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Obama Commutes Chelsea Manning’s Sentence

Chelsea Manning

President Obama has commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former Army private who stole thousands of gigabytes of information while serving in the U.S. Army and giving the information to Wikileaks:

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Tuesday largely commuted the remaining prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the army intelligence analyst convicted of an enormous 2010 leak that revealed American military and diplomatic activities across the world, disrupted the administration, and made WikiLeaks, the recipient of those disclosures, famous.

The decision by Mr. Obama rescued Ms. Manning, who twice tried to commit suicide last year, from an uncertain future as a transgender woman incarcerated at the male military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. She has been jailed for nearly seven years, and her 35-year sentence was by far the longest punishment ever imposed in the United States for a leak conviction.

Now, under the terms of Mr. Obama’s commutation announced by the White House on Tuesday, Ms. Manning is set to be freed on May 17 of this year, rather than in 2045.

The commutation also relieved the Department of Defense of the difficult responsibility of her incarceration as she pushes for treatment for her gender dysphoria — including sex reassignment surgery — that the military has no experience providing.

In recent days, the White House had signaled that Mr. Obama was seriously considering granting Ms. Manning’s commutation application, in contrast to a pardon application submitted on behalf of the other large-scale leaker of the era, Edward J. Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who disclosed archives of top secret surveillance files and is living as a fugitive in Russia.

Asked about the two clemency applications on Friday, the White House spokesman, Joshua Earnest, discussed the “pretty stark difference” between Ms. Manning’s case for mercy with Mr. Snowden’s. While their offenses were similar, he said, there were “some important differences.”

“Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing,” he said. “Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary, and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy.”

He also noted that while the documents Ms. Manning provided to WikiLeaks were “damaging to national security,” the ones Mr. Snowden disclosed were “far more serious and far more dangerous.” (None of the documents Ms. Manning disclosed were classified above the merely “secret” level.)

Ms. Manning was still known as Bradley Manning when she deployed with her unit to Iraq in late 2009. There, she worked as a low-level intelligence analyst helping her unit assess insurgent activity in the area it was patrolling, a role that gave her access to a classified computer network.

She copied hundreds of thousands of military incident logs from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which, among other things, exposed abuses of detainees by Iraqi military officers working with American forces and showed that civilian deaths in the Iraq war were likely much higher than official estimates.

The files she copied also included about 250,000 diplomatic cables from American embassies around the world showing sensitive deals and conversations, dossiers detailing intelligence assessments of Guantánamo detainees held without trial, and a video of an American helicopter attack in Baghdad in two Reuters journalists were killed, among others.

She decided to make all these files public, as she wrote at the time, in the hope that they would incite “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms.” WikiLeaks’ disclosed them — working with traditional news organizations including The New York Times — bringing notoriety to the group and its founder, Julian Assange.

The disclosures set off a frantic scramble as Obama administration officials sought to minimize any potential harm, including getting to safety some foreigners in dangerous countries who were identified as having helped American troops or diplomats. Prosecutors, however, presented no evidence that anyone was killed because of the leaks.

At her court-martial, Ms. Manning confessed in detail to her actions and apologized, saying she did not intend to put anyone at risk and noting that she was “dealing with a lot of issues” at the time she made her decision.

Testimony at the trial showed that she had been in a mental and emotional crisis as she came to grips, amid the stress of a war zone, with the fact that she was not merely gay but had gender dysphoria. She had been behaving erratically, including angry outbursts and lapsing into catatonia midsentence. At one point she had emailed a photograph of herself in a woman’s wig to her supervisor.

Prosecutors said that by making secret material available for publication on the internet, anyone — including Al Qaeda — could read it. And they accused Ms. Manning of treason, charging her with multiple counts of the Espionage Act as well as with “aiding the enemy,” a potential capital offense, although they said they would not seek her execution.

Ms. Manning confessed and pleaded guilty to a lesser version of those charges without any deal to cap her sentence. But prosecutors pressed forward with a trial and won convictions on the more serious versions of those charges; a military judge acquitted her of “aiding the enemy.”

In her commutation application, Ms. Manning said she had not imagined that she would be sentenced to the “extreme” term of 35 years, a term for which there was “no historical precedent.” (There have only been a handful of leak cases, and most sentence are in the range of one to three years.)

“I take full and complete responsibility for my decision to disclose these materials to the public,” she wrote. “I have never made any excuses for what I did. I pleaded guilty without the protection of a plea agreement because I believed the military justice system would understand my motivation for the disclosure and sentence me fairly. I was wrong.”

This decision does not come entirely as a surprise, of course. I noted last week that Manning was apparently on the short list for possible commutation at the end of President Obama’s term and her case had become something of a worldwide cause due largely to alleged mistreatment she was receiving in prison related to the revelation that she was transgendered. Additionally, there were many advocates on Manning’s side who argued that her sentence was excessive given the fact that other leakers have only received sentences of, at most, one to five years. The difference, of course, is that Manning was charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced in a military rather than a civilian court and that the sentences imposed on members of the military have often been harsher than those imposed on civilians convicted of similar offenses. Finally, the fact that Manning has apparently not adjusted well to imprisonment due in no small part to her being transgender has made her case something of an international cause celebre, with many people calling on the President to pardon her outright rather than merely commuting an arguably excessive sentence.

On the whole, as I said when the news of Manning’s potential commutation was first released, I don’t see this decision as problematic. Unlike Edward Snowden, who arguably was more responsible in what he leaked to the public, Manning did not seek to run away from facing the consequences of her actions and indeed initially sought to plead guilty to the charges against her rather than face a trial. The prosecutors in her military case, though, chose not to accept a plea deal and proceed with the most serious charges and a sentence that was arguably harsher than necessary or called for under the circumstances. Given that and the fact that Manning accepted responsibility for her crimes in her application to the White House, it seems appropriate that her request was granted. Also, the fact that the sentence was merely commuted means that Manning will still have to live with the civilian consequences of her crimes while a member of the military.

The decision to commute Manning’s sentence will likely prove to be controversial in many circles. In the eyes of many, she remains a criminal who put the nation in danger by revealing secret military and intelligence information that put Americans, and Iraqis who were cooperating with American personnel, in danger without any regard for the consequences of her actions. The response may be muted given the fact that the President chose to issue a commutation rather than a pardon, but in the eyes of many members of the public the effect will be seen as the same and there’s some logic in that response. In any case, as I said, given the facts of Manning’s case I think the decision to commute is understandable and can at least be supported by the evidence. At the same time, of course, there is the whole issue of whether or not pardons or commutations or pardons by Presidents are a good

At the same time, of course, there is the whole issue of whether or not pardons or commutations or pardons by Presidents are a good idea to begin with. On some level, it harkens back to the days when Kings, Queens, and Emperors were the sole law of the land and held the fate of defendants in their hands and subject to their arbitrary decision. That’s one reason why, in many states, the pardon and commutation authority of Governors has been limited or curtailed entirely and the process has been placed with an independent board comprised of people appointed by Governors and state legislatures together. In most recent White Houses, there’s at least been an effort to mimic that process in that all applications for pardons or commutation are reviewed by the civil service attorneys at the Justice Department, and the President’s decision is usually based at least in part on the recommendation of the Department of Justice. At least under this system there is less of a ‘royal’ feel to the entire process. There’s nothing in the law that requires the President to follow this process, though, nor is there any requirement that someone formally apply for a pardon or commutation. If he wished to do so, President Obama could pardon anyone convicted or charged with a Federal crime for whatever reason he wanted. The potential problems with this system should be obvious. The system we have, though, is based in the Constitution so it would require an Amendment to change things.

In addition to Manning, Obama also pardoned General James Cartwright, who had been convicted on a charge of lying to law enforcement in connection with his involvement in leaking details about the programs that apparently helped to create to Stuxnet computer virus that infected Iran’s nuclear research labs earlier in the decade. Additionally, CBS News White House Correspondent reports that we can expect more commutations and, possibly, pardons before President Obama leaves office on Friday. Whether any will prove to be as newsworthy as the Manning commutation is unknown at this point.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    Good for Obama. 7 years is more than enough, especially in view of the Army’s treatment of her while in custody.

    I don’t understand a person who thinks 7 years, much of it in solitary, 7 years as a woman in a brutal men’s prison, is not enough. She was just a dumb, mixed-up private. The original sentence was inhumane and unjust, and Obama did the right thing.

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  2. Grumpy Realist says:

    Rod Dreher over at TAC is having a meltdown over this.

    I sort of hope that down the road karma bites him on the butt with this. One of his grandchildren turns out to be a gay transsexual, or something equivalent.

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  3. Tony W says:

    @Grumpy Realist:

    Rod Dreher over at TAC is having a meltdown over this.

    As we have learned so many times in the past, with that much passion around the issue, it ain’t anybody but Dreher himself who will turn out to have some serious sexual repression issues of his own. “I guarantee it”

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  4. Hal_10000 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    That’s the view I’m slowly coming to but I have to invest some more thought into it. I don’t think what she did was OK. There are lot of people in the military and intelligence communities who feel like these leaks got people killed. And while some of them were substantive (eg., the Iraq Torture thing) some were just embarrassing (e.g., politically damaging private backchatter amongst diplomats).

    But I feel like Assange was the biggest villain here, revealing the names of US sources and editorializing releases to make them look as bad as possible (e.g., the Collateral Murder video, which crossed me more of mistakes in the heat of battle than a war crime). I had mixed feelings about Wikileaks under Bush but, by the end, did not trust them. And that distrust was only enhanced last year.

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  5. EddieInCA says:

    Mr. Dreher has lost his mind about trans and gay people. Seriously.

    I’d hate to be one of his kids or grandkids (later) who want to come out. That won’t be an easy conversation.

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  6. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Agreed. I’m not thrilled with any sort of rationalization of what she did as being ok, but I can live with the sentence as it has been served.

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  7. Argon says:

    Snowden next?

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  8. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Argon:

    Absolutely not. No.

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  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Manning’s just an idiot; Assange is a piece of sh-t. I remember being that young, and I was every bit as stupid. Granted it’s special pleading, coming from me, but I do not like the idea of destroying a young person’s life for one mistake. She’s been doing very hard time. There are murderers who get out after doing 7. What’s she going to do, repeat the crime?

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  10. EddieInCA says:

    @Argon:

    Hell no.

    Snowden should f**king rot in Russia for all I care.

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  11. michael reynolds says:

    @Argon: @HarvardLaw92:

    I think just as soon as Snowden does seven years in Leavenworth we should definitely consider his application for commutation.

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  12. Modulo Myself says:

    Given the fact that none of the high-level Bush people who did what they thought was right by ordering torture have been prosecuted for war crimes, it’s pretty nauseating to hold someone as young as Chelsea Manning for seven years for doing what she thought was right. I’m glad she was pardoned and only wish it had happened sooner.

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  13. Davebo says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    She wasn’t pardoned. There’s a significant difference.

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  14. Modulo Myself says:

    Assange is apparently making noises through his lawyers that he might be willing to turn himself in. This should be rather fascinating. Anyway, I’m assuming he has a video of our next Pres murdering a Russian escort. Also, he’s probably half-insane by now, so who knows how long he can keep it together.

    Dreher meanwhile updated his post with the following:

    I was thinking just now why this case made me so angry. And then it hit me. About 25 years ago, I shared an apartment with a gay friend, a college buddy, and helped him get settled and started. He ended up walking out on our lease and skipping town, owing me $800 and leaving me scrambling to find someone to take his room, because I couldn’t afford the apartment on my own. That was bad enough, but I had also loaned him my laptop so he could compose his resume and hunt for work. I found out later, after he had skipped town, that he had gone into my private e-mails, read them all, and distributed information he found good and gossipy, all at my expense. And while doing all that behind my back, he told his friends that it was okay, because I was a conservative, and therefore part of the oppressor class. They agreed, apparently. The fact that I was a conservative justified his betrayal in his mind, because conservatives oppressed gay people. Never mind that we had been friends for years, and that he stole information and money from me, while I thought he was a good friend who deserved my help.

    No wonder the Chelsea Manning case infuriates me so. It felt personal in ways I had not anticipated at first.

    I’m going to take a wild stab at things and say that his ex-roommate may have a different story.

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  15. Modulo Myself says:

    @Davebo:

    Right. She’s not Casper Weinberger after all.

    Still I’m happy for her, and hope that somehow she’s able to get out of the hell solitary put her in.

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  16. Gustopher says:

    Seven years is enough, and the solitary is inhumane. She’s clearly messed up in the head, and not getting the help she needs, so it’s the right thing to do.

    Also, it pisses off Republicans, which is a nice bonus.

    I expect the Trump administration to charge her with something else.

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  17. Argon says:

    @michael reynolds:
    I tend to believe Snowden did a service for this country. None of the $hits who authorized illegal acts, twisted the clear intent of the various laws, and lied through their teeth were even reprimanded. Only when Congressmen themselves found they were under surveillance did anything hit the fan, and even then is was just a hand slap.

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  18. @Modulo Myself:

    Assange is apparently making noises through his lawyers that he might be willing to turn himself in.

    Assange’s problem is with the British and Swedish, not with the United States. His idea of extraditing him from the f* UK to Sweden to then extradite him to the US makes no sense.

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  19. Andy says:

    Personally I’m ambivalent. The fact she is transgendered (which wasn’t exactly apparent at the time she committed the crime) is not a mitigating factor for me, but the damaged caused by her data dump to Wikileaks (a propaganda arm of Russian intelligence for anyone not keeping up on current events) wasn’t as bad as it could have been, so, meh.

    That said, it is pretty ironic she went on a hunger strike to force the government to provide her with gender reassignment surgery while in prison – which she now won’t get since she won’t be a prisoner anymore.

    Now, if the President pardons Snowden, I’ll be apoplectic. That guy is is a 21st century Phil Agee.

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  20. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I’m perfectly fine with Snowden’s traitorous behind spending the rest of his miserable life trapped in the de facto Russian prison cell he’s created for himself.

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  21. Guarneri says:

    All this weighty talk. I heard that the real motivation for Obama’s signing was a catchy tune the Secret Service heard on his headphones.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=FUNxb4lahqY

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  22. slimslowslider says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    bahahah… oh dreher.

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  23. Mikey says:

    @Argon: I can’t reveal all I know about the effects of Snowden’s crime, but I can say he did exceptionally grave damage to America’s national security, at a level we are still trying to calculate. I’m convinced even many of his supporters would change their minds if they knew the full impact of what he did.

    His actions merit a lengthy prison term.

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  24. C. Clavin says:

    OK…quick poll…who is more insipid? Dreher or Guarneri?

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  25. SenyorDave says:

    @C. Clavin: Dreher has an almost pathological dislike/fear of gay people. Guarneri is like a 12 year old, or maybe some type of Bevis/Butthead clone.

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  26. slimslowslider says:

    @SenyorDave:

    Dreher has an almost pathological dislike/fear of gay people.

    Almost? He is f’ing obsessed.

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  27. MarkedMan says:

    This pledge of Assange, to turn himself in. I wonder if the deal has already been worked out with Putin’s people and Trump will be instructed to pardon him?

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  28. Pch101 says:

    Manning is an American who took an oath to the US and violated it. I’m not particularly bothered by the commutation but I’m not thrilled about it, either, and I’m glad that there was no pardon.

    I’m not fond of Snowden for similar reasons. (Not sure if he took an oath, but he certainly went against his own country.)

    Assange is an ass who violated US laws, but he isn’t an American and therefore doesn’t owe us any sort of loyalty. Of the three of them, he bothers me the least for that reason.

    I can only hope that the Republicans who are howling about the decision to release Manning will hold their party leader — you know, the pathological liar who encouraged Russian hacking and seems eager to become Putin’s subordinate — to their same lofty standards.

    Detesting Manning because of an unrelated gay ex-roommate has got to be one of the dumbest things that I have ever heard. Assigning collective guilt to others but not to members of one’s own tribe is as bigoted as it gets.

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  29. Tyrell says:

    Manning. Now the President is going to commute this Oscar Lopez-Rivera. This man is a terrorist who participated in the bombing of Fraunces Tavern in NYC ( a beloved historic site), and the killing of 4 people, armed robberies, and other vicious crimes here in the US*. Until 9/11, the Puerto Rican nationalists were the biggest terrorist threat to the US. Rivera has never apologized or shown any remorse for his actions. “I am an enemy of the US government”.
    I have thought for many a year that Presidents should not have the power to do all this pardoning and commuting without some kind of committee review. Some of these people, I am sure, are innocent or have turned their lives around and repented of their crimes. And they went through a legal process of judges, juries, testimonies, and in many cases appeals.
    Who is next on the President’s list – the Manson gang ?
    * Chicago Tribune
    See:”FALN mastermind Oscar Rivera does not deserve President’s pardon”, Matthew Hennessey, NY Daily News.

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  30. gVOR08 says:

    Like Doug’s post on the band “Slants” trademark issue, I see this Manning commutation as a nothing burger. But James tweeted

    Manning certainly more deserving of sympathy than Snowden. OTOH, WH argument cuts both ways. This is big FU to the military justice system.

    Not sure I see why.

    The rationale for the long sentence was presumably to deter others from doing what Manning did. But the real lesson, which I hope the Army learned, is don’t give large numbers of very low level people access to a network that goes worlds beyond their need to know.

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  31. Andy says:

    @gVOR08:

    But the real lesson, which I hope the Army learned, is don’t give large numbers of very low level people access to a network that goes worlds beyond their need to know.

    The real problem was that both had access to the ability to transfer large amounts of data – that made it easy to transfer hundreds of thousands of pages of information to something they could take home. In the old days, someone like Manning or Snowden would have try to smuggle hard-copy information out. There’d be no way to get away with smuggling such a trove if it is all hardcopy. The network people quickly shut those doors so it’s no longer possible to copy massive amounts of data onto thumb-drives, CD’s or anything else on classified computers. That should have been the extent of the solution, but it wasn’t. The openness spurred by the problems of stove-piping which factored into the failure to stop 9/11 is gone thanks to Manning and Snowden. We’re back to where we were in the 90’s where agencies hoard their information. At some point, this stovepiping will contribute to another major intelligence failure and the cycle will repeat.

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  32. rachel says:

    @MarkedMan:

    This pledge of Assange, to turn himself in. I wonder if the deal has already been worked out with Putin’s people and Trump will be instructed to pardon him?

    How would that even work? Trump pardoning Assange is irrelevant to the Swedish government, and they’re the ones who want him.

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  33. C. Clavin says:

    @Tyrell:

    This man is a terrorist who participated in the bombing of Fraunces Tavern in NYC

    Lopez was not convicted of any role in that attack…why do you feel you need to lie? And why do you hate our justice system so much? Why not just move to Russia…you and the rest of the Trumpies will be far happier there…where justice is prescribed by your leader.

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  34. grumpy realist says:

    @Modulo Myself: But Dreher’s experience with his roommate has absolutely nothing to do with his attitude towards Manning, he swears.

    Methinks the queen doth protesteth too much.

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  35. slimslowslider says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I can’t tell if my favorite part is Rod using ALL CAPS!!! in response to a reader or one reader asking Rod “Is there anyway to just delete this essay?”

    Thank you, Obama!

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  36. grumpy realist says:

    @slimslowslider: Sometimes Dreher comes out with something so poetic and so directly on point you want to applaud and say “yeah, this guy gets it.” And then the rest of the time he goes off the edge and gets hysterical about (pick one) gays, transsexuals, Social Justice Warriors, liberal Christianity, etc. etc. and so forth.

    What’s ironically funny is if he had lived in the conservative, family-centered religious haven he wants the US to turn into he would have never been allowed to live the life he presently has. Yet another case of “freedom is for me but not for thee.”

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  37. bill says:

    um, he’s a guy- and he was “the russians” before “the russians” were “the russians”.

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  38. Guarneri says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Yeah, with all this sparkling and erudite conversation it’s just hard to keep,up. (Snicker)

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  39. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @C. Clavin: Dreher is pathetic whereas Drew is like school in July–no class.

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  40. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @C. Clavin: He’s not lying, he’s repeating Mark Levin from yesterday. I think it was the opening to the second-hour rant.

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