploma concerning the dearth of a rebound was underscored by Pew’s newest measurement, launched closing week, which discovered that presently, merely 20 p.c of Americans say they notion their authorities to do the right concern all or more often than not. At the same time, Americans see a continued carry out for presidency and say that authorities is just not doing sufficient for quite a lot of teams of individuals.

One irony of the decline on the time of Watergate is that democracy had labored, from the actions of presidency establishments to most individuals’s response. “It’s really important to understand that the process that took down Nixon was driven by an extraordinary level of civic engagement,” talked about Rick Perlstein, a historian who has written quite a lot of volumes concerning the historic earlier of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies. “The response was not this kind of nihilistic response we would see now.”

But whereas the establishments labored, the revelations concerning the vastness of the Watergate conspiracy painted an disagreeable portrait of the use and abuse of vitality all by Nixon’s presidency. “The courts, the Senate, the Congress, the House Judiciary Committee, the press. Everything worked the way it’s supposed to. But people ended up with a very bad taste in their mouth,” talked about Jim Blanchard, who was elected to the House in 1974 as a Democrat from Michigan and later served as governor.

Coupled with the governmental mendacity about Vietnam, uncovered most vividly with the publication of the Pentagon Papers first by the New York Times and later by The Washington Post, authorities was beneath assault from each the left and the right, although for diverse causes.

“It’s amazing how fast we shifted from the post-World War II trust mode, which lasted for about 20 years, into the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate mistrust mode,” Galston talked about. “Once we lost that trust, we never regained it.”

The ‘Watergate babies’ come to Washington

Three months after Nixon resigned and two months after he was pardoned by President Gerald Ford, the 1974 midterm elections dealt a seemingly devastating blow to the Republican Party. The election produced a limiteless new class of lawmakers, bigger than 90 in all, alongside with 76 Democrats all through the House who grew to develop into normally referred to because the Watergate infants.

These Democrats had been fairly a couple of of their ideologies — some moderates and conservatives nonetheless many liberals. They shared a ardour for reform. (*50*) talked about Tom Downey, who was elected to the House as a Democrat from New York at age 25. “We wanted this to be a more accountable institution.”

Leon Panetta, who had come to Capitol Hill in 1966 as a staffer and was elected as a Democrat to the House in 1976 representing California, talked about, “You really had a sense that you had been empowered by the American people to straighten out Washington and to implement reforms and to really do things different in a way that would hopefully restore trust.”

“There were so many new members that the old guys couldn’t come and encircle them and try to convince them that they should be quiet for the first 10 years and stay out the way,” talked about former congresswoman Pat Schroeder, a Democrat from Colorado who was elected in 1972.

The new class helped oust three extraordinarily environment friendly committee chairmen, one issue unprecedented on the time. Other reforms redistributed vitality all through the House. “We had opportunities that no new members had historically — to speak, to negotiate, to assert our power,” talked about Phil Sharp, elected to the House as a Democrat from Indiana in 1974. He added, “It really meant we had more influence in the subcommittee, we had more influence on the House floor, we had more influence in the conference committees.”

The closing outcome was a further open and clear House, nonetheless in addition to a further cumbersome legislative physique. Today, each member of Congress is an impartial actor with entry to the media and lots of to massive cash and, if motivated to take movement, the power to frustrate administration. That is an offshoot of what began all through the Seventies.

“I believe that over time, it reduced the ability to get to a decision, which I would argue is one of the compelling issues in government today,” Sharp talked about. “Ultimately, democracy must prove not that it’s open, it has to prove that … it can actually make a decision on something of significance.”

“For a legislator and particularly for a leader, your goal is to pass legislation,” talked about John A. Lawrence, creator of the e book, “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship” and a former chief of employees to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “And it becomes harder when you honor transparency over effectiveness.”

Then-House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), amongst others, had apprehensive about an excessive amount of openness, considerably the choice that will enable C-SPAN to start to televise House flooring proceedings in 1979. “They understood that the more public the system was, the less power the old order would have,” talked about former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Elected in 1978, Gingrich talked about he discovered the establishment “astonishingly open” to newcomers on a mission, like himself. He used the levers available on the market in a further open establishment — from tv all through the House to new ethics suggestions — to chart an increase to vitality that in 1994 would drive Democrats from administration all through the House for the primary time in 40 years.

The post-Watergate years of the Seventies seen a flurry of present approved suggestions designed to deal with components raised by the scandal.

In 1974, Congress amended promoting advertising and marketing marketing campaign finance approved suggestions after revelations concerning the abuses of cash by Nixon’s reelection committee — 1000’s of {{{dollars}}} stuffed in safes and used for hush cash, and unlawful contributions solicited from vital firms. The new legal guidelines put caps on how a lot folks might contribute to candidates and one of the best ways a lot federal candidates might spend, created partial public financing by matching funds in presidential campaigns and established the Federal Election Commission.

Over time, the reforms had been weakened each by Supreme Court rulings and by workarounds promoting advertising and marketing marketing campaign approved professionals devised. A significant change purchased proper right here in 2010, when the intense courtroom gave firms and completely completely different exterior teams the authority to spend limitless parts of cash to affect campaigns. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission choice resulted in a proliferation of so-called nice PACs and impartial committees and the utilization of “dark money” (funds by the use of which donors is just not going to be disclosed), vital advocates to say {{{that a}}} decades-long effort to reform promoting advertising and marketing marketing campaign finance had failed.

Watergate set off trendy dialogue concerning the steadiness of vitality between Congress and the chief division amid factors about an imperial presidency. This led to new approved suggestions designed to whittle away on the powers of the president.

In 1974, Congress accredited the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which established a mannequin new course of for federal budgeting by lawmakers, created the Congressional Budget Office and sought to restrict the ability of the president to override selections made by lawmakers on suggestions on recommendations on how to spend the federal authorities’s cash. The 1973 War Powers Resolution, a response to Vietnam, was designed to stop future presidents from partaking in army conflicts with out having consulted Congress upfront.

But these, too, have proved ineffective. Presidents have routinely ignored these necessities, and a compliant Congress has provided minimal resistance. “Too often, Congress was willing to basically allow presidents to do what they have to do in order to deal with the challenges that are out there,” Panetta talked about.

The 1978 Ethics in Government Act set new monetary disclosure necessities for public officers and put restrictions on lobbying by former officers. The act’s Title VI created the system for the appointment of express prosecutors by the lawyer common to analysis allegations in opposition to authorities division officers.

More broadly, the mixture of the ethics authorized pointers, requires further rigorous congressional oversight and the work of impartial counsels has carried ahead to the current day. “Watergate had inaugurated an era of politics by other means, where political opponents attempted, instead of defeating one another’s arguments, or winning elections, to oust each other from office by way of ethics investigations,” historian Jill Lepore wrote in “These Truths.”

Between 1970 and 1994, in response to Lepore, federal indictments of public officers went from “virtually zero to more than thirteen hundred.” The affect of all this “also eroded the public’s faith in the institutions to which those politicians belonged.”

Of all the efforts to scrub up after Vietnam and Watergate, reforms of U.S. intelligence firms have been typically most probably basically probably the most worthwhile and long-lasting. The reforms grew partially out of hearings by a choose Senate committee headed by then-Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), which investigated questionable and unlawful covert actions aimed in the direction of overseas leaders and U.S. residents by the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency.

Then-Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) was a member of the committee and remembers vividly the day when CIA Director William Colby purchased proper right here to testify and delivered to the committee what had been normally referred to because the “family jewels,” a compendium of egregious actions by the company, alongside with makes an strive to assassinate Cuban chief Fidel Castro.

Out of the committee’s findings, Congress established congressional oversight committees with prescribed suggestions for session for any covert actions and necessities for presidents to signal official findings to authorize covert actions. “We saved the CIA,” Hart recalled. “If nothing had been done to rehabilitate the agency, it would have very seriously undercut their credibility.”


John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director and for a quick time exhibiting director, was a recruit in instructing all by this era all through the Seventies and described these modifications as appropriately intrusive.

“I’m a big supporter of oversight,” he talked about, “because without it, you cannot count on the trust of the American people for an institution that has great power and is asked to do difficult things by the president. Even at that, it doesn’t assure that trust or that confidence, but it’s the closest thing we have.”

Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of historic earlier on the University of California at Davis and creator of the 1996 e book “Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI,” talked about that the reforms “fell short of what Senator Church wanted.”

“Church thought exposing all these abuses would restore Americans’ faith in government,” she added. Instead, the committee’s revelations gave rise to further anti-government conspiracy theories.

The affect on the political events

Watergate left the Republican Party decimated, or so it appeared.

“The conventional wisdom was, oh, the Republicans are done for a generation,” talked about Beverly Gage, a professor of historic earlier at Yale University. “That’s not what happened. But it is more true if you said it’s the Nixon wing of the Republican Party [that is dead]. Watergate was much more devastating to that part of the Republican Party.”

A Republican Party personified by politicians like Ford, Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney was taken over by a mannequin new, Southern and Sun Belt-based conservative motion that seen authorities with significantly further hostility. In 1964, this model of conservatism, led by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, went down in defeat to Johnson. By 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the interval of New Deal liberalism had been blunted by a conservatism that will protect sway all through the get collectively and the nation for a couple of years.

Schulman, who wrote “The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics,” talked about that, whereas it’s an oversimplification to say that Reagan’s election was a response to Watergate, the response to the scandal nonetheless outfitted fertile floor for the conservative, anti-government ideology Reagan championed.

“You have to remember that for most of the post-World War II period, liberalism, for better and worse, had really been the reigning public philosophy in the United States,” Schulman talked about. “One of the ways that Watergate is very important is in the transformation of the Republican Party into a conservative party. … And after 1980, it was, by all effects, really a conservative party.”

Zelizer well-known, “When Reagan in 1980 is lashing out against government, I just think there’s more support at some level for the kind of arguments he’s making, because people have a Richard M. Nixon, even though he is a Republican, they have a Richard M. Nixon in their mind.”

Reagan was one among Nixon’s staunchest defenders. He described the hearings before the Senate Watergate committee chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) inside the summertime of 1973 as a “lynching” and praised the president so persistently that, in response to Perlstein, the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported that some Reagan advisers apprehensive that his assist for Nixon had the potential to damage him politically.

“They say [in the column] the people who want to make Ronald Reagan president are terrified that he won’t let go of his support for Richard M. Nixon and this is going to destroy his career,” Perlstein talked about. “And of course, the irony is, and this is kind of my argument, that it didn’t destroy his career. It was the foundation for his political rise.”

Meanwhile, the Democrats had been to bear their very private transformation, thanks partially to the infusion of present members of Congress starting with the 1974 election. “They tended to be more educated, more professional than previous tranches of Democrats, less connected to the working class, more interested in issues that weren’t within the four corners of meat and potatoes,” Galston talked about.

As Perlstein talked about, “It’s not the beer-and-a-shot, lunch-pail Democratic Party anymore.”

No yet another typified the mannequin new breed than Hart, who was elected to the Senate after managing George McGovern’s 1972 president promoting advertising and marketing marketing campaign that resulted in a landslide loss to Nixon. “I used to be so indignant at Watergate and the truth that it had not had the affect on the ‘72 campaign that it should have had and eventually did have,” Hart acknowledged in explaining why he ran in 1974.

Hart helped lead the get collectively in new directions, and his eventual drawback to — and near-victory over — former vp Walter Mondale inside the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination contest pitted the earlier Democratic Party, tied to extremely efficient labor unions, in opposition to a newer Democratic Party additional oriented to rising forces of experience and to factors such as a result of the environment and globalization.

The debate over what kind of get collectively the Democrats ought to be, which was aired out that 12 months, continues to echo instantly, as a result of the Democrats wrestle with the requires of a additional vigorous liberal wing and the necessity to win once more quite a lot of the White working-class voters who defected to the Republicans starting inside the Reagan years.

Watergate didn’t merely change politics; it furthermore modified journalism. Watergate made journalism glamorous. Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein grew to develop into celebrities. Investigative journalism expanded into all corners of the information media.

In the same technique that most individuals was shedding notion in establishments, journalists had been shedding notion in authorities officers. After the lies about progress in Vietnam and the lies from the Nixon White House, reporters launched a further skeptical eye to the statements of presidency officers.

Gone had been the cozy days when a reporter might play poker all through the Oval Office with a president or when the private lives of politicians had been thought-about off-limits to reporting (as reporters did in turning a blind eye to John F. Kennedy’s philandering) moreover it affected public duties.

“A lot of journalism prior to that time was very deferential to political leaders,” Lawrence talked about. “You didn’t say certain things, and that wasn’t so good either. But I think a lot of younger people learned that the way you get ahead, just like members [of Congress] learned through oversight, that the way you get your name in the papers is by making a splash and by making accusations of wrongdoing or corruption. That culture … became very, very powerful.”

Critics of the press take into consideration that this has helped to colour and coarsen political discourse ever since, that the DNA of journalism grew to develop into strictly adversarial and that, regardless of the societal worth of accountability reporting, it has had deleterious undesirable unfavorable results on politics and governance.

“Everyone wanted to kind of have a pelt on the wall,” Perlstein talked about. “Every reporter wanted their own kind of scandal. And one of the consequences was a tendency to elevate peccadilloes to the status of scandals.”

The counter to that is that, by holding authorities officers accountable, vigorous and intrusive journalism ends in additional wise and responsive authorities. Without the probing eye of journalists, corruption and malfeasance is likely to be even greater than it in one other case is likely to be. The decline of native newspapers, attributable to the technological disruptions of the previous couple of a couple of years, has outfitted real-time examples of the absence of accountability journalism in cities and state capitals.

Leonard Downie Jr., who edited quite a few the Watergate tales at The Post all through the Seventies and later succeeded Benjamin C. Bradlee as authorities editor, acknowledged that as investigative reporting unfold all by the use of the commerce, “some corners were cut” by some investigative reporters. “Not everybody could bring down a president,” he talked about. “Not everybody could get somebody to resign or go to prison.”

That, he talked about, doesn’t outweigh the truth that investigative journalism is now quite a lot of the vital roles of the American data media. “Holding power — all forms of power — accountable to American citizens is a good thing. And I just don’t worry about this adversarial aspect. I think that’s fine. I do not see a downside.”

Scholars and politicians debate when the acute partisanship and polarization that defines presently’s political native local weather actually took root.

Though there was partisanship all through the Watergate investigation, in the long run, the conclusions had been bipartisan, with a handful of Republicans turning right into a member of Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee to vote for articles of impeachment and Republican elders going to the White House all through the remaining days to inform Nixon it was time to go.

The 1976 presidential race between Ford and Jimmy Carter featured two comparatively widespread politicians. In Congress, with the events far quite a bit a lot much less homogenized than presently, Democrats and Republicans did work collectively on components. By presently’s requirements, it was a far more genteel interval.

Many analysts diploma to the Republican victories in 1994 and the elevation of Gingrich to the speakership on account of the second when the present interval of polarization and partisanship took protect. Others say the partisanship was setting up all by the Eighties, with Gingrich and GOP backbenchers utilizing fully completely completely different methods to assault the entrenched Democrats, concurrently Reagan and O’Neill favored a cordial relationship irrespective of their ideological variations.

Lawrence, the historian of the category of 1974, believes the reforms these freshman members of Congress helped to pressure by the legislative division had been accountable. “Some of these reforms actually facilitated a rise in partisanship,” he talked about, “because they enabled people who otherwise might have been blocked from playing a more political or more public role in the more traditional management of the House — they gave them platforms to do so.”

Nixon furthermore shares all through the blame. Though on residence components he was, by presently’s requirements, comparatively liberal, his promoting advertising and marketing marketing campaign model in 1968 and 1972 was divisive and polarizing, utilizing race, legal guidelines and order, and cultural wedge components to create cleavages all through the residents.

Gingrich believes the polarization was setting up even before Watergate and elements to Reagan as proof, describing Reagan, for all his geniality, as a polarizing politician. Speaking of Reagan’s emergence as a nationwide determine all through the Nineteen Sixties, he talked about, “You had a polarization that was beginning to grow, and Reagan understood and knew how to deal with it pleasantly. But he was clearly a polarizer.”

Gage well-known that even before Watergate, there have been many individuals who had been arguing that the nation is likely to be elevated off with further tightly organized political events which may present clearer ideological options for the voters. “That’s where we’ve ended up half a century after Watergate,” she talked about. “And it’s turning out to be a real problem.”

The freeway from Watergate to Donald Trump

Those who’ve studied Watergate see a line that travels from that scandal to the Trump presidency. Part of that is due to the similarities between Nixon and Trump — the self-pitying nature of their personalities, the venality exhibited all by their presidencies, the demonization of their opponents.

Nixon sought to undermine the Constitution to make sure that he would win the 1972 election after which coated it up, for which he paid the value of pressured resignation. Trump sought to undermine the Constitution to overturn an election he had misplaced in 2020. He didn’t cowl up his efforts, although precisely what was occurring nonetheless hasn’t been educated in full. Instead, he tried to assemble his case on a basis of lies.

But the parallels are restricted partially on account of the 2 presidents dominated in two fully completely completely different eras. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) was a legal guidelines pupil and legislative staffer to a Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee all by Watergate. Today she is a member of the Jan. 6 House panel that’s investigating not merely the assault on the Capitol nonetheless the broader effort to subvert the 2020 vote.

“We are in a political environment that is more sharply partisan than was the case during the Watergate era,” she talked about. “And you’ve also got people who lie with impunity and feel that there’s no downside to it. I mean, when Nixon was caught in lies, he resigned.”

There was a second early all through the work of the Ervin committee, cited in Graff’s historic earlier of the scandal, when White House approved professionals had been warning that any officers often known as to testify would decline to reply the panel’s questions. The response from one committee lawyer was to say that anybody who did that in a public dialogue board is likely to be ruined. Trump’s White House routinely refused to cooperate with congressional investigations and did so with out being held to account and with the assistance of Republican lawmakers.

Graff highlighted the outcomes of the variations between the Watergate interval and presently. “You see, over the course of the two years that Watergate takes to play out, the delicate ballet and dance of how our system of checks and balances works,” he talked about. “Watergate requires every institution in Washington to play a specific role and to do it successfully.”

In the Trump years, that system of checks and balances broke down. “The media played their role,” Graff talked about. “The Justice Department, you know, arguably played their role. The FBI arguably played their role. But then when it came to Capitol Hill, the House and the Senate fell short. Looking back at Watergate, the members of Congress in the House and the Senate on the Republican side acted first as members of the coequal legislative branch. … What we saw in the Trump years was the opposite, which is Republicans on the Hill acted first as Republicans and second as members of Congress.”

Trump’s presidency is probably going to be seen on account of the highest outcomes of what started with Watergate. Today is a time of heightened mistrust in authorities, weakened establishments, a further polarized residents, greater partisanship, a fractured and additional politicized media, and a Republican Party with a stronger anti-government ideology and additional ruthless in its approach.

Trump seized on all of this, and additional, to present into president, to coach his powers in workplace and to goal to keep in workplace after he had misplaced to Joe Biden. “I think it’s pretty clear that he exposed as president some of the real weaknesses and dysfunction of all these institutions,” Zelizer talked about, “from Congress to the media to other elements of administrative and executive power. And I think it’s true that they’re just not working as well right now as they had when this whole story started.”


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