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Zelenskyi’s Press Conference. How Honest Was The President With Journalists?

Photo: president.gov.ua
22 May 2021
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On May 20, Volodymyr Zelenskyi held a press conference dedicated to the second anniversary of his presidency. He talked about the pandemic, the economy, corruption and oligarchs. Did he succeed in being 100% honest? Unfortunately, no.

Zelenskyi’s press conference lasted 3 hours instead of the planned 2.5 hours, during which time we singled out 17 factual quotes. For comparison, during the marathon at the Kyiv Food Market in October 2019, we could identify 14 factual statements during the 14 hours of the President’s talk. Therefore, there are more facts in Zelenskyi’s words. 

As editor-in-chief of LIGA.net Borys Davydenko aptly put it, “Zelenskyi 2.0” carries himself better in public and answers journalists’ questions more confidently. However, Zelenskyi’s rhetoric has changed – and not for the better. The main highlights of the three-hour conference: taking credit for the government’s work, Parliament and the “predecessors”, passing the buck and manipulating when it comes to real problems. Also, Zelenskyi spoke several times about the strong presidential line of authority, exerting pressure on the government and even influencing NBU decisions (despite claims that he understands the importance of the National Bank’s independence).

Overall, out of the President’s 17 quotes, 11.8% (2 quotes) were not true, 35.3% (6 quotes) were manipulations, and 11.8% (2 quotes) were overstatements. 3 quotes or 17.6% of the selected statements were true. It was not without the President’s now almost traditional “if’s” and other phrases that cannot be given a verdict. Thus, there were 3 quotes “without a verdict”, or 17.6% of the selected statements. There was also one technical error in the factual statements made by the President,the  making up 5.9%.

What follows next is a detailed analysis of Zelenskyi’s speech on the second anniversary of his presidency. 

President and the economy

This block is the largest as we singled out 8 factual quotes about the economy from the President’s talk. About the minimum wage, customs and taxes, economic growth, interest rates on loans and the “5-7-9” program, pensions, supporting businesses and earnings in Poland. Only 2 out of 8 quotes about the economy are correct. Thus, the President is right to say that our economy has fallen less over the past year in comparison to many other European countries. The President was not wrong about the pension supplements for people over 80 years of age. However, he forgot to mention that the supplements do not tackle the problem of low pensions systemically, increasing the Pension Fund’s deficit. To systemically address the issue, pension and other reforms – especially judicial reform – should be continued to allow long-term savings to be made to set in motion the accumulation pension system. 

Another important point is that minimum wages, pensions and overall economic issues are not within the competence of the President. Of course, the President has a “mono-majority” forming the government. Therefore, the President can actually influence the government. But exerting pressure on the government or manually managing NBU decisions is not a normal practice in a democracy. That is why Zelenskyi is often criticized by his political opponents saying that he and his team have monopolized power. They even jokingly call Ukraine an “office-presidential republic”. And it is a direct threat to independent institutions and the balance of power.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (43:15-43:44)

Manipulation

“We do, and I do want to build a fair Ukraine, where there’s no poverty. I understand that that’s exactly the direction that we’ll have to build from scratch. Nonetheless, an increase in the minimum wage from five thousand to six thousand. Five thousand is what we made from the four thousand, in all fairness, when I became President. From four thousand to five, then to six, and by the end of this year, as I promised – six and a half thousand hryvnias.

The President provided correct data on the growth of the minimum wage. However, determining the size of the minimum wage is the prerogative of the Government and Parliament approving the state budget. So does raising the minimum wage reduce poverty? For some people, yes, but it simultaneously increases the expenditures of the state budget and businesses and can also accelerate inflation (which primarily affects the poor). Raising the minimum wage can also reduce the employment of those receiving wages close to the minimum wage.

Also, it cannot be said that the President starts poverty reduction “from scratch” because the poverty rate in Ukraine went down from 2015 to 2019 increasing due to the crisis in 2020. There were significant increases in the minimum wage under the previous government. For example, the Groysman government doubled the “minimum” starting from 2017, which added about 2 percentage points to inflation. 

We talked about the risks of raising the minimum wage in this video

Inflation should also be accounted for when comparing salaries. For example, a salary of UAH 6,000 will have different purchasing power in 2020 and 2021. If we compare the January minimum wages in 2020 and 2021 in nominal terms, the salary increased by 27%. If we take into account inflation for the year (consumer price index figures for goods and services), the wages rose by 20%.

Minimum wage increase in the state budget

Year Minimum wages (UAH) Nominal growth relative to the previous period Growth relative to the previous period, adjusted for inflation
2018 3723
2019 4173 12% 7.67%
2020 (from January 1) 4723 13.2% 9.7 %
2020 (from September 1) 5000 5.8% 4.09%
2021 (from January 1) 6000 20% 15.6 %
2021 (from December 1) 6500 8.3%

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (44:10-44:32)

Overstatement

“And also small businesses that lost… their business or jobs, 800 thousand people received during the COVID-19 [pandemic] this <…> 8 thousand hryvnias each in support from the Ukrainian state.”

One-time assistance during the lockdown in the amount of UAH 8,000 was first offered by the President in November 2020 and approved by Parliament in December 2020. As of the beginning of January 2021 (during the January lockdown), about 500,000 people received UAH 8,000 under the support program. During the April lockdown, more than 300,000 Ukrainians applied for assistance. As of May 20, 2021, UAH 1.4 billion of these payments was financed, equaling payments for 175 thousand people. Thus, approximately 675,000 people have received assistance since December 2020, which is 16% less than what the President said.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (01:06:35-01:07:27)

Manipulation

“And as for the dismissal of the chairman of the National Bank, you know what I was fighting against. To reduce interest rates on loans, it’s far from easy for our population. What did I get? Today, as president, I guaranteed it and I received it. Instead of the 20-25% which are… which were till now, before the new chairman of the National Bank, I don’t want to say that it’s only his victory, it’s the victory of the entire National Bank. However, the program “5-7-9” is there. I’m now fighting to make the program, that I promised to the citizens of Ukraine, work not only on paper, it’s a mortgage at 7%… 

Indeed, as of May 11, 2021, 15,406 loans were issued under the “5-7-9” program totaling UAH 39.5 billion. However, the loans under the “5-7-9” program are state-subsidized loans, not market loans (UAH 2 billion was spent on this program from the state budget in 2020, and the same amount is planned for 2021). Market loans for businesses in the national currency are now at about 8% (short-term) and 15% (long-term). 

Real mortgage rates run in the range of 14-18%. For example, PrivatBank’s base mortgage rate is 12% for the first year. Depending on the real estate acquisition conditions (primary, secondary market or bank real estate), the rate is further calculated according to the index of rates on deposits for private individuals, +4%. There are additional payments as well: 0.5% of the loan’s principal as personal insurance, 0.5% of the value of the real estate as mortgage insurance and bank fees. UAH 34 million has been set aside in the 2021 state budget for reducing the cost of mortgage loans. The “mortgage at 7%” is, therefore, also financed by taxpayers.

Interest rates on loans and deposits depend on inflation and country risk. NBU’s independence is needed to keep inflation under control, and, hence, to lower rates. Therefore, the President’s admitting to exerting pressure on the NBU sends an alarming signal.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (02:04:40-02:05:08)

Untruth

“Although if you look at the average salary, say, in Poland and compare it with some… for our Ukrainians, I mean, and compare it with the average salary today in many cities of Ukraine – it’s very close to the amount that people in Poland, for example, earn.”

The average salary for Ukrainians working in Poland in 2020 was PLN 4,502 per month (without deduction of tax). However, a more accurate comparison of wages requires taking into account purchasing power parity (PPP). Due to the difference in prices, money has different purchasing power in different countries. Therefore, you can buy different quantities of goods and services in Poland and Ukraine for the same amount of money.

According to the IMF data, the 2020 zloty exchange rate was 1.79 PLN = $ (PPP), while the hryvnia exchange rate was UAH 7.52 = $ (PPP). Therefore, the average salary of Ukrainians in Poland was $2,515 (PPP). In Ukraine, the average salary in 2020 was UAH 14,178, which is $1,885 (PPP).

If we compare the average salary in different cities in Ukraine, it is UAH 21,812 or $2,900 (PPP) in Kyiv. The average salary in Lviv is UAH 12,138 or $1,614 (PPP), in Dnipro it is UAH 11,385 or $1,513 (PPP), and in Kharkiv it is UAH 9,968 or $1,325 (PPP).

That is, the salary of Ukrainian workers in Poland is still higher than in Ukraine, except for Kyiv. Besides, the average salary in Kyiv takes into account the salary of highly qualified specialists, while workers in Poland on average are more likely to occupy lower-level positions than in Kyiv. Such a comparison is, therefore, incorrect.  

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (02:13:24-02:13:54)

Untruth

“Because it’s very difficult in Zakarpattia, when the Hungarians have quality infrastructure, and we do nothing for Zakarpattia, we just did nothing. There is nothing. I came there when I became President, no hospitals, no big businesses, no roads, no ski resort in Zakarpattia. Seriously, none. No new rehabilitation centers.”

There are hospitals in the Zakarpattia Oblast. The region does have rather an underdeveloped industry, which is not the main branch of its economy. Nevertheless, there has been an increase in industrial production in Zakarpattia. The region also has its own ski resorts. Thanks to the Great Construction project, the building of the station “Tourist” was renovated in Uzhhorod, on whose territory a rehabilitation center was built.  

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (01:29:45-01:30:31)

Manipulation

“By the way, if you see now, despite the same slogans, like those today about the chairman of NJSC Naftogaz, such slogans were both about the tax service and customs. And I want to draw your attention to the budget revenue from taxes and customs today. Everything has increased. What does it mean? That everything is always in the shadows because everyone understands that during the COVID-19 [pandemic], there can be no increase in imports or exports compared to other years. It’s just impossible.” 

The President is right about the growing revenues. In the first quarter of 2021, tax revenues surged 11.59% (adjusted for inflation) compared to the same period in 2020. Customs revenue from foreign trade increased in the first quarter of 2021 by 11.2% compared to the same period in 2020 (adjusted for inflation). 

However, it is a manipulation when Zelenskyi says that revenue growth is the result of the new leaders’ effective management and fight against the “shadow”.  

There are several reasons for this customs and tax revenue growth. First, there has been growth in prices for the main Ukrainian exports – grain and metals. Hence the growth in profits in the respective industries. Strong domestic demand due to restricted movement of people during the pandemic increases VAT revenues. World energy prices also rise and, as a result, the budget collects more tax revenue from imports of petroleum products and gas.

Naftogaz’s losses arose due to the debts of regional gas distribution companies and CHP enterprises, as well as due to lower gas prices during 2020. Therefore, that was not the management’s fault either.

However, it is not so important who is heading Naftogaz, the tax service or customs. Of more importance is whether transparent procedures for appointing the heads of these bodies are followed and reforms implemented that will increase transparency and reduce opportunities for corruption. This is what foreign partners emphasized.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (43:44-44:10) (01:03:38-01:03:48)

Truth

“As for pensions, I don’t see justice there yet. There’ll be a pension reform. Nevertheless, the 80+ program is underway. This year, retirees who are 75 years old, it’s the second, second phase of this reform, those 75+, people will receive money. But that’s not enough. We support as we can <…> Frankly, I’m pushing the government to decr… increase both the minimum wage and pensions.”

The President means supplemental payments for pensioners aged 75-80 and over 80. Retirees aged 80+ (1.48 million people) have been receiving benefits since April 2020. Firstly, their minimum pension now cannot be less than UAH 2,600. Secondly, they receive a supplemental payment of up to UAH 500 per month if their pension does not exceed UAH 9,205. Pensioners aged 75-80 will start receiving supplemental payments of up to UAH 400 from October 1, 2021.

However, increasing pensions is only one component of pension reform. The reform of the Ukrainian pension system includes an annual recalculation of pensions, an increase in the minimum pension, and the introduction of the second level of pensions, i.e. the accumulation system (transferring part of their income to an individual account). However, exerting pressure on the government on the part of the President can hardly be called a positive phenomenon.

The biggest problem is to supplement the solidarity-based system with the accumulation system. In the solidarity system, the working population pays social contributions, from which pensions are paid to those incapable of working. That is, the effectiveness of the solidarity pension system directly depends on the demographic situation. In Ukraine today, fertility rate is going down and the number of retirees per one working person is growing. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ensure the payment of pensions.

Overall, 13 million people pay contributions to the Pension Fund, while there are 11.2 million retirees in the country. “Shadow economy” should also be taken into account as those having off-the-books jobs make no pension contributions or pay only a portion if they receive two salaries: one official and one “in an envelope”. In 2020, the number of those employed off the books in Ukraine was 3.2 million people. Hence the Pension Fund’s deficit. The deficit means that the Fund is constantly short of money to pay pensions, so it receives additional funding from the state budget. Pension reform of 2017 reduced the burden on the Pension Fund by increasing the length of service required to receive an old-age pension and by eliminating special pension regimes. However, this issue remains unresolved in most countries. 

VoxCheck recently wrote about the state and problems of pension reform. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (01:03:54-01:04:28)

Truth

“The economy is not developing very well, rather slowly, because of COVID-19. But, nonetheless, if we compare it with European countries, with the world, what they have at the moment. I believe that we’re doing fine, but the era of poverty will end only when everyone pays taxes, when there’s deregulation, and when the state will be as digitized as possible. All this will certainly be.”

Ukraine’s GDP decline in 2020 is one of the smallest in Europe. Our economy shrank by 4%, while, for example, GDP in France and Greece fell by 8%, in Italy by nearly 9%, in Portugal by 7.5%, in Germany by 5%, and in Spain by nearly 11%.

World GDP decreased by 3.6% in 2020. According to IMF estimates, the fall in GDP in 66 countries was lower than in Ukraine, while growth was seen in 27 countries – for example, in China (+2.3%), Egypt (+3.6%) or Turkey (+1.8%).

President and the wars with Russia and COVID-19

Since last year, the President and Servant of the People have been talking about the success of the regime of silence in Donbas. We wrote about it in our article about the second anniversary of the Zelenskyi presidency. At the press conference, Zelenskyi decided to once again refer to the achievements of the regime of silence – and used manipulation. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (56:11-56:33)

Manipulation

And you know the situation perfectly well, that for 7, about 6-7 months in a row there the situation has been more or less stabilized, stable. Well, we’ve got precise figures – tenfold, compared to other periods, the number of shelling and injuries has been reduced, and, most importantly, a tenfold reduction in deaths.”

Since the beginning of the so-called regime of silence in Donbas, there has been less shooting, but it is too early to speak about stability. Since the beginning of the ceasefire, the OSCE SMM has reported 28,771 violations of the regime of silence. According to data from the Ukrainian delegation to the TCG, the number of gross violations after the introduction of the regime of silence reduced nearly tenfold, and the number of deaths sevenfold.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (56:32—56:52)

Technical error

“I think about it every day, believe me, I know for sure, 5,000 people are down with COVID-19 and 16,000 recovered today, with no… no fatal cases. I’m following this every day, I communicate every day, and I’ll have a report today, another report by Khomchak.”

At first glance, it seems as if the President says that there were no deaths from COVID-19 in the last 24 hours. This was picked up by some media outlets and Facebook pages, accusing the President of lying.

However, given the context, it is clear that the President was talking about fatalities in the JFO zone, not about deaths from COVID-19. Anyway, the President then mentioned a report by Ruslan Khomchak, Chief of the General Staff and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. There were no casualties in the JFO zone in the last 24 hours. 

On May 19, there were 5,165 new COVID-19 cases in Ukraine, with 16,748 those recovered. There were also fatal cases: 203 in the last 24 hours.

President and COVID-19 vaccines

 Volodymyr Zelenskyi also made several mistakes when speaking about coronavirus vaccinations. For example, he insisted that 45-47 million vaccine doses would be enough for all Ukrainians, that it was not possible to purchase more vaccines, and that it is incorrect to calculate the percentage of those vaccinated, saying that we are doing quite well in Europe with the number of doses administered. The President sees the failure of the vaccination campaign only as ex-minister Maksym Stepanov’s fault, believing that he was punished enough. 

The President also spoke about how “Sputnik V” was advertised and AstraZeneca/Covishield criticized on Viktor Medvedchuk’s TV channels, currently under sanctions: “And by the way, on Mr.Medvedchuk’s channels, everyone talked about “Sputnik V” and badmouthed the Indian AstraZeneca/Covishield vaccines. AstraZeneca simply stopped supplying vaccines around the world, as well as to Ukraine.”

Putting in our two cents: luckily, those channels are already shut down, access to them is even limited on YouTube. Unfortunately, pro-Russian politicians continue to talk about Russian Sputnik’s success on other platforms and TV channels, and Covishield is occasionally criticized by the government opponents. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (02:54:40-02:55:23)

Manipulation

“Today, we have contracts for 45-47 million vaccines, free vaccines for the population of Ukraine, which actually corresponds to the number of our population, if you don’t take children into account, yes, and so on. That’s the maximum number that could be found, according to the programs, according to COVAX, according to a separate program of direct contracts, for instance, with Pfizer, a direct contract for 20 million vaccines. These steps have been taken.”

According to the National Vaccination Plan, Ukraine will receive 47 million vaccine doses by the end of 2021, both through COVAX and through direct contracts with manufacturers. These doses will be enough to vaccinate 23 million people. According to the State Statistics Service, the population in Ukraine today is 41.4 million people. There are 7.5 million children up to 17 years of age who are currently not vaccinated. That is, the number of adults (over 18 years) is about 33.9 million people. If vaccines requiring two doses (not vaccines requiring one dose like that of Johnson&Johnson) are purchased, 67.8 million vaccine doses will be needed to immunize all adults.

Information about a supply contract with Pfizer for 20 million doses by the end of 2021 was reported only by the Office of the President. 

But is this really the maximum number of vaccines that could be found? If Ukraine had begun signing contracts earlier, the rate of vaccination could have been higher. For example, SE Medical Procurement, a centralized procurement agency purchasing medicines in Ukraine, could have signed two vaccine supply contracts back in January, but that did not happen due to the intervention of the Ministry of Health.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (02:58:06-02:58:21)

Overstatement

“Because he (director of the Serum Institute of India – ed.) says, look, I haven’t given even such a first vaccine batch to most countries.”

India exported only Covishield. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs reported vaccine deliveries to Bhutan, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Algeria, Kuwait, the UAE, South Africa, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Mauritius, Morocco, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives and Seychelles. Thus, Canada got its first delivery of 500 thousand doses, just like Ukraine, and South Africa got the first batch of 1 million doses and the second batch of 500 thousand doses. But Egypt’s first batch was 50,000 thousand, and Kuwait got 150,000 doses.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (02:56:51-02:57:22)

Manipulation

“As for making comparisons. Of course, you’re just comparing the percentage of those vaccinated, right. I think this is unfair. I believe that, although we’re not a priority unlike the European Union or NATO, when comparing countries that are already in the Union or the Alliance, we’ve conducted more vaccinations than some European countries, yes, they’re small, but still, the question was not about the percentage, but how you made a deal.”

Vaccination provides populations with immunity that helps overcome the disease. Thus, the percentage of those vaccinated in the population is important. Naturally, to completely overcome the epidemic, most of the world’s population needs to be vaccinated. However, countries that have vaccinated the majority of their populations are lifting restrictions inside the country but retain restrictions on movement across borders to reduce the likelihood of importing the virus from outside.

EU or NATO countries did not get any vaccine supply preferences. Vaccines were distributed through international mechanisms in accordance with the population. However, some countries (such as Israel) made a deal with manufacturers and received vaccines earlier than others. Therefore, to vaccinate the population faster, it was necessary to sign contracts with vaccine manufacturers earlier on and organize the vaccination campaign better. 

If we compare the absolute number of those vaccinated, Ukraine is really not in last place in Europe. For example, more than 1 million doses have already been administered in Ukraine against  603 thousand in Estonia, 148 thousand in Montenegro, 688 thousand in Albania, and 893 thousand doses in Slovenia. However, as for the percentage of those vaccinated relative to the population, Ukraine is in last place in Europe.

The share of the vaccinated population in Europe

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (02:57:53-02:57:58)

Truth

“Have you seen what’s happening in India when the export of vaccines is banned?”

Zelenskyi hints at the aggravation of the COVID-19 situation in India, because of which the country has stopped exporting vaccines.

It is true. In late March, India suspended exports of vaccines. This restriction was expected to last until the end of April. However, vaccine exports are unlikely to resume until October, according to the latest Reuters data

Suspension of exports is due to the situation inside India. The second wave of the pandemic began in mid-April, and the number of cases soared (see the chart below). Thus, India suspended the export of vaccines to vaccinate its population to reduce incidence.

Number of new COVID-19 cases in India


In lieu of a conclusion. So who is to blame and who takes credit?

Zelenskyi’s rhetoric has changed markedly: he now increasingly takes credit himself and passes the buck to others. For example, Zelenskyi takes credit for Naftogaz’s profit in 2019 because he actively negotiated with Putin, Merkel and Macron. Although he also mentioned Vitrenko and Koboliev:

 Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (01:11:15-01:12:07)

Without a verdict

“By the way, this story about Naftogaz and that the profit has now decreased compared to the end of 2019, or 2019, doesn’t sound right. Again not right. The 2019 profit was mostly due to my personal agreement with President Putin in the presence of Chancellor Merkel… Mrs. Chancellor Merkel and Mr. President of the French Republic who were witnesses. And with the help of our lawyers and also Vitrenko and Koboliev, at the time when USD 3 billion came to our budget in 2019.”

Regarding the murder of Pavlo Sheremet, Zelenskyi employed one of his favorite tricks, i.e. “if’s”. If he had been President then, the journalist would not have been murdered, and now there would be no proceedings against Yuliia Kuzmenko, Andriy Antonenko and Yana Duhar. In a very similar vein, the President answered some questions in the “Axios on HBO” program that we analyzed earlier. However, the President found something to brag about here too – no journalist has been killed during his presidency. Should we be proud of this?  We leave it to the discretion of our readers.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (02:49:37-02:50:38)

Without a verdict

“I wish we hadn’t lost the journalist, any [journalist], I wish I’d been president then. Maybe then those bodies you’re talking about, maybe those having to do with it or some of them involved in it, maybe then they wouldn’t have done it, I don’t know. I believe I can’t say or promise, but I know now. Sorry if that sounds like that, I want to once again, I really do, I, well, not that I’m happy, but I don’t want that to change. But still, no journalist has passed away like that since I’ve been in office.”  

The last statement that caught our attention was about the President’s entourage and those whom he brought to power. There would be people of whom he is ashamed, but those were “little mistakes”. We analyzed Zelenskyi’s personnel failures twice: in our articles dedicated to the first and second anniversary of his presidency. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyi, May 20, 2021 (02:18:44-02:19:29)

Without a verdict

“I do feel ashamed for some steps, some people who are near me or were near me. And I think that if these are small mistakes, then they should be forgiven, and they have to correct the situation and show it because people always have to be given a second chance.”

By the way, Zelenskyi avoided answering the question about OPU deputy head Oleh Tatarov, saying it is a question to be asked of the head of Office Andrii Yermak. The thing is that Oleh Tatarov was deputy head of the Investigation Department of the Interior Ministry during the events of the Revolution of Dignity. And he was in charge of the detentions of the protesters, as well as the one putting ultimatums on them. Although Zelenskyi had expressed his opinion about him in a BBC interview earlier, saying that “this particular person did not disperse anyone” and that information about the families of those killed on the Maidan being dissatisfied with him had allegedly been spread by the media associated with Petro Poroshenko.

The era of lack of self-confidence when speaking before journalists is apparently over for Zelenskyi. Today, the President skillfully takes credit for other branches of government and silences or obfuscates uncomfortable questions.

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