Meet Jon Davidson, chief of staff to the stars

Bill Clinton’s top aide doesn’t appear the slightest bit averse to using his boss’s power, fame and resources


From our June 2024 issue

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Jon Davidson, chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton, seems to enjoy hanging out with superstars. The forty-three-year-old isn’t a celebrity himself, of course. But he doesn’t appear the slightest bit averse to using his boss’s power, fame and resources to make sure he’s able to hang out with A-listers and to enjoy the other benefits of being the guy who controls the access to a former president.

For instance, before Labor Day weekend 2016, Bill and Hillary were in the Hamptons, relaxing, just before the final push in Hillary’s campaign against Donald Trump. They…

Jon Davidson, chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton, seems to enjoy hanging out with superstars. The forty-three-year-old isn’t a celebrity himself, of course. But he doesn’t appear the slightest bit averse to using his boss’s power, fame and resources to make sure he’s able to hang out with A-listers and to enjoy the other benefits of being the guy who controls the access to a former president.

For instance, before Labor Day weekend 2016, Bill and Hillary were in the Hamptons, relaxing, just before the final push in Hillary’s campaign against Donald Trump. They were spending their time hanging out with wealthy friends and senior political advisors, trying to figure out the tactics and strategies that would result in victory on election night.

That Friday night, Davidson called Bill Clinton on his BlackBerry. The campaign, he said, was suddenly of the view that Clinton should charter a private jet on Sunday and fly to Philadelphia to attend Jay-Z’s Made in America music festival. Clinton had not been previously aware that senior campaign officials thought going to Philly and hanging with Jay-Z was a worthwhile use of time and money. Clinton is famously frugal, although he certainly enjoys the finer things in life, especially when someone else is paying for them. He also preferred to stay put, where he could bask in the proximity of his fellow jillionaires and just hang out for the long weekend. He listened to Davidson’s entreaty but was inclined not to go. He said he would talk to Hillary about it.

On Saturday morning, Clinton’s BlackBerry started buzzing again. It was Davidson. He told Clinton he needed an answer urgently. Davidson explained that a new poll showed the Pennsylvania race was very tight and that Robby Mook, Hillary’s campaign manager, believed college-age voters could help swing the state. Davidson convinced Clinton, already panicked about Hillary’s waning support among white, blue-collar voters, to make the trip in the middle of the holiday weekend to speak at an event he hadn’t known existed twenty-four hours earlier.

In Philadelphia, Clinton started by greeting the concertgoers at the registration tent. “That quickly devolved into taking a stream of selfies with festival attendees,” a contemporaneous staff account details. After twenty minutes, Clinton went to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s viewing platform “where one might have thought he was visiting another head of state.” He spent about fifteen minutes talking to Beyoncé and gave her a birthday gift; he spent the next hour talking to Jay-Z and Alex Ebert, from the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Eventually, Clinton left to watch a performance on stage. He said a quick hello to Chance the Rapper, DJ Khaled and the actor Michael B. Jordan. None of these interactions were seen by the more than 91,000 concertgoers. He then walked “through a chaotic mass of people,” the account continues, to watch Chance perform a few songs, hanging out with Travis Scott, another rapper, while Chance played. On the way out, Clinton worked a long but fast-moving rope line. He did not end up speaking to the crowd of potential voters, the premise for the visit in the first place. In the end, the trip was a bust. Clinton spent most of the festival hanging out with other celebrities, not urging the young attendees to vote for his wife. Hillary lost Pennsylvania to Trump by roughly 44,000 votes of the more than 6 million cast.

If the trip was a waste of time for Clinton it was a triumph for Davidson. He tweeted about Clinton’s appearance and posted pictures of the event to his Instagram. He hung out in the VIP tent with the performers. Davidson could argue that there was a payoff, of sorts.

More celebrities entered the picture.

On Halloween 2016, Davidson wrote to Katy Ann Searcy, the travel coordinator for the Clinton campaign, that he needed to “break off from our trip” to Las Vegas on November 3. “I need to go to babysit LeBron for tomorrow’s event with HRC,” he emailed Searcy. Davidson was willing to take a “cheap” redeye flight from Las Vegas, on Frontier Airlines, to Ohio but was asking Hillary’s campaign to pay for it, and for his hotel room for the night. “Sounds good!” Searcy replied to Davidson. “Availability is low but I think I can snag you a room!” (Hillary’s campaign officials shared the emails because they were “offended” by the “brazenness of the requests,” according to one Clinton insider.)

These are just a few instances where Davidson used his gatekeeper role to his advantage, especially when it involved access to celebrities who in turn might themselves like access to a former president. There are other perks, too — free tickets to sporting events, free rides on hedge-fund billionaires’ jets, free clothes — even free dry cleaning, or free to Davidson, anyway. One story goes that Clinton once needed a pair of sunglasses and gave Davidson his credit card to buy him some at a fancy Beverly Hills store. Mort Engelberg, the movie producer and longtime Clinton friend, who was with Davidson that day, told me Davidson bought himself a $300 pair and put it on the president’s credit card. Cautioned by Engelberg, who died in December, Davidson allegedly responded, “He’ll never see it.” Davidson says the story was false. “I have never owned a $300 pair of sunglasses,” he said. “I lose every pair of sunglasses I’ve ever owned, so now I buy cheap ones… and continually lose them.” (I had two detailed conversations with Davidson, in Manhattan. Some of what he told me he agreed to let me use; some he did not.)

Davidson once “hit up,” as a former colleague described it, Marc Lasry, the billionaire hedge-fund manager and Clinton groupie, to jet him and eight of his friends to a Milwaukee Bucks game. (At the time, Lasry was a part-owner of the team.) He also gets courtside seats at Miami Heat games, courtesy of the team-owning Arison family, and at Brooklyn Nets games, from owner Joe Tsai. He hangs with Dwyane Wade. He’s been known to party with Zedd, the Ger- man DJ, who has posted videos on his Ins- tagram of a slaphappy Davidson singing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and dancing the Macarena. He said Zedd is a friend. They go to the beach and enjoy partying together. “Zedd is charming and kind,” Davidson told me. “I’m grateful for our friendship.” In March 2015, Davidson arranged for his friend Victor Cruz, then a wide receiver with the New York Giants, to have a lengthy visit with Clinton in his suite at the Okura Hotel in Tokyo. Cruz posted a picture of himself with Clinton to his Instagram account.

Davidson was close friends with Mario Batali, the disgraced restaurateur, and allegedly pestered his boss to call him after Batali’s transgressions became public in December 2017. Clinton did. “Hang in there,” Clinton told Batali, according to a former aide. “Things will be fine. Don’t let these bastards get you down.” Batali, naturally, then went around town saying, “Guess who called me and gave me a pep talk about this stuff? Bill Clinton.” Davidson often posted pictures of himself partying at various New York City restaurants and nightclubs and would thank Batali for getting him access. “Super supper with super people, made with love by Mario Batali,” read one Instagram post. There’s another of them together at a restaurant in Positano. (Davidson would not permit me to use his response about Clinton’s interactions with Batali — but the gist was that he did not have anything to do with any calls between the two men.)

Many of Davidson’s former associates say his behavior over the years has left them scratching their heads. They particularly wonder why Clinton continues to put up with his poor judgment and eagerness to feed at the Clinton trough. In September 2013, journalist Alec MacGillis wrote a brutal takedown of Doug Band, a former senior advisor to Clinton, in the New Republic, calling him “a gatekeeper who charged tolls.” Of Davidson, a former colleague says, “Jon is a gatekeeper who takes the entire cash register and the orange safety vest too.” Another former Clinton staffer told me that if he had any “criticism” of the Clintons, it’s that they had “a huge tolerance for people who worked for them, who misbehaved or who promote their own interests over those of the Clintons or the foundation, for their own political ambition.”

Davidson was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised in Boca Raton. His parents were both born in Brooklyn and met at Canisius University, in Buffalo. His father was a hospital administrator; later, he became a stockbroker, first at E.F. Hutton, then at Salomon Smith Barney. His mother taught art in public schools. His brother is a lawyer.

The family was decidedly middle class but did not struggle to make ends meet. As a kid, Davidson had a bunch of acting gigs, mostly in commercials or magazine ads, for companies such as Eastern Airlines, and for Tyco Toys. He was an extra in the 1992 film The Bodyguard. A former homecoming king at his public school, he can turn on the Southern charm in an instant and does spot-on imitations of both Clinton and Barack Obama. “He comes off very friendly and affable,” explained one of his former colleagues. “And I think that he draws people in, like he’s everyone’s buddy.” He applied to two colleges, Harvard and the University of Florida. (He told me he applied to Harvard, knowing he wouldn’t get in, as a constant reminder of the importance of humility.) Like his older brother, Davidson ended up at the University of Florida, graduating in 2003 with a degree in political science.

After graduating, Davidson bounced around Democratic campaigns before being hired in Bill Clinton’s Harlem office in September 2008. Word was that Hillary forced Doug Band to hire Davidson. He reported to Laura Graham, then Clinton’s chief of staff, and literally and figuratively carried Clinton’s bags. He went with Clinton everywhere, pretty much wherever the private jets took the former president, including to Africa and South America. He has worked his way up the Clinton ladder ever since. Starting in 2013, he served as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, reporting to Tina Flournoy, who was chief of staff for seven years. At the end of 2020, with Flournoy’s departure to become chief of staff for Vice President Kamala Harris, Clinton promoted Davidson — “despite years of abhorrent behavior,” said one former colleague. Some strange doors have opened along the way.

Bill Clinton is a legend for having occasionally been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was friendly with both Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein and gave a speech in the Bahamas, in April 2022, at a cryptocurrency conference backed by Sam Bankman-Fried and Anthony Scaramucci. He’s dined with SBF in New York City. Many former Clinton staffers blame Davidson for the fact the former president waded into these treacherous waters and wonder why he failed as chief of staff time and time again to block such associations. “Clinton’s political stock has been reduced to junk bond status,” explained a former Clinton staffer.

In March 2011, the Daily Mail published an article linking socialite Ghislaine Maxwell to Jeffrey Epstein’s salacious and criminal behavior. Soon thereafter, in October 2011, Band decided that Maxwell, formerly a fixture in New York social circles, would be cut out of Clintonworld. According to an October 28, 2011, email, Band instructed his staff to remove Maxwell “from all lists.” “For all his faults, Doug Band would always cut people loose to be safe,” when it was necessary, explained a former Clinton advisor. Band took Maxwell off the Clinton party list, the Clinton Christmas card list, the Clinton Foundation events list. “She should never be in the same room as Clinton,” Band pronounced. She was never invited to anything again.

But a year later, after a tiff with Chelsea Clinton, Band was gone. And in February 2014, when Bill Clinton showed up at a dinner at the LA hotspot Crossroads Kitchen, Ghislaine Maxwell was there, one of the eight people scheduled to have dinner with him. Clinton’s advisors were aghast. One of them is alleged to have turned to Davidson and said, “What the fuck is she doing here? Doug kicked her out!” The next thing everyone knew, Ghislaine Maxwell was back. “Her name didn’t just repopulate on our VIP list,” a Clinton advisor claimed. “Jon re-added her.” The source claimed Maxwell had been clever: when she realized she was out, she courted Davidson. “She wormed her way back,” explained the Clinton insider. Davidson denies all this, suggesting he has been unfairly blamed. “It’s always been a pattern with our former colleagues to leverage all they can for their personal benefit, and if anything goes wrong, point the finger,” he said. In any event, he said, it was Ilya Aspis, a subordinate on the Clinton staff, who had invited Maxwell to the dinner, and Davidson claimed that Clintonworld had provided an email to the Daily Beast from Aspis where he wrote that he hoped it was OK that he had invited Maxwell to the dinner. A former Clinton staffer told me that Davidson instructed Aspis to invite Maxwell to the dinner, as Aspis did not have the authority to invite guests to a small private dinner for Clinton. (Aspis declined to comment but a person close to him shared, “Ilya loves Clinton. He left his office five years ago and has found success in the private sector. I am 100 percent sure he has moved on from caring about his former colleagues’ shady behavior.”)

When Bill Clinton travels on speaking or other engagements, he flies on private jets, generally provided contractually as part of the gigs, as are his various expenses, however minor. Often Davidson flies out with Clinton, but he’s been known to abandon the flights back to Westchester. Instead, Davidson occasionally likes to hang out and party for a few days in the destination location, often getting his travel, luxury hotel rooms, meals and other expenses picked up by the organization hosting the Clinton gigs, by the Clinton Foundation, by the Harry Walker Agency — Clinton’s speaking rep — or by Clinton himself.

In late August 2016, Clinton was off to Atlanta to make two campaign appearances for Hillary. He then flew to Houston, by private jet, for another campaign gig. Davidson stayed behind in Atlanta. He emailed the campaign that he had “an urgent political meeting” in the city and “instructed” the campaign to pay for his hotel and airline travel. The “urgent political meeting” was partying with Drake, the superstar musician. “Jon will likely say he was trying to get Drake to help the campaign but that’s not true,” explained one Clinton insider.

In February 2017, Tony Robbins’s Robbins Research International Group engaged Clinton to speak at an event in Whistler, British Columbia. The next day, the private jet manifest listed Davidson as a passenger on the Gulfstream V back to New York. But, in reality, Davidson had stayed behind to ski for several days, with his expenses paid either by the host or as a reduction to Clinton’s fee. According to one Clinton advisor, “the office gift policy expressly prohibits this type of behavior.” In June 2017, Clinton was off to Miami to address the annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors. The night of the speech, Davidson arranged a nearly $5,000 dinner for Clinton that included several of Davidson’s personal friends, some of whom later posted pictures on social media of themselves partying with “JD and 42.” Davidson later “instructed” Ilya Aspis to have the Clinton Foundation pay for half the dinner and for Clinton to pay for the other half. Once again, he stayed a few more days in Miami, hanging with his friends, and then expensed the commercial jet flight back to New York. A month later, in July 2017, Davidson accompanied Clinton to Hawaii for a speaking engagement arranged by the Harry Walker Agency. Again, even though his name was on the private jet manifest to return with Clinton the next day, Davidson stayed behind in Hawaii for a few more days, allegedly charging his stay, as well as clothes he purchased at the hotel store, to Harry Walker. A source said Davidson added his expenses to Clinton’s hotel bill and signed Clinton’s Secret Service name. Davidson denied the allegation. “Like most organizations,” Davidson said, “when traveling on business, we have policies that allow for business expenses. These claims were thoroughly investigated and found to be baseless.”

In summer 2018, Clinton joined writer James Patterson on a cross-country book tour to promote their book, The President is Missing. Their last stop was on July 1 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State. Afterward, Clinton flew back to New York on a private jet. Davidson stayed in Seattle and eventually flew on to California. He spent the July 4 weekend in LA at the former Playboy Mansion, now owned by the billionaire Metropoulos brothers, who are friends of his. “The book tour was over,” a former colleague explained, “but Jon continued to have the publisher pay for his personal travel expenses.” “He is obsessed with celebrities,” a Clintonworld person told me about Davidson. One former Clinton staffer can’t quite fathom this kind of behavior from someone so close to a former president: “The last person you should have tagging along for that is someone with no credibility to their name, who just wants to be a star-fucker and take pictures with celebrities.”

On October 1 that year, after Clinton traveled to San Francisco for an event with Ripple Labs, he flew back to Westchester along with Marcy Simon, the PR executiv eand longtime Clinton friend. At a staff meeting later that same week, Davidson made a point of saying “how annoying she was on that flight” by getting Clinton all worked up about money. The problem was that although Davidson was on the manifest, he wasn’t on the flight. Instead, he had stayed in San Francisco and then flown back commercial, getting the Harry Walker Agency to pay for his expenses. On December 8, Clinton was in Los Angeles for the Clinton Foundation poker tournament. Davidson accompanied the former president and could have flown back to New York later that night on Clinton’s private jet, at no additional cost to the Clinton Foundation. Instead, Davidson stuck around Los Angeles, partying with friends. He flew back the next day on a commercial flight, with the Clinton Foundation picking up the tab. “Jon will likely claim he stayed to meet with donors,” a colleague explained. “That is not true. No money was raised, no detailed donor report or briefings were filed and no details provided about with whom he was allegedly meeting.” (Davidson and I talked about these assertions. He would not allow me to use his response but the gist was that the contract between Clinton and his hosts permits these expenses to be incurred and that Davidson is a fun-loving single guy who loves life.)

On March 13, 2019, during a flight back from a speech in Chicago, Davidson and Angel Ureña, Clinton’s press secretary, urged Clinton to think about replacing Tina Flournoy. “Please don’t dime us out,” Ureña said to Clinton, according to a transcript of the conversation, “because that makes [our] everyday life much harder.” Their beef with Flournoy was that she was preventing Clinton from making more money — he could have his own Hollywood production company, like the Obamas, who Ureña noted “just got $100 million from Netflix.” Davidson often reminded Clinton that while he was “much more talented” and “esteemed” than Al Gore, his former vice president, Gore was “far wealthier.” But, he continued, when he and Davidson raised “the prospect” of Clinton “doing a version of a production company” with Flournoy, “We were told ninety different ways ‘no can do’ for a million different reasons.” Davidson then suggested that Clinton could set up a production company; when he’s asked to participate in a project, “We say, ‘Great, the president will be an executive producer on it and a percentage of how well the documentary does he gets.’ You don’t have to do any work. Your lawyer deals with their lawyer. Very normal.”

“Do other people do that?” Clinton asked.

“Every other [dignitary] does that,” Davidson responded. “Obama does nothing and his name is on the door… Tina’s big thing is ‘you can’t do anything that will take up the president’s time.’ For us, we get nothing out of it. It’s more work for us. But we do it because it’s good for you or can be lucrative for you. We just can’t fight with her all day long to try to help you… That’s how the office is set up. She’s our boss.” He suggested to Clinton, that billionaires such Joe Tsai and Marc Lasry would love to help. “They have billions of dollars and have no idea what to do with it,” Davidson said. He said he wanted to get meetings with these kinds of people on Clinton’s schedule because they could be helpful to the Clin- ton Foundation “or you personally” but that Flournoy didn’t share the same priorities.

“I want to change that,” Clinton responded.

“It would be helpful to us if you had that conversation with her,” Davidson said, “without mentioning us. You should say you want to start seeing some smart people. Businesspeople, successful young entrepreneurs.” Ureña mentioned that Hillary, meanwhile, was doing all sorts of entrepreneurial things — a deal with Hulu, a concert company with Chelsea — and “it isn’t an issue, I don’t understand why it’s an issue for you.” Clinton responded, “I really feel like there is a whole system set up to stop me from doing stuff. I don’t understand it.”

In the end, Clinton did not confront Flournoy. “He’s sympathetic to them,” a former staffer said of Clinton and the request made by Davidson and Ureña. “But this was always one of the big challenges with Clinton, the inertia, right? You can get him spun up about something. You can get him to hear you. You can get him to agree with you. But then what?” Flournoy remained his chief of staff until she left to become chief of staff to Kamala Harris in December 2020. When she departed, Clinton praised her publicly. “Tina Flournoy is incredibly smart, strong and skillful, with deeply rooted values.” He said she did a “wonderful job” for him and that he would miss her. “This is great news for our country,” he concluded. Asked about the conversation that he and Davidson had with Clinton, about Flournoy, on the flight back from Chicago, Ureña told me he did not recall it or trying to get her fired and added, “We call bullshit on anything or anyone suggesting that we inferred otherwise.” Davidson denied to me that he and Ureña had ever tried to convince Clinton to dis- patch Flournoy. “Tina is a dear friend and mentor and much needed breath of fresh air,” he said. “She was a great leader and we loved working with her.” For her part, after first agreeing to be interviewed — “happy to talk about Jon — one of my favorite people,” she wrote me — Flournoy changed her mind and did not reschedule our interview.

Two months after the production-company conversation, in May 2019, one former Clinton staffer shared a lengthy narrative of Davidson’s alleged transgressions — from an “excess hotel damage” incident in Aspen in 2011, to hanging out a few extra days on someone else’s dime in São Paolo in 2018 — with Flournoy, Kevin Thurm, the head of the Clinton Foundation, and Rorrie Gregorio, a tax partner at Marcum LLP who runs the Clintons’ family office. An attorney at Latham & Watkins responded on behalf of the Clinton Foundation, “We take this very seriously. Thank you for doing this.” Latham supposedly investigated the allegations against Davidson, who was summoned to a meeting about the letter and presented with the accusations in it. But he was never shown the letter. And nothing came of it. Davidson and I talked about the whistleblower’s letter, but he declined to let me use his response, the gist of which was that the allegations were untrue. (Amy Sandgrund-Fisher, the Clinton Foundation general counsel, confirmed to me that Latham conducted an investigation on behalf of the Clinton Foundation into the allegations against Davidson. She wrote to me that the Latham investigation “did not substantiate any” of the whistleblower’s “allegations.” I asked for a copy of the Latham report. But Angel Ureña declined to share it with me. Kevin Chambers, the attorney at Latham & Watkins who oversaw the investigation of Davidson, did not respond to a request for comment. Kathy Ruemmler, who also worked on the investigation at Latham and is now the general counsel at Goldman Sachs, declined to comment.)

Instead of being reprimanded or fired, Davidson was promoted to “acting” chief of staff when Flournoy left. On December 1, 2020 — the day Flournoy announced she was leaving — Davidson raced up to Le Jardin du Roi, a French bistro in Chappaqua, to have lunch with Clinton and lobby him to be promoted to full-time chief of staff. Clinton was two hours late to the lunch. Davidson got the job.

The lingering question people in Clintonworld have, of course, is why Bill Clinton would keep a guy like Jon Davidson around him. “When you are in that position of controlling access, and you’re able to give people things they want, which is access to Bill Clinton, they become friends of yours, they become supporters of yours,” explained one former Clinton aide. “They promote you. He’s been able, throughout his career with the Clintons, to trade on that proximity to power… in order to broker relationships and broker deals because President Clinton is very loyal to people in his circle, almost to a fault.” Incredibly, I’m told, Clinton is also easily persuaded by the people around him, including Davidson. “He’s a pussy,” one former advisor told me. “Clinton doesn’t have the authority to make decisions as it relates to his office and his life. He just goes along with it and bitches about it. But he just takes it.”

In the end, people like Davidson provide a valuable function to the Clintons — they know where all the bodies are buried — regardless of their piggishness. “Clinton doesn’t make decisions,” another former Clinton aide said. “And he doesn’t run things. He has people that do it for him… He goes through people, right?… And he does that in a way and on a scale that’s very difficult to comprehend.” Matt McKenna, the former press spokesman for Clinton during a portion of his post-presidency, told me that the job of chief of staff to former President Clinton is “exceptionally difficult” and one that Davidson has done very well, in large part because he has kept himself out of the limelight, out of the frame, rather than insert himself into it. “I think the real credit to Jon is that he has not been in the spotlight,” he said. “He’s not like out playing golf with President Clinton, Bill Daley and Barack Obama making sure that he’s in every shot. To do that job, it’s hard enough. And then to do it without being in the shot, sort of metaphorically, is even harder.” He said there is “no one whose advice and judgment I value more” than Jon Davidson’s. He said that he’s confused about what the “news peg” for this story is, other than Davidson’s enemies finally found a home for it. He noted that even the New York Post “passed on this stuff.” (Editor’s note: this is usually how we commission stories).

For his part, Davidson told me it’s been a privilege and an honor to work for Bill Clinton for the past fifteen years. “I’ve witnessed President Clinton’s profound ability to connect with people from all walks of life, whether in small community gatherings or on the global stage,” he said. “His deep understanding of complex issues and commitment to humanitarian causes has broadened my worldview significantly. Working for him has been an honor.” As for the Clintonworld sources who are working hard to dislodge Davidson from his exalted perch, he said he just wishes they would be happy. Despite them “blaming me for their unhappiness, I have no anger or ill will toward them,” he told me. “I want the best for them. They should enjoy their families and their lives. I wish they would move on and find the peace they seek.”

I asked Angel Ureña to connect me to the former president to get his take on his chief of staff. But it didn’t happen. I wasn’t put through. Instead, Ureña sent me a statement from him, “Jon has President Clinton’s full faith and confidence.”

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2024 World edition.

William D. Cohan is a former special correspondent at Vanity Fair, a founding partner at Puck and the author of several books about business and Wall Street, most recently Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of an American Icon.

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