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Secretary Pompeo's speech on The Promise of America


Well, good morning, everyone. And thanks, Roger. Thanks to you also, Ben, and all the Reagan Foundation trustees, and the institute staff for making this event possible. It’s really special to be here today.

Secretary Pompeo's speech on The Promise of America

I’m honored that you asked me to inaugurate this Center for Freedom and Democracy.

See if I can’t solve this feedback problem myself.

As we were getting ready for this, as my team was helping me get ready, I was reminded of a line from Emerson – I don’t quote a poetry often; I should do so more – (laughter) – that President Reagan quoted during his famous speech at Westminster, in 1982. He said that an institution is lengthened by the shadow of one man.

And there is no man who did more than Reagan to restore America’s confidence and advance human freedom in the post-World War II era.

And so there’s no better first event for the Sutton Family Auditorium than continuing that work by launching this new institution, 40 years after America sent our 40th President to the White House.

The people-watching online and those in this room are students of President Reagan.

As a kid growing up in California, I got to see him in action as the governor. It was a very different California then. (Laughter.)

But it was Ronald Reagan as the governor who believed in the promise of America and of our people.

He understood that no other nation, under God, was conceived in liberty quite like the one that we are.

His deep, innate understanding of America as an exceptional place in the world gave him the strength to face down the Soviet scourge.

He was confident. He was confident that every threat that he faced – and I must say I am, too. We have many threats today that remain.

But I am equally confident that America will overcome any challenge, from Communist China to the terrorist regime in Tehran.

Because that’s what free people do. We come together; we solve problems; we win, they lose; and we execute our foreign policy confident that we are that shining city on a hill.

And that’s what I want to spend a few minutes talking about today.

Look, I know you all believe in the promise of America’s freedom. President Trump believes in it.

I do too.

Our nation’s story isn’t about dehumanizing critical theories. It’s not about oppressors and oppressed.

It’s not about materialism, or even that might makes right.

It’s about the reality that all men and women are made in the image of God, with certain inherent, God-given rights just by virtue of our humanity. These truths in the Declaration really are indeed self-evident.

Never before, in all of recorded history, was a nation founded on the premise that government’s role is to protect those very rights, to secure them. And it’s what makes us so special. It’s what makes us so good, and it’s what I get to see every day as I work with my team or travel around the world.

It’s what always made our life so attractive to the strivers and those who are seeking a better world.

I must say, as I travel, you don’t see individual families trying to migrate to Iran, or to Russia, or to Venezuela. Those countries offer abuse, not the opportunities that free nations can afford peoples.

I’ve talked about American exceptionalism. I did so in Brussels; I did it in Cairo; I did it in Jakarta and every opportunity that I’ve had in my public life. Sometimes it was met with a resounding thud as well. I’ve walked out of quiet wardrooms.

But President Reagan talked about America’s founding promise. He did it in the same way and did it every chance he got, too.

And at Westminster, he reminded the audience what kind of people they were: free people, worthy of freedom, and determined to not only remain so but to help others gain their freedoms as well.

He, President Reagan, put his belief in freedom and the American promise at the very centre of how he thought about foreign policy. And so is the Trump administration.

It was a half-dozen years after his Westminster Address, President Reagan returned to England and at Guildhall described how he had executed the vision he had outlined in 1982. He said his foreign policy had been one of “strength and candor.”

And those principles have guided President Trump’s foreign policy, too. Take a look at the things that we have done so far.

In the Middle East, American strength has replaced leading from behind. We destroyed the caliphate, the ISIS caliphate. We killed Baghdadi and Soleimani, and we have restored substantial deterrence.

The effort against the Islamic Republic of Iran to put maximum pressure has denied Tehran and its terrorist proxies tens of billions of dollars.

American diplomatic strength has made our relationships with our Gulf partners the closest that they have ever been.

And by just simply recognizing Jerusalem – candidly recognizing Jerusalem – as the capital of Israel and acknowledging that the Golan Heights are part of Israel, we’ve helped secured our ally, the Jewish state, as central to the region’s future.

And it’s – much to the chagrin of some here in town – has delivered peace and forged new ties of prosperity and security through the Abraham Accords. But we’re not finished yet.

Those pillars of strength and candor are also the foundation for America’s policy towards the world’s number-one threat to freedom today: the Chinese Communist Party.

I’ve spoken about this at great length, and I have borrowed from President Reagan with great frequency in how we think about this challenge. For 40 years-plus, we steered a course correction. We changed. Been handled with kid gloves and we had ignored all the contrary evidence that showed that the regime in Beijing really is troublesome. We showed what it is. It is authoritarian; it is brutish and is antithetical to human dignity and freedom.

And we’ve stated clearly and consistently that the United States-China relations will not be dictated by exceptions carved out by the party, but by the simple and powerful standards expected of any nation with aspirations to play a role on the global stage.

That means what we’ve told our counterparts in China – accountability, transparency, reciprocity from Beijing. This is exactly what President Reagan demanded from Moscow.

And it also means no more illegal claims in the South China Sea, no more coercion and co-optation of American businesses, no more consulates used as dens of spies, no more stealing of intellectual property, and no more ignoring fundamental human rights violations. And the party’s atrocities in Xinjiang, Tibet, and elsewhere will not be tolerated.

This challenge requires not only diplomatic effort but military strength to keep the peace. So this administration has made historic investments to enhance our armed forces and to focus their efforts and bolster our primacy in the region.

I’ve been the Secretary of State now for coming on 30 months, traveled the world talking to our friends and partners about the CCP’s nature and its intentions. I’ve told them that the West is winning. I’ve reminded them that we will prevail.

The good news is that the free world and sovereign nations are beginning to wake up. They are now rallying to this cause. I’ll often hear, we don’t want to pick between the United States and China. I remind them that that’s not the fight. The fight is between authoritarianism, barbarism on one side and freedom on the other.

And so we’ve begun to strengthen the institutions that can achieve this objective. From the Quad, to ASEAN, to NATO, we’ve woken them up to the threat posed by this Marxist-Leninist monster.

The new and lasting consensus on the Chinese Communist Party is a historic result of America’s strength and candor, precisely the traits that President Reagan spoke of.

The fact, the urgency of this matter is now accepted all across the political spectrum, and it shows that the Trump administration has succeeded in making this important shift for American national security and indeed for the freedoms of all humanity.

It’s an accomplishment that will steer a generation of American foreign policymakers.

We should all approach this challenge – and indeed every challenge – confident in our nation’s purpose, sure of our values, and determined to protect our way of life because we believe so deeply in America’s promise.

And just like President Reagan, we have every reason to be optimistic. America itself is a continent-wide reminder that freedom is the superior alternative to tyranny.

If our policies aren’t grounded in a love of America – in the knowledge that, though we’re flawed like every other country, that we are, indeed, an exceptional nation; our founding principles are unique and our future promise is also special – then if we get that wrong, our nation will suffer.

But if we get it right, our friends and allies will see America leading, and we will all emerge stronger, freer, and more confident. And we will face the China challenge.

President Reagan knew this. Appeasement and blind engagement makes us weak. Beijing, Tehran, and other tyrannical regimes take advantage of weakness.

And we cannot ever afford to return to the days when America sacrificed its natural leadership to morally pliant multilateral institutions that, in fact, erode American sovereignty. These institutions are run by the same kind of “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital” that Reagan warned us about in his speech that he called “A Time for Choosing.”

We can’t sustain an empty dialogue with regimes that have no intention to forge peace, or to respect the free and open order that we worked so diligently – so diligently to build.

President Reagan’s life and his consistent moral clarity offer us incredibly valuable lessons. It was in 1952, near the start of the Cold War, that Ronald Reagan, an actor, went to Fulton, Missouri – middle America, not far from my home in Kansas. He went to where Churchill gave his Iron Curtain speech just a few years earlier.

There he said, quote, “America…is an idea that has been deep in the souls of man ever since man started his long trail from the swamps. It is nothing but the inherent love of freedom in each one of us.”

That idea, that idea of the inherent love of freedom, led millions in Eastern Europe to tear down the Berlin Wall 31 years ago yesterday, and the Iron Curtain in the months that followed fell too.

And we see – we see in this desire for peace all across the world today. We see it in the people of Hong Kong waving American flags. We see it in the people of Venezuela, tired of Nicolas Maduro’s destructive regime. We see it in Nicaragua, we see Iranians and Belarusians all longing for this very human condition. It’s within each of us.

America had debates about how to confront the Soviet threat.

And we’ve debated and will continue to debate how to approach the China challenge. I think that’s good; I think that’s healthy in a democracy.

But our true north, on which we must always return – our true north – a more perfect union, and greater human freedom in the world, must remain.

This place, this special place, the Reagan Institute will play a key part in that.

Today you are reaffirming America’s belief in the great things at the heart of an amazing nation.

And I’m glad, too, that you’re focusing your work on that Westminster Address, where President Reagan spoke about fostering “the infrastructure of democracy” and leaving Soviet communism on the “ash-heap of history.”

Those remarks, they were early on in his presidency. It was bold. And what he says is true.

It was grounded in America’s first principles, but it was forward-looking and optimistic because Reagan knew those principles were right.

This Center will continue to march on. It will continue that march of freedom and democracy for the next generation.

And you’ll keep lengthening the shadow of a man who reminded Americans that we are in fact good, that we are in fact special, and that the world needs us to live up to our nation’s providential promise.

It is an amazing honor to be here as you’re getting started in this new place.

I look forward to following your work and taking some questions today.

May God bless the United States of America. Thank you all. (Applause.)

MR ZAKHEIM: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I was about to tell you how to put the mic on, but you clearly are —

SECRETARY POMPEO: A trained professional (inaudible).

MR ZAKHEIM: — capable at handling that. So we’re going to take – I’m just going to have a – we have time just for a few questions we’ll do from the stage, and for those in the room and online, I think you agree with me that was just a remarkable set of remarks, and inspiring, actually, the way you integrated President Reagan’s legacy with the work you’ve done as Secretary of State in the Trump administration.

Let’s start with China and the Chinese Communist Party. That was a big piece of your speech, and you reference President Reagan’s speech in Fulton, in Missouri, and many people look at Churchill’s speech in Fulton as kind of – the Iron Curtain speech as the beginning of the Cold War. Your administration, or the President’s administration, your time in this administration – did you witness a moment where you kind of had that Iron Curtain moment, where you recognized that this regime, the Chinese Communist Party presented a challenge that the only frame of reference was really going back to the Cold War?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. So you know the President – if you go back and look at the President’s remarks from his campaign, and even before that, he had identified a number of the challenges connected to the Chinese Communist Party and its behavior. And then early on in the administration as we developed our National Security Strategy, you can see it begin to become fleshed out. You can see the bones being put underneath it. And then as CIA director, I got to see firsthand every morning what these characters were up to.

And when I say that, you got a chance – you get the chance to have the glimpse inside of the apparatus and its intent, which is critical. So we have lived with communist regimes in the world, and they’ll choose their own governments’ model, but they don’t impact the world in the way that Xi Jinping intends to impact the world. And so this combination of capacity and intent on behalf of the current leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, it became very clear that this was the central challenge that this administration would face, and we believe the central challenge America will face in the years ahead.

And so we put together all the apparatus, all the institutions. At the State Department, we have fundamentally re-shifted how we think about the world. My ambassadors, no matter where they are in the world, have China at the top of their list. So if you’re an ambassador in the Democratic Republic of Congo or in South Korea or in Oman, you know that the Chinese Communist Party’s intent on impacting that country, and we are determined to make sure that we use our capacity to push back against that challenge. I articulate it perhaps more clearly in some remarks at the Nixon Library —

MR ZAKHEIM: We’ve heard of that library. It’s —

SECRETARY POMPEO: — where we – yeah, where we, for the first time, took a complete laydown of the scope of the challenge presented, and now the Trump administration has laid out its response, both the American response and then the response that we are working on the world so that the world can see this and do this collectively. Because just as Reagan needed other partners in the fight against the authoritarian regime in the Soviet Union, this will take a global response as well.

MR ZAKHEIM: So I want to talk about allies in just a minute, but just to drill down a little bit more on China. We – the famous image of President Reagan in front of the Berlin Wall – “Tear down this wall” – iconic now, obviously quite controversial. The agency which you lead perhaps didn’t want him to use those words. They got that wrong. But when you think about China and you think about the great firewall, right, which reflects what China’s doing in the digital age, we’re obviously wrestling how we manage the competition with China. Some would suggest that we should reinforce that wall and keep the free world outside of it and let China live within its great firewall. Give me your thoughts on that. Maybe we should take down the great firewall and aspire for that in the same fashion that we wanted the Berlin Wall to come down.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. In the end, the people of China will ultimately be determinative just as the people of the Soviet Union were ultimately determinative of the course of history inside of that country. And so it’s our fundamental effort to work to make sure that the Chinese people have access to information, data, all the things that they will need to see so that they, too, can share in these very freedoms that we all care so much about. So yes, the analogy of the Cold War is imperfect and we can talk about the places it’s different, but make no mistake about it: This innate desire for freedom, for personal autonomy, for human dignity is something that, just as Reagan said, I think, rests in the souls of each of us. And for us to have the capacity to permit them to tear down this firewall that has been built around China would enable the people of China to make a much different set of decisions than the one that their current leadership has taken them down – the path their current leadership is taking them down.

MR ZAKHEIM: So yeah, separating the people from the party obviously a big emphasis of your remarks. Recently I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Natan Sharansky, a famous dissident, refusenik in the Soviet Union, which really impacted the Reagan administration in so many ways from beginning to the end. And he talked about – almost wistfully – about the concept of linkage and how President Reagan and his secretary of state, Secretary Shultz, no matter what the conversation was with the Soviet Union or other leaders around the world, human rights, the plight of people seeking freedom always began the conversation, was always top of the list. Talk to me a little bit about the importance of linkage as explained by President Reagan and Secretary Shultz, referenced by Natan Sharansky. Do we need to do more of it? And how do we continue kind of advancing that, whether you’re dealing with the Chinese Communist Party or even our friends and partners?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Sure. So a complicated – a complicated topic. I’ve actually spent a lot of time. So we’ve put, of course, two – two things at the State Department while I’ve been there. One is I put together a commission; it’s called the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights. We wrote a report; I’d urge you to read it. It takes about 40 minutes to flip through. But it was an attempt to reground American foreign policy in these fundamental understandings about human dignity, and I think the commission did a phenomenal job of going back to our Declaration of Independence, back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and accounting for these things, these pre-political rights that were provided by God, not by the government. And it – I think it refocused our effort in the State Department. I hope that it has set down not policies, but principles on which we ought to do and think about human rights.

Second, we’ve spent a lot of time working on religious freedom issues, that central freedom, the capacity to exercise one’s conscience and one’s faith in the way that they want. And I put those two as a baseline to answer your conversation because it’s the case that no matter where we go, whatever country we’re dealing with, whether they’re people we have a security relationship with or when we’re dealing with the Chinese Communist Party and the horrors that are taking place inside of China today, not just the – I talked about Xinjiang in my remarks, but Catholic churches are being de-Sinicized – are being Sinicized. You’re seeing Christian faith stamped out in Tibet, in now northern Mongolia. Every place that human freedom wants to flourish, the Chinese Communist Party is resisting it. And so each time we have a conversation, at every level between the United States and China, we raise these issues in part because I think the President had it right – to link them matters – but second, I think we have a fundamental obligation to do this on behalf of the American people.

MR ZAKHEIM: In your remarks – and we only have a few more minutes, so we’ll just do a couple more questions – you reference international organizations and how they’ve often sought to erode our sovereignty. You also did that in a section of your speech talking about strength and candor, and the need to have a foreign policy that advances and that speaks that way.

At the same time, international organizations have been used and are necessary despite the critique in your speech, in many conservatives’ view, whether it be Iran and dealing with Iran through the Security Council, or even dealing with COVID and the need to engage with international organizations. Give us your take in terms of sitting atop Foggy Bottom as our diplomat in chief, how you’ve come to think and appreciate or not appreciate the role of international organizations as we advance U.S. interests.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. So you’re right, I appreciate and not appreciate – some of each, to be sure. We’ve come at this as first principles. So it comes back to our central understanding, our no-BS understanding: Does this thing work? You set an institution up, it’s 70 years on, or it’s a hundred years on – is it still functional? Is it fit for purpose? This is what everybody does in their personal life, it’s what every business does. Does the institutional structure permit us to get to the place that we were intending? Not necessarily America’s intention, but the very statement of mission that the institution has.

If it is broken beyond repair in spite of great American efforts – I’d give you the Human Rights Council at the United Nations —

MR ZAKHEIM: A classic example.

SECRETARY POMPEO: — if it’s broken beyond repair, at some point you just have to say, “I don’t want to be connected to that, I can’t fix it, I’m going to try and create something outside of that that will actually deliver on human rights.”

There are other things you try to fix. I’ll – that you – you hinted at the World Health Organization. We have been through three, maybe four efforts at reforming the World Health Organization – significant efforts, real efforts, American-led efforts over decades, Republican and Democrat administrations alike. Epic failures. So the President concluded, frankly on my recommendation, that we ought to go try and build an infrastructure that would actually deliver the very outcomes that the World Health Organization is designed to deliver. So it’s about purpose, function – does it fit, does it work?

I’ll give you an example where we have made one better, we decided we’d go fight. So there’s an organization many won’t know. It’s called the World Intellectual Property Organization. It turns out this actually matters an awful lot to America’s wealth and jobs here at home. It was run by someone controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. There was an election, we were about to allow that person to continue, and the State Department built out a team and went and won an election. We got someone who actually cared about property rights running the World Intellectual Property Organization. Stunning. (Laughter.) I know. To anyone listening saying, “Well, that seems – why are you bragging about this?” It turns out – turns out that it was a close call. There were – it was a hotly contested race. But what we did there is we said this is an institution that matters. If we think we can make this institution function, let’s make sure we get the right team, the right organization, the right structure in place to do that. And so we did.

And so we built out the counter-ISIS coalition of 90 countries. We now have almost 50 nations that are part of what we call our Clean Network who have refused to put Chinese telecom infrastructure inside the country. I remember my first trip abroad, my very first one, where I pitched a country giving up on Huawei. And I remember the reporting the next day: “Pompeo throws himself against the wall and bounces,” right? Just – right? Epic failure. But it turns out that good work, rational thought, candor, data have now led 50 countries and – it’s dozens and dozens of telecom companies – all around the world to say, “No, we’re not going to let this happen.”

So these international infrastructure matters. We should use it for the good of the world. But we never should permit ourselves to continue to be in a situation in one of these organizations where the organization no longer has any possibility of delivering a good outcome.

MR ZAKHEIM: So that framework – the infrastructure, the models, the approach, you have to see if it’s working for you – we were just talking about international organizations, and let’s wrap up with this question. The organizations that came out of President Reagan’s Westminster speech – the National Endowment for Democracy and all those umbrella organizations – those are nearly 40 years old, right, continue to do great work. We have people in the room here that have led some of those organizations. At the same time, the world has changed dramatically since then.

What’s your thinking about what we need to do as a country to update, sharpen, modernize – pick your favourite word – in terms of how we as a country promote and advance freedom and democracy in the world?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. Any time something’s 40 years old – that includes me – (laughter) – it needs – it often needs a makeover. And I think a lot of these institutions also need makeovers. So we’ve all – we all know Voice of America. We all know Radio Free Europe. We all know these institutions that delivered in powerful ways all across the world. But communications have changed; times have changed. The capacity for nations to screen information and the way that they do it has changed.

And I’m not convinced we have it right yet. I think we’ve made a little bit of progress in our four years, but there is an awful lot left to do. These are – places like the National Endowment for Democracy and organizations like what’s now the USAGM have an important role to play around the world in advancing democracy, and we need to make sure we empower them with the right leaders and tools so that they can actually deliver on those objectives.

MR ZAKHEIM: Secretary Pompeo, I’d be remiss without commenting on how you’re the embodiment of peace-through-strength diplomacy with your socks, being a foot soldier –(laughter) – which here at the Reagan Institute, we certainly notice and appreciate. But everyone, please join me in thanking the Secretary of State for joining us —

SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you very much.

MR ZAKHEIM: — and launching our Center for Freedom and Democracy.



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