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Week in Review

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03/25/2017

For the week 3/20-3/24

[Posted 12:30 AM ET, Saturday...all date references, though, are to Friday]

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Edition 937

Trump, AHCA, Intel Investigation and more....

This is a running history, always has been since Day One...now 937 weeks out of 938, one week off, and boy this one wasn’t easy.

To be true to my principles, I can’t just write, “For the United States, participation in World War II commenced with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and ended with the fall of Berlin and the dropping of some atomic bombs on Japan.”  No, if I was writing a weekly review back then, well, I imagine I would have been a mental basket case.

I need to stay as consistent as possible and the first two months of the Trump presidency have been something else.  For starters, selfishly, I wish big stuff would stop happening on Fridays!

What is certain is this was the worst week of the nascent Trump administration.

I have my own comments on the failure of the AHCA at the end of the following segment, and you can be sure I will have far more next time.  For now, if you aren’t more worried about our president than before, send whatever you’re smoking to me. 

AHCA, RIP...for now....

Sunday, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said there is only one way to have universal healthcare in the country.

“The only way to get truly universal care is to throw people in jail if they don’t have it,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”  “And we are not going to do that.”

Trump had said in January that a plan to replace ObamaCare would include the goal of having “insurance for everybody.”

Mulvaney said on Sunday that people should keep in mind what the GOP healthcare plan is replacing.

“What you’ve got now is we’re forcing people to buy it under ObamaCare under penalty of law, and people are still looking for a way not to buy it,” he said.

“So clearly the government mandate doesn’t work. The better process, the better function is exactly what we’re trying to do now, which is to encourage people and enable them to buy a policy they want and can afford.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said, “The president is committed to (providing healthcare insurance for all Americans) as am I and those of us at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Price repeatedly stressed that the AHCA is in the first of three phases.

“So the plan in its entirety is the one that the president has assured the American people every single American will have access to affordable coverage that works for them, not for government, and that’s what we have in mind,” Price told Jake Tapper.

“The fact of the matter is, this bill moving through Congress right now is simply the first step in this process.  The three steps include not just this bill, but the administrative changes that we’re able to put in place at the Department of Health and Human Services,” Price added.

Tuesday, Trump issued a stern warning, telling Republicans they could lose their seats – and the House majority – in 2018 if they fail to repeal and replace ObamaCare.

During a closed-door meeting, Trump told rank-and-file House Republicans if the party is not successful in passing its healthcare bill, “I believe many of you will lose in 2018,” according to a source in the room.

Trump singled out House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who opposes the legislation.

“I think Mark Meadows will get there too,” Trump told Meadows, half-joking, “Mark, I’m coming after you.”

Meadows said at least 21 Freedom Caucus members remained opposed to the legislation.

After the meeting with Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “This is our chance and this is our moment. I think our members are beginning to appreciate just what kind of a rendezvous with destiny we have right here.”

Republicans tried to address concerns of more moderate members, but the modified version still didn’t seem to have enough support.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, one of the bill’s strongest critics, tweeted Tuesday night that opponents have more than enough votes to stop the bill in the House.

Wednesday, the aforementioned Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Meadows, said, “We’re not there yet, but we’re very optimistic that if we work around the clock between now and noon tomorrow, that we’re going to be able to hopefully find some common ground.”

Paul Ryan / Wall Street Journal op-ed

“The election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress provides an opportunity: We can immediately halt the leftward drift of American social policy, while renewing prosperity through market-based, state-driven solutions that empower people instead of bureaucrats. This is the stuff of conservative dreams.  But it will become reality only if Republicans keep the promises we have made.

“That’s what the American Health Care Act is all about.  It is the boldest and most conservative health-care legislation to come before Congress in decades.  Bold because it dismantles the progressive health-care experiment and replaces it with a dynamic, patient-centered system. Conservative because it applies America’s founding principles – freedom, free enterprise and federalism – to the problems of the day.

“Repeal of ObamaCare must happen, and urgently – not because of any ideology but because American families are already paying the price of the law’s collapse. The average premium for a midlevel ObamaCare policy rose 25% this year.  One out of three counties now have only a single insurance provider to choose from. This trend will only worsen: Humana has announced it will not offer coverage in the ObamaCare marketplace for 2018.  Others are threatening to withdraw. As the CEO of Aetna said last month, the individual market is in  a death spiral.  Our plan takes a radically different approach. Instead of imposing arrogant and paternalistic mandates, it would increase choice and competition, creating a vibrant market where every American will have access to quality, affordable coverage....

“The American Health Care Act is the linchpin. It is modeled on legislation introduced during numerous Congresses by Tom Price, now the secretary of health and human services.  It reflects decades of policy making by conservative scholars and organizations.

“The bill effectively guts ObamaCare – all its taxes, mandates and spending. It initiates a stable transition, without pulling the rug out from under anyone.  And it puts in place good, conservative health-care policies.

“First, the legislation gives control of Medicaid back to the states. This is – without question – the biggest entitlement reform in generations.

“Medicaid is a critical lifeline for millions of Americans. Far from modernizing the program, ObamaCare threw more money at Medicaid and set it on an unsustainable course of growth.  With all the bureaucracy and strings attached, too many doctors won’t take Medicaid patients.  It is a broken system.

“Under our plan, for the first time, Medicaid spending will be capped, and states will have the option to receive a pure block grant....

“Second, our bill equips state insurance markets to take care of people with pre-existing conditions without driving up costs for everyone else.

“For decades, many states successfully served high-risk populations by segmenting them from the market into ‘risk pools’ and directly subsidizing their coverage. This gave the most vulnerable Americans access to affordable coverage and stabilized markets, but without requiring higher premiums on healthier individuals to offset the costs....

“ObamaCare effectively did away with these programs. Instead the law relied on mandates to cross-subsidize care – with disastrous results.  Our plan goes back to what works. The bill establishes a stability fund to help states set up their own risk pools and reinsurance mechanisms.  These programs would provide direct support for people with pre-existing conditions, giving states more power to create dynamic markets for consumers.  Ultimately this would lower costs for everyone else, so that more people can purchase a plan that meets their needs.

“Third, our legislation expands health savings accounts, which a Republican Congress established during George W. Bush’s presidency in 2003.

“ObamaCare imposes strict limits on how you can spend your health-care dollars.  This bill nearly doubles the allowable contributions to HSA’s, making it easier to pay out-of-pocket costs.  Giving people more purchasing power will create incentives to shop around, look for the best services, and demand more transparent prices – all of which helps lower costs.

“Fourth, the bill equalizes the tax treatment of health care, addressing an unfairness conservatives have long sought to rectify.

“Right now, the tax code discriminates against people who don’t get health care from their jobs. It makes no sense that those who have insurance through work see a tax benefit, while those who don’t, get nothing....

“By passing the American Health Care Act, we will deliver on our promise to repeal and replace ObamaCare.  By applying conservative ideas and principles, we will remake our health-care system for generations.  The responsibility is ours, and so is the opportunity.”

Well the above was written for publication Thursday morning and that afternoon, the vote was delayed and a few hours later we learned it was to take place Friday, as President Trump said he was tired of negotiating.  Budget director Mulvaney attended a Thursday night Republican conference and demanded that representatives hold the vote.  If they can’t pass the bill, Trump will reprioritize and let ObamaCare stay in place for the foreseeable future, Mulvaney said.  Two of Trump’s closest advisers, Steve Bannon and Gary Cohn, agreed.

House Minority Leader Mancy Pelosi crowed, “So far he’s acting like a rookie.  It’s really been amateur hour.  He seems to think that a charm offensive or a threat will work – that saying ‘I can do this for you’ or ‘I can do this against you’ will work.  That’s not the way it works.”

Also Thursday, a Quinnipiac University national poll was released and American voters disapprove of the GOP health plan by a 56-17 margin, with 26% undecided.  Support among Republicans is a lackluster 41-24.

Quinnipiac found that if their U.S. senator or member of Congress votes to replace ObamaCare with the AHCA, 46% of voters say they will be less likely to vote for that person, while 19% say they will be more likely and 29% say this vote won’t matter.

As to the question of whether Americans approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling health care, 29% approve, 61% disapprove.

And yesterday the Congressional Budget Office said the new version of the Republican health care bill would reduce the deficit by $150 billion over the next decade, not the $336 billion from the original bill.

The deficit reduction figures dropped mostly because the updated measure has additional tax breaks and makes Medicaid benefits more generous for some older and disabled people.

The CBO said the updated legislation would still result in 14 million additional uninsured next year and 24 million more in a decade.

Average premiums for people buying individual coverage would still rise over the next two years compared to current law, but then fall.

I’m not saying the CBO is ever right in these matters, just reporting what their latest analysis reveals.

On to today, Friday, and with a vote rescheduled for the afternoon, it was clear in the morning that Republicans still didn’t have the votes.  Around 3:30 p.m., we learned there would be none.

It was said President Trump had lost confidence in House Speaker Ryan and that he regretted making health care reform one of his first presidential priorities, as close associates of Trump’s told the New York Times.  You can imagine Trump fuming Thursday night, let alone as I write.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized for Friday’s paper, prior to the scrapping of the vote:

“As Republicans contemplate wasting this historic reform opportunity, they should start thinking about the costs and responsibility of failure....

“The real obstacle to progress has been the 29 or so Members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have the power to deny Mr. Ryan a majority of 216 with a mere 22-vote margin of error.  The Freedom Caucus blocked incremental reform progress after the GOP took Congress under President Obama, and the question is whether they will indulge the same rule-or-ruin tactics now against Mr. Trump.”

Thus far they have.

Wall Street Journal:

“By insisting on the impossible over the achievable, these self-styled guardians of conservative purity could become the worst friends conservative ideas and free markets have had in decades.”

After the vote was squelched, Paul Ryan said in a press conference, addressing the Freedom Caucus without naming them, that “everyone needs to say ‘yes’ to the good, even if it’s not ‘perfect.’”

My sentiments exactly.  I’m sick of these guys, the same ones who shut down the government, and how did that work out?! 

Trump said around 4:00 p.m. from the Oval Office, flanked by Vice President Pence and Sec. Price, “We’re going to go for tax reform.”

Trump added, as he blamed Democrats solely, that he believed they will “end up with a truly great healthcare bill in the future once this mess known as ObamaCare explodes.”

At the same time, he said he was open to Democrats’ ideas.  But Trump has shown zero ability to rally those outside his base, which I guarantee will soon begin abandoning him.  He is seriously intellectually deficient.

Plus Trump took zero blame for the fiasco.  Gee, I really respect that.

The bottom line, for now, is that during the Obama years, Republicans voted 60 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  Then they get the power and can’t do it.  It’s been the key promise, campaign after campaign.

Trump told us, you’ll be “tired of winning.”  Instead, I’m already long tired of writing about the guy.

Far more postmortems next week as we see how the administration shifts its focus.

The Issue of Potential Russian Involvement in the Election....

Sunday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes was asked during an interview on “Fox News Sunday” if he has seen any evidence of any collusion between “Trump world” and Russia to swing the 2016 presidential election.

“I’ll give you a very simple answer: ‘No,’” Nunes said.

Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the panel’s top Democrat, also said there is no proof of a wiretap: “We are at the bottom of this: There is nothing at the bottom.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a radio interview that with regards to Trump’s allegations of wiretapping, “If there was a warrant issued to surveil the Trump campaign, I want to know about it. That would be disturbing because you’d have to have probable cause to get one.  If there is no surveillance of the Trump campaign by the FBI or any other group, I think the American people need to know that,” he added.

Graham also said of WikiLeaks that it was a “Russian front...I want Russia to pay a price.  As Republicans we should be very upset that a foreign power would try to interfere in our election.  I want to punish the hell out of Russia,” he added.

Monday, FBI Director James Comey, in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, along with that of National Security Director Michael Rogers, denied publicly (ditto Rogers) that Trump had been wiretapped.  Comey then stated the FBI was investigating Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and potential links of Trump’s associates to the Kremlin.

“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 president election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.  As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”

On the accusation of wiretapping, Comey asserted that the FBI has no evidence supporting the wiretapping claims, Comey added: “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.”

While Democrats pushed their belief that there were ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, Republicans insisted the real issue was that people with access to classified information were leaking it to damage the new administration.

Several Republicans were upset by how the controversy surrounding Michael Flynn came into the public domain.

Republicans also tried to advance the narrative there is a “deep state” working to undermine the president.

Near the end of the day’s proceedings, Devin Nunes told Comey he had put “a big gray cloud” over the White House and that Comey should act quickly to finish his investigation.

Bottom line, there was no smoking gun from either side’s perspective.

While the hearing was going on, in the afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer sought to distance the White House from figures mentioned during the testimony, such as Paul Manafort, who Spicer insisted played “a very limited role” in Trump’s campaign.

Of course every American who watched the news last year knew Manafort was a key figure, especially between June and the convention in August.

And Spicer described Carter Page, a key campaign adviser at one point, as a “hanger-on.”  But Page’s dealings with Russia were called into question.

Anthony Zurcher / BBC News:

“What FBI Director James Comey didn’t say during intelligence hearings today on possible Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election was as important as what he did say.

“Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who had ties to pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians?  No comment.  Long-time Trump adviser Roger Stone, who reportedly had communications with individuals who hacked the Democratic National Committee emails?  No comment.  Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after leaked evidence surfaced that he had communicated with a Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions?  No comment.

“ ‘I don’t want to answer any questions about a U.S. person,’ Mr. Comey said.

“All of this is evidence that the investigation isn’t just ongoing, it’s substantive and far-reaching.

“While Democrats will likely be encouraged by this, it was telling that Republicans pursued the White House line that the topic of greatest concern was the intelligence leaks that put this story in the headlines.

“If Mr. Trump can consolidate his party’s support, it will go a long way towards insulating the president against any fallout from this investigation.”

Editorial / Washington Post

“A House Intelligence Committee hearing Monday produced the remarkable spectacle of FBI Director James B. Comey publicly testifying that there was ‘no information that supports’ tweets by President Trump alleging wiretapping of his New York headquarters on the order of President Barack Obama. It saw National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers agree with the British government that it was ‘utterly ridiculous’ for the White House to suggest that such surveillance had been undertaken by Britain’s signals agency. And it produced official confirmation by Mr. Comey that the agency is investigating Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election, including possible coordination with members of the Trump campaign.

“You’d think that all of this would be of surpassing concern for Republican members of Congress. The president who leads their party has been officially reported to have made false statements alleging criminal activity by his predecessor. What’s more, his campaign is under scrutiny for possible cooperation with a dedicated and dangerous U.S. adversary in order to subvert American democracy.

“Yet to listen to Republican members of the Intelligence Committee, the most pressing problem to arise from Russia’s intervention and the FBI’s investigation of it is that reports of contacts between Russia’s ambassador and Mr. Trump’s designated national security adviser were leaked to The Post.  The priority of Chairman Devin Nunes and other Republican members, judging from their statements, is not fully uncovering Russia’s actions but finding and punishing those who allowed the public to learn about them.

“Mr. Nunes and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) could not have been more zealous in their outrage over the exposure of Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign as national security adviser after reports in The Post exposed his lies about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.  Mr. Flynn accepted nearly $68,000 in payments from Russian companies, including the state propaganda outlet, before advocating greater cooperation with Moscow during his brief White House stint.  Yet Mr. Nunes and Mr. Gowdy would have it that hunting down the sources for the disclosure that Mr. Flynn discussed the lifting of U.S. sanctions with Mr. Kislyak is more urgent than learning the full extent of the contacts he and other Trump aides had with Moscow.

“The Republicans seem to be slavishly following the cues of the president, who, while failing to retract his accusation against Mr. Obama, is seeking to direct attention elsewhere.  ‘The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information,’ he tweeted Monday morning.  Such a diversion, like anything else that distracts attention from Vladimir Putin’s support for his election, would be to Mr. Trump’s advantage.”

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“Well, that wasn’t very helpful.  FBI director James Comey took his latest star turn before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday and didn’t disclose much of anything new about Russian meddling in the presidential election or wiretaps of Trump Tower.

“Mr. Comey did confirm what four bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees said last week – that the FBI has ‘no information’ to support President Trump’s assertion that Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. He also acknowledged that the FBI is investigating Russia’s electoral meddling and any connection to the Trump campaign, which everyone also knew.

“In other words, Mr. Comey was his usual political self, handing out the headline that Democrats wanted about Mr. Trump’s false accusation but offering little to educate the public about what really happened.

“Mr. Comey also refused to answer whether the FBI has evidence of collusion between Trump officials and Russia.  He kept mum even though former Obama director of national intelligence James Clapper, former acting Obama CIA director Michael Morell, and House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes have said publicly that they have seen no such evidence.

“While there’s no evidence for Mr. Trump’s typically over-the-top claim of Trump Tower wiretapping, we do know that some parts of the U.S. government listened to and then leaked word about conversations that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

“Yet Mr. Comey pre-empted questions about the instigators or methods of this surveillance, including whether there was a FISA court order on Mr. Flynn or other campaign officials.  Mr. Comey said he couldn’t comment on a pending investigation, which would be more credible if he hadn’t been so voluble during the election campaign.

“The point of the House-Senate Intelligence probes should be to learn and then disclose to Americans what happened on both questions: What the Russians did with whom, and whether and why the Obama Administration eavesdropped on the Trump campaign?

“If Mr. Comey won’t help, our hope is that the intelligence committees will go further than they usually do in declassifying relevant details. The public needs to know if there was political canoodling with a foreign government and whether the Obama Administration used cloak-and-dagger methods for partisan purposes.”

Wednesday, House Intelligence Chair Nunes suddenly went to the White House to personally brief President Trump about intelligence he says he has seen regarding surveillance of foreign nationals during the presidential transition.

The surveillance inadvertently picked up the president or members of his transition team, the chairman said, Nunes the first high-ranking lawmaker to assert this.

“What I’ve read seems to me to be some level of surveillance activity, perhaps legal. I don’t know that it’s right,” Nunes told reporters outside the White House. “I don’t know that the American people would be comfortable with what I’ve read.”

“The president needs to know these intelligence reports are out there,” Nunes added.  “I think the president is concerned, and he should be.”

Trump was asked whether he felt vindicated in his claims that he was wiretapped during the campaign at his Trump Tower headquarters by President Barack Obama’s administration. That claim has been roundly rejected by members of the intelligence community, including FBI Director James B. Comey and Nunes himself, who again dismissed the wiretapping allegation Wednesday outside the White House.

“I somewhat do. I must tell you somewhat do,” Trump said when asked the question by reporters.  “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found.”

Nunes said earlier, before heading to the White House, that U.S. intelligence agencies may have picked up communications involving Trump as part of court-approved surveillance of foreign intelligence targets in the period between Trump’s election and his inauguration.

Nunes told reporters that Trump and other members of his team probably had their communications intercepted through “incidental collection,” or surveillance of foreign nationals.

Nunes said he had been handed the information from a source but was confident the information he received is official and from the intelligence community.

“From what I know right now, it looks like incidental collection,” Nunes said.  “We don’t know exactly how that was picked up, but we’re trying to get to the bottom of it.”

Nunes said the situation will be clarified after he receives a full list of American citizens who were “unmasked” during the surveillance.  He expected to receive that Friday from the National Security Agency, the FBI and the CIA.

The NSA sweeps up phone calls and emails from around the world, looking for intelligence that might be of interest to U.S. officials. If something is found, an analyst writes it up.

Names of Americans are “minimized” to remove their identities and protect their privacy.  But senior U.S. officials can ask for the names if they believe the information would allow them to better understand the intelligence, which is “unmasking.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee, blasted Nunes for going over his head and briefing Trump himself on the apparent findings, saying that the move “casts quite a profound cloud” over the panel’s investigation.

“I have expressed my grave concerns with the Chairman that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way,” Schiff said in a statement.

“Because the committee has still not been provided the intercepts in the possession of the Chairman, it is impossible to evaluate the Chairman’s claims. It certainly does not suggest – in any way – that the President was wiretapped by his predecessor,” Schiff added.

Nunes told CNN after meeting at the White House, “The unmasking really bothers me. There has to be a reason for the unmasking. We have to know who ordered the unmasking.”

“The reason that we do this and that we have all these procedures in place is to protect American citizens,” Nunes said, adding that there is a “certain threshold met to make it into intelligence products.”

Go back to a week ago, Thursday, when President Trump said in a Fox News Channel interview, “I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”

Last Sunday, Nunes said Trump could be referring to new information about whether intelligence officials “unmasked,” or identified, U.S. citizens who were captured speaking with foreign officials who are under routine surveillance.

So look what then happened Wednesday.  Who was Nunes’ source?

After the Nunes visit to the White House without first informing the Democrats on the House Intel Committee, Arizona Sen. John McCain said: “It’s a bizarre situation, and what I think, the reason why I’m calling for this select committee or a special committee, is I think that this back-and-forth and what the American people have found out so far that no longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone. And I don’t say that lightly.”

The White House was forced to distance itself from President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who has long maintained he never worked to advance Russia’s interests, which Trump has repeatedly repeated.

But Wednesday saw the revelation Manafort had signed a $10 million annual contract in 2006 with a Kremlin-connected oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, and wrote a memo indicating he could “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage in the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government.”

Manafort called the Associated Press report, “smear and innuendo.”

“I have always publicly acknowledged that I worked for Mr. Deripaska and his company, Rusal, to advance its interests,” he said in the statement.  “I did not work for the Russian government.”

Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign in August after reports he had received $12.7 million in undisclosed payments from deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Ukrainian political party.

So Trump officials, including White House press secretary Sean Spicer, are frantically downplaying Manafort’s role, while saying Trump didn’t know anything about the new report.

Tuesday, in Kiev, a Ukrainian lawmaker, Serhiy Leshchenko, released documents, long rumored, that he said showed Manafort used offshore accounts and falsified invoices while working there as a political consultant to disguise payments from Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president. This related to a criminal case against one Ukrainian government official, and prosecutors have said they believe the notations in a previously released ledger detailing $12.7 million in cash payments to Manafort from the pro-Russian Party of Regions to be genuine.

Manafort has denied receiving any of the payments recorded in the ledger.    [Alan Cullison and Nathan Hodge / Wall Street Journal]

So today, Friday, Chairman Nunes started backtracking. What became clear is he hasn’t really seen any hard documents regarding “unmasking.”  This is pathetic.  He also canceled a public hearing for next week after pressure from the White House. Instead, he said the committee needed to have a closed-door briefing from Comey and Rogers.  Schiff blasted the move.

The scheduled witnesses were former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, all in office when the purported hacking and disinformation by Russia to influence the election took place.

Nunes then announced Paul Manafort, through his lawyers, told the committee he is volunteering to be interviewed, though it’s not known if this would be in open or closed session.  Nunes acted as if it would be the latter, which is an easier way for the incredibly sleazy Manafort to cover his rich butt.

Opinion....

Editorial / USA TODAY

“The import of what unfolded Monday on Capitol Hill is difficult to overstate.  FBI Director James Comey testified that the presidential campaign of the man now occupying the White House is under investigation for potentially cooperating with the Russians to win the 2016 election.

“Comey, with National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers beside him, repeated previous findings that the Russians hacked into the Democratic National Committee and indirectly passed stolen findings to WikiLeaks for the express purpose of helping Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.  ‘They wanted to hurt our democracy,’ Comey told the House Intelligence Committee.

“That is stunning enough.  But Comey went a step further and acknowledged for the first time publicly that the investigation, which began last July, also involves whether Trump associates colluded with the Russians, including ‘an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.’

“That appears to contradict Trump’s tweet at 3:49 a.m. Monday: ‘Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign.’ Would the FBI feel compelled to disclose an investigation ‘made up’ by the Democrats?

“Now the nation enters a new and difficult phase for Trump’s young presidency, one that carries the potential of scandal for those who helped bring Trump to power and could conceivably overshadow his efforts to recast health care, reform the tax system and fight terrorism.  Already, the House hearing eclipsed what normally would be a major event, the first Senate confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court nominee.

“Let’s be clear. There’s no evidence that the Russian hacking altered enough votes to change the outcome of the election. The main potential crime discussed Monday was whether information was illegally leaked about former national security adviser Michael Flynn.  And no one has said that Trump himself is a suspect.  Comey talked only of ‘investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.’

“But neither can the nation assume that when James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, reported no evidence of ‘collusion’ between the Trump campaign and the Russians, at least through the end of the Obama term, that was the final word on the subject.

“One case, however, should be mercifully closed at this point: Trump’s ludicrous allegation during a tweet storm this month that President Obama bugged Trump Tower.  ‘I have no information that supports those tweets,’ Comey told the committee, and Rogers dismissed speculation that British intelligence might have bene involved.

“In light of their testimony, it’s time for Trump to take the advice of many, including Republican congressmen such as Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Will Hurd of Texas, and apologize for those tweets, explaining that he simply misinterpreted news reports.”

Gerald F. Seib / Wall Street Journal

“In fits and starts, the nascent administration of Donald Trump is trying to show that it really does value traditional allies and alliances, despite the president’s past campaign rhetoric and current Twitter flourishes suggesting the contrary.

“Good thing, too, because America’s allies and alliances are under exceptional stress right now.

“Scan the globe and you will see three distinct theaters of stress. Collectively, they affect nearly all of America’s friends abroad, making this a particularly important time for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the two most important adults in the foreign-policy room, to send the right reassuring signals to America’s friends.

“In Asia, the twin threats of Chinese bullying and North Korean nuclear brinkmanship are unsettling an entire region. China’s territorial claims and island-building in the South China Sea are intimidating the Philippines and Vietnam, while the North Korean threat is unnerving South Korea and Japan....

“In Europe, Russian attempts at intimidation range from overt bullying of Ukraine to more subtle interference in elections.

“The Kremlin’s intimidation recently has taken on troubling nuclear overtones. Russia has deployed short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a small Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania, and its bombers last month came close enough to British airspace that the Royal Air Force scrambled jets to intercept them.

“The third theater of stress is in the Middle East, where Islamic State, and to a lesser degree Iran, question the very legitimacy of existing Arab governments....

“Administration officials look at this triple play of challenges and find a common thread: Each threat represents an attack on the existing state system. The prevailing world order is under more strain than is commonly recognized.

“It’s no coincidence that a new book by Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former aide to presidents of both parties, is titled ‘A World in Disarray.’  He refers to a global ‘trend toward disorder’ and ‘a world in which centrifugal forces are gaining the upper hand.’

“All told, it is a disconcerting time for an American president who has questioned the value of traditional alliances and a more globalized economy.  As a candidate, Mr. Trump was skeptical of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, suggested American allies were freeloaders, and, at one point, implied that American allies in Asia were free to develop their own defenses, including nuclear ones, rather than rely on the U.S.

“The good news is that there is no law mandating that campaign statements must become administration policy. And indeed, Mr. Trump is steadily inching back from some of his campaign posturing....

“What’s still lacking, though, is a coherent statement of a national-security strategy to reconcile conflicting Trump impulses.  For example, the president has criticized past American commitments in the Middle East while also making his own commitment to wipe out Islamic State forces.  He has said the U.S. has been too eager to send the military into foreign fights, yet seeks a $54 billion increase in the  fiscal 2018 budget for that military.  He has pledged both to confront China and Russia and to try to get along better with them.

“What does it add up to?  Most likely a strategy of seeking sufficient power to negotiate from a position of strength.  In any case, a clear strategic message would be welcome at a time of exceptional global stress.”

Wall Street

Stocks played a waiting game all week on the Republicans health-care plan, with little movement on Monday, Wednesday or Thursday, in anticipation of the vote Thursday, then postponed.  Friday, the Dow Jones and S&P fell, while Nasdaq rose a bit.

But Tuesday saw the biggest one-day decline since September on the Dow, down 237 points, really over fears generated in the hearings Monday on the wiretapping issue and the FBI director’s declaration that there was a formal investigation of Russian involvement in the election and possible Trump campaign collusion.  It was the sense that the whole Trump agenda could collapse, plus the knowledge this market has been priced for perfection and the passage of market-friendly, pro-growth policies.  Friday’s news on the AHCA doesn’t hurt this view and I would expect next week to be very sloppy.

On the economic front, existing home sales for the month of February came in lower than expected, a decline of 3.7% to 5.48 million on an annualized basis, as low supply in the affordable price range impacted buying.  The median home price rose 7.1% year-over-year to $228,400, which isn’t exactly a help.  New home sales for the month did come in better than expected at 592,000, up 6.1%, the best pace since July.

Durable goods orders for February were slightly higher than the Street forecast, 1.7%, 0.4% ex-transportation.

On the Fed side, John Williams, head of the San Francisco Fed, told the Wall Street Journal that he reckons “the economy is in a good place right now,” noting that growth is “basically a little bit above trend.”

But the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow barometer is at just 1.0% growth for the first quarter, a tick up from last week’s 0.9% projection.

Personally, I do not believe the Fed will hike again in May and that rates will just rise two more times, max, the rest of the year because I am changing my tune on the administration’s ability to advance its agenda.  Certainly the bond market is telling you, at least today, that rates will remain lower, for longer.

Earnings season commences in earnest in three weeks and forecasts for a 10% hike in same for all of 2017 are still in order, according to the experts. I believe by end of April these same folks will be scrambling as confidence evaporates as quickly as it formed.

Lastly, at last weekend’s Group of 20 meeting of finance ministers, the world’s top economic powers dropped a pledge to oppose trade protectionism amid pushback from the Trump administration.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, taking part in his first international meeting since being sworn in, sought to downplay the wording issue.

“The historical language was not really relevant,” he said.  “We believe in free trade: we are one of the largest markets in the world, we are one of the largest trading partners in the world.  Having said that, we want to re-examine certain agreements...And to the extent that agreements are old agreements and need to be renegotiated we’ll consider that as well.”  Mnuchin said trade deals need to offer a “win-win situation.”

Mnuchin said the administration would be looking at relationships where the U.S. was buying more than it could sell to its partner, and would be more aggressive in seeking enforcement of existing rules that would benefit U.S. workers through the World Trade Organization.

Editorial / Bloomberg News

“Presumably at the insistence of the U.S. administration, the latest statement from the Group of 20 big economies conspicuously dropped the standard promise to ‘avoid all forms of protectionism.’  It’s worth pausing to understand why that promise was ever worth making, and honoring.

“The reason is surely not that governments always keep their word.  For years they’ve been backsliding on their ritual commitment to keep markets open – and partly for that reason, the prospects for world trade were already looking poor.  But those prospects will be so much worse if governments, led by the U.S., now come to regard protectionism as a policy to be openly embraced.

“In the recovery from the recent global recession, the volume of world trade has grown more slowly than it should.  During the past four years, especially, the slowdown has been pronounced.  Disentangling the causes isn’t easy.  Weak investment demand due to the unusual severity of the slump is one factor.  But trade policy is another.  Since 2012, protectionism has been quietly ratcheting up.

“As always, traditional measures such as state aid, export incentives and public pronouncement are being used to protect domestic producers. In addition, governments everywhere have been using new local-content requirements to discriminate against foreign competitors.  According to one analysis, the U.S. has led this post-2008 trend, even with an avowedly pro-trade administration in charge.

“It’s a cliché of trade policy that you need to keep moving to stand still, and the experience of the past few years proves the point.  Without big new agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership – strongly championed by former President Barack Obama, but rejected by Congress – international competition gets nibbled away.  Instead of this mildly debilitating process of attrition, President Donald Trump now contemplates a frontal assault on liberal trade.

“Although the basic case for free trade has gone out of academic fashion lately, it remains as strong and simple as ever.  Competition is the wellspring of prosperity – and liberal trade promotes competition....

“Changes in rhetoric are one thing, changes in policy quite another – but if deeds follow words, the world is in trouble.  If Trump leads governments toward a new era of outright protectionism, he will do untold damage both to the U.S. and to the wider global economy.”

* I urge you to read my current “Wall Street History” piece on trade from 3/20.

Europe and Asia

First a little news on the eurozone economy.  As reported by Markit, a flash reading on activity in March for the EA19 showed the composite reading on manufacturing and services came in at 56.7 (50 being the dividing line between growth and contraction), a 71-month high, with manufacturing, specifically, at 56.2, and services at 56.5, both 71-month highs as well.

Germany’s composite was 57.0, a 70-month high, manufacturing 58.3, a 71-mo. high, and services 55.6.

France’s flash reading for this month was 57.6, a 70-mo. high, with manufacturing at a solid 53.4 and services 58.5, 70-mo. high.  Again, it’s ironic that now that the French economy is turning around, and has been for about six months in earnest, it’s too late for President Francois Hollande, who pulled out of the presidential race long ago.  [France economic growth for the fourth quarter was confirmed to be 0.4%, in line with Germany’s after years of falling behind its major rival.  Rising tax revenues have also pushed France’s deficit from 3.8% to 3.2% in Q4, though 3.4% for the year – still above the EU’s 3% ceiling.

In the U.K., the consumer price index for February was the highest since Sept. 2013, 2.3%, on its way to 3% this year, according to most estimates, but with no real wage growth. The Bank of England is loath to hike rates because it also sees an imminent economic slowdown with the consumer being pinched, as well as the Brexit uncertainty, now that the actual negotiating process is about to begin.

The euro hit a six-month high on the French election debate, see below, and the feeling that Marine Le Pen didn’t have a shot at upsetting the entire European Union in Brexit-like fashion.

Eurobits....

Speaking of Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May said she will trigger Article 50 on March 29, launching two years of complex negotiations that will pit Britain’s need for a trade deal against the rest of the EU’s view that Britain should not benefit, in order to set an example for the others... ‘don’t try this.’

The European Union announced it would hold a summit of leaders to conclude its response to the U.K.’s notification of exit on April 29, in the middle of France’s presidential elections.  At the summit, leaders will adopt their formal guidelines for negotiations which will be headed by the European Commission.

At stake is whether Britain can regain powers over immigration and lawmaking without derailing trade with its largest market, or threatening London’s status as the region’s leading financial center.  This last item is already breaking down as European financial centers such as Frankfurt and Paris, let alone the likes of Poland, vie for workers, knowing the banks headquartered in London will most assuredly have to break out to maintain easy access to the EU.  This, and immigration, will probably dominate discussion in this space the next 18-24 months.

Should Theresa May and her government not be able to reach a good deal, Britain would crash out of the EU with devastating consequences.  As Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny warned, and as I’ve said since last June and the Brexit referendum, talks could turn “vicious” and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker predicted they will be “very, very difficult.”

But Tim Barrow, the U.K.’s man in Brussels, told MPs this week that he was convinced Britain and the EU can strike an ambitious free trade agreement within the negotiating window.

At the same hearing, David Jones, the minister responsible for Exiting the EU, said the U.K. was at a “huge advantage” in negotiating a trade deal as all of its current arrangements were “already in alignment” with the bloc’s standards.

The EU, remember, will set the size of the ‘divorce bill,’ which has been estimated at around 600bn euro, while one official responsible for negotiations, Sir Bill Cash (an appropriate name), said it was worth “bearing in mind” that the U.K. helped restructure Germany’s post-war debts at the London conference in 1953.

“It might be worth tactfully reminding people, not one of my strongest points, that there is a realistic position here that we don’t really owe anything to the EU whether it is legal or political,” he said, change jingling in his pocket.

Meanwhile, Scotland is to hold a vote next week on whether to go through with a referendum in 2018 on independence.

Support for independence is at 44% of Scottish voters, one percentage point less than the result for leaving the U.K. in a 2014 vote.  A survey by the Sunday Times also showed 51% of Scots don’t want another vote in the next few years, while 32% do.

In France, the first big presidential debate for the April 23 / May 7 election was held Monday, with five candidates (including the Socialist and Leftist leaders) on stage for 3 ½ hours.

It was felt ‘centrist’ Emmanuel Macron won it, though there was no knockout blow and it was more about Macron doing nothing to dispel the notion that at 39 years old he is qualified, than details on policy.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen said on immigration: “I want to stop immigration both legal and illegal and I’m proud of my plan.”  In her closing statement, in which she attacked the EU: “Savage globalization has been a nightmare for you,” she told voters.

The recent polls all show Macron and Le Pen at 24-26% for the first round, with Francois Fillon at 17-18, though an OpinionWay survey Friday had it Le Pen 25, Macron 24 and Fillon 19.  In this one, Macron was seen wiping out Le Pen in the run-off, 63-37, while Fillon would win a second round 57-43.

Fillon late Thursday accused President Hollande of directing a covert operation to meddle with the judicial investigation against him and aiding the spread of damaging revelations.  He also asked the French justice system to investigate Hollande, Fillon citing a newly released book on the Interior Ministry’s practices in recent years, which he says show the sitting president has “a black cabinet” and also show Hollande is meddling with the justice system.  [Financial Times]

Earlier in the week, a report surfaced that Fillon had received $54,000 for setting up a meeting between a Lebanese billionaire, Russian President Putin and Total SA CEO Patrick Pouyanne in 2015.

And then today, Fillon made comparisons with his treatment by the media with that of a politician who committed suicide in 1993, Pierre Beregovoy.  “I understood why you could be brought to this extreme when suddenly the image of you that is presented is the opposite of what you are.”  The dead politician’s nephew called Fillon’s comments “sickening” and the remarks whipped up another media storm, yet another misstep by Fillon.

Meanwhile, Le Pen had a surprise meeting with Russian President Putin in Moscow.  Le Pen was there to look for financial support from Russian banks, her party cut off from French ones (it’s a PR nightmare for a French bank to be associated with her, as you can imagine) and unexpectedly, Putin met with her at the Kremlin.

Putin said in televised comments: “We’re not trying in any way to influence events but we reserve the right for ourselves to meet with representatives of all political forces of the country, as our partners do, for example in Europe and the U.S.”

Le Pen said before her meeting that she’s always opposed EU sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine as “counterproductive.”

For his part, Emmanuel Macron has accused the Kremlin of cyberattacks on his campaign and spreading false rumors.

One other item, the attack at Orly airport on Saturday, where a man tried to snatch a patrol soldier’s weapon and was shot dead, didn’t hurt Le Pen’s cause as he was known to intelligence services.  Earlier the same day he had shot and injured an officer in another part of the Paris region when stopped for an identity check.

--Worrisomely, Greek deposit outflows resumed, prompting the central bank to raise the ceiling of emergency liquidity available to lenders, as a deadlock in bailout talks sparked fears of a repeat of the 2015 drama that pushed Greece to the brink of collapse.

--The European Union is celebrating its 60th anniversary on Saturday in Rome, this as Britain is pulling out of it days later.

--Relations between the EU and Turkey continued to deteriorate, as Brussels sought an explanation from Turkey for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s suggestion that mounting strains between the two sides could threaten the safety of Europeans.

Erdogan said this week that Europeans would be unable to “walk safely on the streets” in any part of the world if they did not change their attitude towards his country.

Erdogan continues to make comments such as comparing Germans and the Dutch to Nazis for refusing to allow Turkish ministers to address rallies in their countries in support of the April constitutional referendum, discussed further below.

Erdogan also said Turkey was “not a country you can pull and push around, not a country whose citizens you can drag on the ground.”

In his first speech as president of Germany (a figure-head position), Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned Erdogan that he risked destroying everything his country had achieved in recent years. 

 “End the unspeakable Nazi comparisons!  Do not cut ties to those people who want partnership with Turkey!  Respect the rule of law and the freedom of media and journalists! And release Deniz Yucel,” this last one a reference to a German-Turkish journalist who has been detained on trumped up terrorism charges.

The real immediate danger is that Erdogan will go back on the refugee deal struck with the European Union after the referendum and allow millions to flee into Europe.

One more on this topic...Erdogan implored his Turkish compatriots on the Continent to have multiple children as an act of revenge against the West’s “injustice.”

“Go live in better neighborhoods. Drive the best cars.  Live in the best houses,” he said on Friday.  “Make not three, but five children.  Because you are the future of Europe. That will be the best response to the injustices against you.”

A recent Pew Research Center study notes that the Muslim population in Europe was 4 percent in 1990 and is expected to grow to 8 percent by 2030.

--Lastly, you had the terror incident at the British parliament on Wednesday, including on Westminster Bridge, where a home-grown Islamist extremist mowed down people in his car before crashing into a gate at parliament, stabbing a policeman there to death and killing three others on the bridge, before being shot to death himself by security.

“An act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy,” Prime Minister May told a packed House of Commons the day after.  “We are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism,” she said.

Police fanned out across Britain and arrested eight in raids linked to the rampage. ISIS claimed responsibility, saying “the perpetrator...was a soldier of ISIS and the operation was carried out in response to calls to target coalition countries,” said a spokesman for the group.  It is felt the attacker acted alone and he had been inspired by international terrorism.

The carnage was unleashed on the one-year anniversary of the twin attacks on Brussels that killed 32 people.

Europe has been on high alert for two years now amidst a wave of deadly extremist assaults.

Poland’s prime minister drew a link on Thursday between the London attack and the European Union’s migrant policy, saying the assault vindicated Warsaw’s refusal to take in refugees.

Poland’s right-wing, Eurosceptic government has refused to accept any of the 6,200 migrants allocated to it under the European Union’s quota scheme that is designed to share the burden of taking in large numbers of migrants and refugees.

Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said in a television interview: “I hear in Europe very often: do not connect the migration policy with terrorism, but it is impossible not to connect them.”

In Asia, China’s February home prices in the 70 largest cities rose 12.4% from a year ago, but 0.4% over January.  Prices in Beijing rose 22.1%.

In Japan, the flash manufacturing reading for March came in at 52.6 vs. 53.3 in February.

Street Bytes

--The Dow Jones suffered its worst weekly loss since prior to the election, -1.5% to 20596.  The S&P 500 lost 1.4% and Nasdaq 1.2%

--U.S. Treasury Yields

6-mo. 0.89%  2-yr. 1.26%  10-yr. 2.41%  30-yr. 3.01%

Treasuries continued to rally, with the yield on the 10-year down 20 basis points since a high of 2.61% on March 13.  All about a fall in confidence over just how much the Trump administration can accomplish.

--President Trump unveiled his administration’s official go-ahead for the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project that was rejected by his predecessor.

--The Trump administration made it tougher for millions of visitors to enter the U.S. by demanding new security checks before giving visas to tourists, business travelers and relatives of American residents. Consular offices have been instructed, through Sec. of State Rex Tillerson, to broadly increase scrutiny, i.e., “extreme vetting.”  Good.

The new rules don’t apply to citizens of 38 countries, including most of Europe and longstanding allies like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.

Even stricter security checks for people from six predominantly Muslim nations remain on hold because federal courts have temporarily blocked President Trump’s travel ban.

--Related to the above, and the reason why it’s in this section, is the new restriction, via Homeland Security, that passengers on foreign airlines headed to the United States from 10 airports in eight majority-Muslim countries are barred from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone.

This could have an impact on business travel as those who like to get their work done on the long flights might opt to choose alternatives.  American-operated airlines, for example, aren’t part of the measure.  The United Kingdom quickly followed suit in announcing a similar ban.

The reason for the new restriction is intelligence related to the 2015 downing of a MetroJet airliner over Egypt, which was downed by a bomb in a soda can, as well as other incidents, such as the following, not mentioned in the articles you’ve read on the topic as they cite the downing of a Somali plane.

WIR 5/28/16

“Egypt: Human remains retrieved from the site where EgyptAir flight 804 went down suggest that an explosion may have brought down the aircraft, Egyptian forensic officials told news agencies on Tuesday.  The impact zone apparently has been identified, but no word on how long it will take to bring up the fuselage, let alone the black boxes.

“As for why if it was a bomb that brought down the plane there has been no claim of responsibility, al-Qaeda would have reason not to stake a claim. It took a year after the 7/7 attacks in London before the group stepped forward, and in this case al-Qaeda may not want to return to the center of the radar.... 

“If it was AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) there really would be zero reason to claim responsibility as it would have proved its new methods worked, whether the bomb was planted in one of the stops the plane made that day, or it was incorporated into a laptop brought on board.”

6/18/06

“Egypt: The flight data recorder from the EgyptAir plane that crashed in the Mediterranean Sea last month was recovered, Egyptian investigators said; a day after search teams recovered the cockpit voice recorder from the wreckage of Flight MS804.

“The data recorder was retrieved 'in several pieces' but it is thought critical information will be obtained from it.  Not sure how long it will take to analyze it.  While a terror attack is still suspected, no group has come forward to claim responsibility.  But as I noted when the plane went down, if it was the work of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), they have zero incentive to claim responsibility as they want to keep their bomb-making capabilities secret.”

12/17/16

“Egypt: Aside from the above-noted bombing of the Coptic cathedral in Cairo last Sunday morning that killed 25, Egyptian authorities said this week that traces of explosives had been found on the remains of victims of an EgyptAir flight that crashed en route from Paris to Cairo last May 19, killing all 66 people on board.

“French investigators had seen trace levels of TNT on the plane’s debris back in September, but the French wanted more time to confirm it,  working with their Egyptian partners.

“But some Western sources told Reuters they still believe a technical cause remained the most likely reason for the crash.  No one has ever claimed responsibility, though I argued last spring that if it was AQAP, they would never claim responsibility because they want their methods to be kept secret.”

I told you exactly why no claim of responsibility had ever been issued, and now the U.S. and U.K. are scared to death that AQAP has perfected the laptop bomb.

--Verizon and AT&T said on Wednesday that they would suspend digital ads on Google’s YouTube, joining a list of well-known British brands such as retailer Marks and Spencer Group Plc that are deserting Google.  Thursday, Johnson & Jonson joined the list.  Friday, JPMorgan Chase did as well.

The issue is control over online ad placement and advertisers have sought to avoid having their brands appear beside content that they categorize as hate speech.  J&J said it wanted to ensure that its product advertising did not appear on channels that promote “offensive content.”

YouTube has been a key driver of growth for Google as its traditional business of search advertising matures.  Google’s net ad revenue worldwide from YouTube last year was $5.58bn, according to eMarketer.

But Google said while it prevents ads from running near inappropriate material, such as from extremists, it does so “in the vast majority of cases.”  In other words, ‘we’re trying.’  AT&T said in its statement: “We are deeply concerned that our ads may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate.”

At the same time Google’s global ad revenue is projected to be $73.75 billion, grabbing 62% of the $99.62bn search market.  So it’s not clear if the financial hit to Google with some firms leaving is really that big.  Plus the likes of AT&T and Verizon did not extend their pulling of ads from YouTube to Google search.

But this issue isn’t going away.  Advertisers have control about how and where their ads will be placed on television and print publications.  Google and Facebook as yet can’t provide the same assurances.

--Walt Disney’s board of directors extended Bob Iger’s contract to serve as chairman and CEO through July 2, 2019, while the company looks for a successor.

Iger had said he was open to staying on past the expiration date of his contract, which was to run out June 30, 2018, if it were in the “best interest of the company.”

All are in agreement Iger has done a super job in his 11 years at the helm thus far.

--Sears Holdings, the parent company of Sears and Kmart, says there is “substantial doubt” about its financial viability after years of mounting losses.

“Our historical operating results indicate substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern,” the company said in its annual report.

Sears Holdings has $4.2 billion in debt, up from $3 billion a year ago.  The company hasn’t turned an annual profit since 2010 and last year, it reported losses of $2.2 billion. Annual revenue declined 12% to $22.1 billion.

Last month the company announced it was closing an additional 150 Kmart and Sears stores, while selling its Craftsman brand of tools and lawn equipment to Stanley Black & Decker for roughly $900 million.

With all the bad news, it’s no wonder that vendors are pulling back, including reducing shipments and asking for better payment terms.

Sears’ fate was sealed about 10 years ago when owner Eddie Lampert, a hedge fund billionaire who was praised to no end by CNBC’s Jim Cramer, bought Sears, merged it with Kmart, and then decided to stop investing in the chains’ upkeep and capital spending.

--Shares in Nike fell this week after reporting quarterly sales that missed Wall Street’s estimates.  But then during a subsequent call with analysts, the company said that Nike brand future orders, always a key metric for the company, were down 4 percent compared to the same time last year.

CFO Andrew Campion said, ‘don’t worry about futures,’ the key is growth in international markets like China, where the opportunity is “massive,” with the number of marathons growing 500 percent over five years and a projected sports economy valued at $850bn by 2025.

Nike has been facing competition from a resurgent Adidas AG, which I’ve kind of found surprising...that the German sportswear maker could find its mojo.

--FedEx fell short on profits for its fiscal third quarter, but revenue of $15 billion exceeded Street estimates, up 18%.  The former was hurt by larger retailers shipping fewer packages during the holiday season than forecast, which FedEx had ramped up for, i.e., unused capacity.  But the latter was helped by higher rates.

--Apple Inc. announced a new, cheaper iPad and Product Red special editions of its iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.  All three are supposed to be in stores today, Friday.

The new iPad boasts a 9.7-inch display, a more powerful computer chip and a 10-hour battery life. The starting price with Wi-Fi is $329, down from $399.

--Eric Mindich, a 49-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive, sent a letter to investors on Thursday saying he was closing down his Eton Park Capital Management hedge fund, which manages about $7 billion.

Eton Park’s returns were down 9% last year and the performance thus far in 2017 has been flat.

Hedge funds have been suffering from poor relative performance, redemptions and complaints over high fees.

Mindich made his name at the age of 25, heading up Goldman’s arbitrage desk.  In 1994, at just 27, he became Goldman’s youngest partner ever.

--Federal prosecutors are building cases that would accuse North Korea of directing one of the biggest bank heists of modern times, the theft of $81 million from Bangladesh’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Imminent charges, if filed, would target alleged Chinese middlemen who prosecutors believe helped North Korea orchestrate the theft.

Cyberthieves used access codes of Bangladesh’s central bank in one February 2016 weekend to transfer the funds at the New York Fed to four bank accounts in the Philippines.

--Global art sales fell more than 10 percent in 2016.  A report published by UBS and consulting firm Arts Economics shows total sales value fell 11 percent to $56.6 billion (public and private), the lowest level since 2012 and reflecting a second straight annual drop after a 2014 peak of $68.2bn.

The value of sales at public auction dropped 26 percent, with sales of high-end works for more than $1m falling 34 percent in 2016.

The U.S. remains the top location for sales with an annual market share of 40 percent by value.  The U.K. is second with 21 percent. But China is up to 20 percent.  [Financial Times]

--Speaking of China, it temporarily suspended imports of Brazilian meat following a scandal in Brazil over the alleged bribery of health officials to allow the sale of tainted meat.  South Korea tightened inspections of imported Brazilian chicken meat and temporarily barred sales of chicken products.  This is a big deal for Brazil.  It’s also gross.

--The nation’s airlines expect to set a new record for travel this spring, with nearly 145 million taking to the air, up 4% over last year, according to a trade group Airlines for America.

A record 823 million travelers flew on U.S.-based airlines in all of 2016.

--I’ve been writing about U.S. airlines cutting back to Cuba because of much-lighter demand than first thought, and after I wrote last week’s review addressing same, the following day Frontier Airlines and Silver Airways announced they were joining JetBlue and American Airlines in scaling back.

Florida-based Silver, which flies 21 round-trip flights a week, primarily to smaller Cuban cities, said it will end Cuba service on April 22, citing excess supply.  The average round-trip ticket to this hellhole has fallen from $399 to $342, according to the Airline Reporting Corp. (and Hugo Martin of the Los Angeles Times).

--Jeff Jones, the president of embattled ride-hailing company Uber, resigned after just six months.  Uber didn’t say why he left.  But Jones told the tech blog, Recode, that his values didn’t align with Uber’s.

“The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business,” he said in a statement.

Last month, a top engineering executive, Amit Singhal, left Uber five weeks after his hire was announced.  He allegedly failed to disclose that he’d left his previous job at Google because of a sexual harassment allegation.  Two other top executives resigned earlier this month.

CEO Travis Kalanick said prior to Jones’ departure that the company will hire a chief operating officer who can help write its “next chapter.”

--I forgot to report last time that sales at Tiffany’s flagship Fifth Avenue store tumbled 7 percent in its recent quarter due to being next door to security-barricaded Trump Tower.  Interim CEO Michael Kowalski said Tiffany is working with the Secret Service and NYPD to maximize access and minimize disruption.

--In a survey for the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, Singapore is the most costly city in 2016, with Hong Kong second, ahead of Zurich.

--Prices of supermarket items declined 1.3% last year, compared to 2015, says the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service.  It was the first annual decline since 1967.  I know I’m amazed how cheap food is.

I mean think of this.  At Costco, a carton of 18 extra large eggs was $3.61 last year. It’s down to $1.79.

One of the largest supermarket chains in the country, Cincinnati-based Kroger’s, just ended a 13-year streak of quarter-over-quarter higher sales at stores open at least a year.  It blamed lower food prices.

Meat, chicken and eggs have seen the biggest cuts because of oversupply and lower than expected exports.  [And some of Donald Trump’s potential trade policies will certainly make this worse for America’s farmers and ranchers.]

--Speaking of food, heavy rain in California threatens almond, celery, strawberry and other crops in the Salinas Valley, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.  This area produces most of the leafy greens for the U.S. during this stretch of the season until cooler areas supplement supply.

The record rain in this area interrupted the sensitive growing season.  For example, the rain kept bees from flying out to pollinate nut trees that produce most of the world’s supply of the nuts.

Sunshine has returned and there’s a chance the crop cycle could still turn out relatively OK.

--The Chicago Cubs’ team president, Theo Epstein, was placed on top of the list of “World’s Greatest Leaders” on Thursday, as selected by Fortune magazine.  The 43-year-old baseball mastermind beat out Chinese businessman Jack Ma, the executive chairman of Alibaba, as well as No. 3 Pope Francis.

Well this is kind of absurd. Nonetheless, Fortune cited Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci’s book “The Cubs Way,” with the magazine noting Epstein’s emphasis on the importance of “human qualities among his players,” including understanding the ways in which character, discipline and chemistry interact, that allowed Epstein “to engineer one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports.”  [Marissa Payne / Washington Post]

--For a seventh straight week, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” drew more viewers than rival “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” though Fallon continues to draw a larger crowd among the coveted 18-49 demographic.

Fallon has been much lighter on the political jokes than Colbert, who has found his audience through Trump-bashing.

--Microsoft founder Bill Gates again tops Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, in a year when the number of billionaires rose 13% to 2,043.  Gates’ fortune rose to $86bn, from $75bn, followed by investor Warren Buffett, up $14.8bn to $75.6bn.

Following these two were....Jeff Bezos, $72.8bn; Amancio Ortega (Inditex founder), $71.3bn; and Mark Zuckerberg, $56bn.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is 10th at $47.5bn.  Donald Trump slipped 220 spots to 544 at $3.5bn.

Gates has topped the list 18 of the past 23 years.  If Trump tweets about his own standing, it’s another ‘sell’ signal.

--We note the passing of David Rockefeller, 101.  He was the last of his generation in a rather prominent American family that taught its children that with wealth came great responsibility.  Even as children, he and his siblings had to set aside portions of their allowances for charitable giving.

To mark his 100th birthday in 2015, Rockefeller gave 1,000 acres of land next to a national park to the state of Maine.

David Rockefeller was the grandson of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller and the youngest of five sons and one daughter born to John D. Rockefeller Jr.  He was the guardian of his family’s fortune and, unlike his brothers Nelson, the governor of New York who hungered for the White House, and Winthrop, a governor of Arkansas, David Rockefeller wielded power and influence without seeking public office.

“American capitalism has brought more benefits to more people than any other system in any part of the world at any time in history,” he said.  “The problem is to see that the system is run as efficiently and as honestly as it can be.”

Rockefeller served in the Army during World War II, then began climbing the ranks at Chase Bank, where he was named president in 1961 and chairman and CEO eight years later.

He is estimated to have met more than 200 rulers in more than 100 countries during his lifetime, and often was treated as if he were a visiting head of state.

Under Rockefeller, Chase – now JPMorgan Chase – was the first U.S. bank to open branches in the Soviet Union and China.

But while he met clandestinely with underground black leaders in South Africa, he took heat for his dealings with the white separatist regime, and for helping the deposed Shah of Iran get medical help in the U.S., which triggered the Iranian revolution, let alone the hostage crisis.

Foreign Affairs

Iraq/Syria/ISIS/Russia/Turkey: Among the more important items on the week, in Syria, U.S.-led coalition aircraft have for the first time airlifted allied fighters battling ISIS.  The Pentagon said members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance were dropped behind ISIS lines west of the city of Raqqa.  Fierce fighting continues at the Tabqa Dam, thought to be a base for hundreds of foreign fighters.

The U.S. said all aircraft had returned safely and that troops had not come under fire during the operation.  This is a small but significant stepping up of the U.S. commitment on the ground in Syria. U.S. advisers are also closer to the front lines and better able to help coordinate operations.  One can imagine American Special Forces being directly involved in the assault on the dam.

At a meeting of coalition member states in Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the gathering that it was “only a matter of time” until IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed, with “nearly all” of his deputies now dead.

In a disturbing incident, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is highly credible, said at least 33 people were killed in a U.S.-led coalition strike on a school used as a center for displaced people near a jihadist-held Syrian town outside Raqqa early Tuesday.

“We can now confirm that 33 people were killed, and they were displaced civilians from Raqqa, Aleppo and Homs,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.  “They’re still pulling bodies out now.” The U.S. disputed the claim but said it was looking into it.

Meanwhile, in Damascus, rebels and extremists launched a fresh assault in the eastern part of the capital, with clashes raging between regime forces on one side and opposition fighters and allied extremists from Fateh al-Sham Front, formerly al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.  Clashes Sunday and Monday killed at least 72 people, including 38 government forces, according to the Syrian Observatory and AFP.

And Russia sent a clear message to Israel this week that the rules of the game have changed in Syria and its freedom to act in Syrian skies (to go after Hizbullah arms shipments) is over, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations said last weekend.

Syria’s use of anti-aircraft fire against Israel has also changed the rules of the game.

In Iraq, the battle for west Mosul grinds on.  Iraqi interior ministry forces are now battling ISIS in the Old City, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to reside.  I can’t imagine the terror felt by these folks.  There is no running water, no electricity, and no food coming in.

But Friday, Iraq announced it was deploying new tactics in a fresh push against the Old City due to the fierce resistance by ISIS.  This area is where the al-Nuri mosque is, the site where Baghdadi declared a caliphate.

Separately, in Baghdad, a car bomb killed at least 23 on Monday, probably the work of ISIS.

Afghanistan: U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, warned that Russia may now be arming the Taliban here, something I wrote of weeks ago.

This was a bad week for the country, with the strategic district of Sangin in Helmand province falling to the Taliban as they continued a years-long offensive to extend their reach in southern
Afghanistan.

Sangin was the deadliest battlefield for UK forces in Afghanistan and 104 British troops died in the effort to keep it out of the Taliban’s hands over the years.

The Afghan government vowed to mount a counter-attack to recapture the town.

Scaparrotti told a Senate hearing this week, “I’ve seen the influence of Russia of late -  increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban.”

A senior Pakistani military source told the Daily Star (Beirut) that Russia could be tempted to stage a Syria-style intervention in Afghanistan if Taliban and ISIL strength continues to grow.

The Afghan military has suffered huge casualties, they have equipment shortages, and salaries aren’t being paid.  The other day, an Afghan policeman (essentially the same as the Army in some areas) killed nine of his comrades as they slept and then fled to join the Taliban.  This happened in the northern province of Kunduz, part of a spike in “insider attacks” where Afghan forces are turning on their own.

President Trump is going to have to do something big here, quickly. I agree with Sen. John McCain, we can’t lose this place but it will take Trump to convince the American people that a renewed commitment (and potential extensive casualties) is in our interests, should he decide to go that route...but this is where his credibility, or lack thereof, is critical.

Iran: The Financial Times’ Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports that there are growing concerns among Iranians that hopes for economic prosperity and political stability are being undermined by a confluence of global events, including the election of Donald Trump, which has raised tensions with the U.S.  The key is an intense power struggle is taking place ahead of May’s crucial elections at which President Hassan Rouhani, the “centrist,” is expected to seek a second term.

Trump’s attack on the 2015 nuclear deal has already put Tehran “on notice,” raising the prospect of new economic curbs or even military conflict. Reformers fear Washington’s stance will embolden the hardliners – who have used the nuclear agreement against Rouhani.

Hardliners have yet to identify a candidate, though, and it is still expected Rouhani will win, but as I wrote at the time of his death, the passing of Rouhani supporter, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and ally of the reformists, was a big blow.  The reformists’ proposals for change do not have the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Rafsanjani was a valuable bridge between the two sides.  Khamenei has never forgiven reformists for the Green Movement in 2009.

Khamenei is 77 and in poor health.  If he died before this is all straightened out, that could be disastrous because today he is the only one who can intervene to stop the infighting.  Remember, it did not exactly go real well for the Green Movement and hardliners will have no problem launching a major crackdown.

The field of candidates for president is not finalized until April.  Rouhani did importantly receive the support of respected conservative leader, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, who might have his eye on the presidency in 2021.

As to the ongoing claims Rouhani is a real “moderate,” we’ll be tackling that as the election draws near.  Tehran’s Prosecutor-General on Sunday announced it had sentenced a couple to death because they had founded a new “cult.”  As the Wall Street Journal opined, “the charges could mean anything from running a New Age yoga studio to a political-discussion club.”

Last month the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps arrested two Iranian Catholics in northwestern Iran and seized their Bibles and prayer books, an incident that Fox News first reported on.

Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fragile coalition is in crisis over a dispute involving reform of public broadcasting, and Netanyahu is threatening to dissolve parliament and hold a snap election to block a plan to begin independent television and radio broadcasts.

The prime minister has long distrusted Israel’s mainstream print and broadcast outlets, which he has accused of being “Leftist” and “Bolshevik” and of engaging in a personal witch hunt against him.

Netanyahu helped pass legislation in 2014 shuttering Israel’s state-run broadcast authority, replacing it with a new public broadcasting corporation whose executives wouldn’t be political appointees.

But allies from his Likud Party in recent months have said the new network is liable to be overly critical of the government.  It was supposed to commence operation April 30.  Other members of the coalition are against canceling the new corporation as it would be a waste of money.  An election could be the result if the other party, Kahlon, doesn’t back down.

Turkey: President Erdogan’s campaign on the April 16 referendum on constitutional reform that would grant him greatly increased powers is not going nearly as well as he expected, with opinion polls showing a deadlock among likely voters.

A “Yes” result would support the transformation of Turkey’s parliamentary system with the establishment of an executive presidency with significant power to shape legislation and appoint judges.

Erdogan continues to rule today under a state of emergency declared following last summer’s failed coup attempt, but the economy is struggling mightily and there is the constant terror threat from both ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

Libya: Last week I wrote of strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is battling to oust extremists from Libya’s second city of Benghazi and is receiving Russian support. This week a fighter jet of forces loyal to Haftar was shot down in the city, according to a spokesman for him.  The pilot was safe but it shows the extent of the conflict.

Reminder, Haftar controls much of eastern Libya, in defiance of the U.N.-backed unity government in Tripoli.

Russia/Ukraine: A former Russian parliamentarian who was harshly critical of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin was shot dead in Kiev.  Denis Voronenkov, formerly a Communist Party lawmaker in the State Duma, was one of two killed outside Kiev’s Premier Palace hotel on Thursday.

Voronenkov served in the State Duma until October 2016 when he lost his seat in parliamentary elections.  Having lost parliamentary immunity, he fled a corruption investigation with his wife, former United Russia lawmaker Maria Maksakova, and in December 2016, Voronenkov received Ukrainian citizenship.

Last month Russia launched a large-scale fraud investigation against him after Voronenkov gave a damning interview to a Ukrainian media outlet.

During the interview, he said that Russia was in the grip of a “pseudo-patriotic frenzy” similar to Nazi Germany, and claimed that it was a “mistake” for Russia to annex the Crimean peninsula.  [Moscow Times]

Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, and Yuriy Lutsenko, the general prosecutor, immediately accused Russia of orchestrating the mob-style hit.  Voronenkov was also a witness in treason proceedings in Kiev against Viktor Yanukovich, the former president, over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

Lutsenko said Voronenkov was killed either over the proceedings against Yanukovich or because he had evidence of corruption in the Russian security services.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said accusations of Russian involvement were “absurd.” Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “shocked” and called for an impartial investigation.  [You can stop laughing.]

Separately in Ukraine, 20,000 people were evacuated after a series of explosion at a massive arms depot in eastern Ukraine described by officials as sabotage.  [This occurred the same day as Voronenkov’s assassination.]

The base in Balakliya, near Kharkiv, is around 60 miles from the front lines of fighting against Russian-backed separatists.

What was the danger? The dump is used to store not just tons of ammunition, but also artillery shells and missiles.  Everyone within a 6-mile radius was evacuated.

Authorities were exploring the possibility an explosive device was dropped from a drone.  A drone was reported to have been used in an earlier attempt to set the facility on fire in December 2015.

There were no reports of injuries to servicemen or civilians.  But, overall, more than 9,700 people have died in the conflict that erupted in 2014.

One other involving Ukraine. The annual Eurovision Song Contest, a huge deal on the continent, is being hosted by Ukraine and it formally banned entry to Russia’s wheelchair-bound contestant.

Ukraine banned Julia Samoylova for three years from entering Ukraine for “violating Ukrainian legislation.”

The woman is guilty of entering – without Ukrainian permission – the Crimean Peninsula three times.  It’s important to remember the annexation in 2014 is not internationally recognized and has been disputed by Ukraine in international courts.  Kiev has imposed similar travel bans on scores of Russian citizens for “illegally” entering Crimea.

But, boy, this sets the stage for quite a contest.  Ukraine’s Susana Jamaladinova, better known by her stage name Jamala, edged out a Russian contestant last year with a politically charged song, ‘1944,’ that recounted Stalin’s forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars from the peninsula during World War II.

Lastly, Russia said on Friday that six of its soldiers had been killed “while successfully repelling” a militant assault on a military base in Chechnya.  Six of the attackers had been killed, according to the National Guard of Russia.

China/North Korea/South Korea: Pyongyang launched a new missile Wednesday morning, but it appears to have exploded seconds after lift-off.  The reported launch failure came as U.S. and South Korean troops were conducting their annual military drills that the North calls an invasion rehearsal.

But last weekend, North Korea announced it had tested a new high-performance rocket engine, a most-worrisome development, as this is part of the quest for an intercontinental ballistic missile that could target the United States.

South Korean officials said on Friday that another North Korean nuclear test seemed imminent.

And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “described North Korea as rapidly advancing its capacity to produce nuclear weapons on two fronts: the production of plutonium at its Yongbyon nuclear facility and the enrichment of uranium.”

Amano said: “This is a highly political issue. A political agreement is essential, (but) we can’t be optimistic. The situation is very bad. We don’t have the reason to be optimistic.”

Comparing North Korea to Iran, he said: “The situation is very different. Easy comparisons should be avoided.” [Jay Solomon / Wall Street Journal]

Separately, Sec. of State Rex Tillerson wrapped up two days of meetings in Beijing on Sunday with little progress made in narrowing the two sides’ differences on the North Korean nuclear crisis.

But to Beijing’s relief, Tillerson emphasized the differences on any one issue should not be allowed to derail the overall relationship.  It was a change in tone from his statement in Seoul concerning Pyongyang: “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended...All options are on the table.”

“You said that China-U.S. relations can only be friendly,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told Tillerson, adding that “we are both expecting a new era for constructive development.”

“The joint interests of China and the United States far outweigh the differences, and cooperation is the only correct choice for us both,” Xi added.

Xi and President Trump are meeting early next month in Mar-a-Lago.

One bit on Taiwan...the Defense Minister confirmed Monday that China has deployed its most advanced medium-range ballistic missiles that can launch precise strikes against the island.

Beijing has also increased the “intimidation” of Taiwan by staging six military exercises in the West Pacific, with its navy and air force passing areas around Taiwan, said Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan.  [South China Morning Post]

Well, I know from my experience in Fujian, China, that the Chinese missiles are largely stationed there, it being the shortest point between the mainland and the island.  Domestic flights into Fuzhou, for example, are often delayed due to military exercises.

Lastly, in a World Cup qualifier in Seoul, there was “unprecedented” security Thursday night for a match between China and South Korea, China emerging victorious 1-0, though the chances of its qualifying for the World Cup in Russia next year are basically slim and none.  It appears there weren’t any major incidents.  China had issued warnings to traveling fans with deteriorating relations between the two countries, especially after South Korea agreed with the United States to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system,

Retail giant Lotte has now closed more than 80 percent of its stores in China after boycotts and protests against the company because it donated a golf course as a site for a THAAD battery.

Northern Ireland: We note the passing of one of the more controversial figures of the 20th century, Sinn Fein deputy and former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, who died of a rare heart disease at the age of 66.

McGuinness was a former IRA leader turned peacemaker who was at the heart of the power-sharing government following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

He became deputy first minister in 2007, standing alongside Democratic Unionist Party leaders Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster.

McGuinness stood down from his post in January in protest against the DUP’s handling of an energy scandal, in a move that triggered a snap election.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said: “Throughout his life Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility and it was no different during his short illness.

“He was a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the re-unification of his country. But above all he loved his family and the people of Derry and he was immensely proud of both.”

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Enda Kenny said his passing represented a “significant loss, not only to politics in Northern Ireland, but to the wider political landscape on this island and beyond.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: Many people “will find it very hard to forgive” Mr. McGuinness for his early actions, but he was key to the success of the Good Friday Agreement:

“The steel that he showed back then in pursuit of armed struggle, that same determination was brought forward in the peace process.  The character of Martin McGuinness in one sense did not change, that steel was always there.  But once he decided to deploy it in pursuit of peace he showed a lot of courage and a lot of leadership.”

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern: “Ireland today has lost a great leader....

“Martin McGuinness was a pivotal figure in Irish republicanism for over 40 years. He made a journey, if not without historical precedent, then certainly without equal in modern Ireland. It began for a very young man in pursuit of violent struggle. It ended only weeks before his death, after years in office, spent strengthening the peace he worked for and to which his leadership was essential.”

Former President Bill Clinton: “As Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, his integrity and willingness to engage in principled compromise were invaluable in reaching the Good Friday Agreement.

“In the years that followed, he played an even more important role in ensuring that the peace would last – personally overseeing the arms decommissioning, joining the new government as the first Education Minister, and later serving as Deputy First Minister, and doing it all with a sense of humor and fairness that inspired both his friends and former foes....

“He believed in a shared future, and refused to live in the past, a lesson all of us who remain should learn and live by.”

Colin Parry, whose 12-year-old son, Tim, died in an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993, said although he did not forgive the IRA or Martin McGuinness, he found him a man who was “sincere in his desire for peace.”

Andy McSmith / The Independent: “McGuinness was prepared to bomb and kill to drive the British out, but he was also an incorruptible, church-going Catholic and a loyal family man, a combination that made him one of the most dangerous enemies the British state ever had.”

McGuinness grew up in Derry’s Bogside, radicalized, he said, by discrimination and murder on the streets of his city.

In 1972, at the age of 21, he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry at the time of Bloody Sunday, when 14 civil rights protesters were killed in the city by soldiers.  He was a leader in the IRA during a time when the paramilitary organization was bombing his home city.  [Between 1971 and 1973, more than 100 people died in the political violence in Derry, including 54 members of the security forces.]

He was convicted by the Republic of Ireland’s Special Criminal Court after being arrested near a car containing explosives and ammunition. He served two prison sentences – he was also convicted of IRA membership.

At 22, he and Gerry Adams were secretly flown to London for talks with the British government: MI5 considered him serious officer material with strategic vision.

McGuinness claimed he made the transition to politics when he left the IRA in 1974 but security experts believe he was still a leader during some of the organization’s most notorious attacks in the mid-1980s.

Editorial / The Economist

“It was crystal clear (to McGuinness in his early years) that this was a war, and had to be fought like one. Armies must oppose armies.  There was a peaceful path available, through political pressure and the Social Democratic and Labor Party, but he did not take it.  Nothing could be achieved that way.  His aim was now to fight until the last British soldier was driven down the River Foyle or down the Lagan, and Ireland became a socialist republic of 32 counties.  From 1976 he took shared command of the Irish Republican Army, groomed its volunteers, organized its bloody campaigns, improved its weaponry (from fertilizer stuffed in milk churns to surface-to-air missiles from Libya) and played the alternately shifting or immovable hard man in talks, or back-channel maneuvers, with the British government.

“And on the other hand there he was, in 1997, minister of education in the first unionist-republican power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland. He was still listed on the Army Council of the IRA; but the bomb-thrower was now congeniality itself, and the most violent thing he was proposing was to scrap the 11-plus exam, which he had failed as a child. And there he was in 2007, even more astonishingly, deputy first minister to Ian Paisley, the most diehard of the arch-unionists, laughing along with him and having the craic, until they were known as the Chuckle Brothers.  In 2014, all smiles, he shook the hand of Queen Elizabeth.  People were confounded by the change.

“Yet to his mind, there was no change. In 2017 he was as committed a republican as he had been at the start. He desired with all his heart the union of the north and south of Ireland. But having fully embraced violence as the only cure for oppression and discrimination against the Catholic minority in the north, having always held out the threat of bloodshed or refusal to decommission weapons when the peace process faltered, he gradually became aware that he was getting nowhere. The IRA would never give up its aim, as he would not, but the path now lay through politics.

“Besides, there was always a part of him that kept away from violence....and in his parents’ house there was no politics discussed whatsoever, just nightly kneeling to say the rosary....He did not drink, smoke or womanize, went to Mass, and enjoyed thoughtful tasks: fishing, digging and, on holidays, in Donegal, cutting turf and setting potatoes....

“In effect, his chief usefulness was his undeniable (much as he denied it) power within the IRA.... Eventually he persuaded members that there was need for a cessation, for laying down weapons and working through Sinn Fein, the political arm of the movement.”

Most of you know of my affection for Ireland, having been there over 20 times since my first trip in 1989, back when in certain spots there was still a sense of foreboding, as in my trip to Northern Ireland with some golf buddies in the early ‘90s.  I was a little more politically aware of the situation back then and warned my friends not to say anything stupid (they’ll chuckle when they read that).  One night in Newcastle, we started our evening festivities in a Protestant pub and then walked across the street to a Catholic establishment.  The patrons of each never would be seen in the other’s pub.  There was no such thing as sharing drinks, at least in this neighborhood.  And I’ll never forget giving a Catholic boy a lift home that evening, as he spilled out his guts to us.

I do have to admit I wish I was in a pub in Lahinch yesterday, during McGuinness’ funeral, watching the coverage, silently, soaking it all in. 

Random Musings

--President Trump’s approval rating sank to a new low of 37% on Sunday, according to the Gallup poll.  58% disapprove. His approval had stood at 45% last week.  [Thursday, it was back to 41%.  We’ll see about next week, though.]

But a Harvard-Harris Poll for The Hill showed Trump had a 49% approval rating, with 87% approval from Republicans and 80% disapproval from Democrats.  Independents are split, with 47% approving and 53% disapproving.

The latest Rasmussen tracking poll, which has always been seen to be sympathetic to Republicans, has Trump down to 44% approval, as of today, which is down from about 55% at its peak.  Earlier this week, the Rasmussen survey had Trump with just a 40% job approval rating.

--Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faced major complaints over his plan to skip a formal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in April, but he moved to reassure allies by suggesting alternative dates for the meeting.

Tillerson was opting out of the NATO confab in order to be in the U.S. for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit as well as a trip to Russia, which raised some concerns, to say the least.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that aside from Tillerson seeing most of his colleagues at a meeting of the anti-Islamic State coalition this week, Deputy Secretary of State Tom Shannon would attend the meeting in Tillerson’s place.

But now NATO officials are trying to come up with a new date, though you need consensus from all 28 allies.

Separately, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will meet with President Trump on April 12, ahead of the NATO leaders’ summit on May 25, and Trump announced he will attend that event.

--Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him?  Would the rest of the world?  We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.

“The latest example is Mr. Trump’s refusal to back off his Saturday morning tweet of three weeks ago that he had ‘found out that [Barack] Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory’ on Election Day.  He has offered no evidence for his claim, and a parade of intelligence officials, senior Republicans and Democrats have since said they have seen no such evidence.

“Yet the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle, rolling out his press spokesman to make more dubious claims.  Sean Spicer – who doesn’t deserve this treatment – was dispatched last week to repeat an assertion by a Fox News commentator that perhaps the Obama Administration had subcontracted the wiretap to British intelligence.

“That bungle led to a public denial from the British Government Communications Headquarters, and British news reports said the U.S. apologized. But then the White House claimed there was no apology.  For the sake of grasping for any evidence to back up his original tweet, and the sin of pride in not admitting error, Mr. Trump had his spokesman repeat an unchecked TV claim that insulted an ally.

“The wiretap tweet is also costing Mr. Trump politically as he hands his opponents a sword.  Mr. Trump has a legitimate question about why the U.S. was listening to his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and who leaked news of his meeting with the Russian ambassador.  But that question never gets a hearing because the near-daily repudiation of his false tweet is a bigger media story.

“FBI director James Comey also took revenge on Monday by joining the queue of those saying the bureau has no evidence to back up the wiretap tweet.  Mr. Comey even took the unusual step of confirming that the FBI is investigating ties between the Trump election campaign and Russia.

“Mr. Comey said he could make such a public admission only in ‘unusual circumstances,’ but why now?  Could the wiretap tweet have made Mr. Comey angry because it implied the FBI was involved in illegal surveillance?  Mr. Trump blundered in keeping Mr. Comey in the job after the election, but now the President can’t fire the man leading an investigation into his campaign even if he wants to....

“This week should be dominated by the smooth political sailing for Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and the progress of health-care reform on Capitol Hill.  These are historic events, and success will show he can deliver on his promises. But instead the week has been dominated by the news that he was repudiated by his own FBI director.

“Two months into his Presidency, Gallup has Mr. Trump’s approval rating at 39%.  No doubt Mr. Trump considers that fake news, but if he doesn’t show more respect for the truth most Americans may conclude he’s a fake President.”

--Jim Comey is unpopular across the political spectrum, according to a Harvard-Harris Poll of registered voters, with only 17 percent having a favorable view of the director, compared to 35 percent who have a negative view.

41 percent of Democrats have an unfavorable view of Comey, with only 12 percent saying they view him positively.

Comey is almost at break-even among Republicans, with 26 percent viewing him positively and 27 percent viewing him negatively.

On other topics....

Q: Did the Obama administration wiretap the Trump campaign during the election?  Yes 34%, No 66%.

Q: Did the Trump team coordinate with Russia to influence election?  Yes 46%, 54% No.

Q: Do you believe that holdovers from the Obama administration are behind leaks of classified information?  Yes 45%, No 55%.

Harvard-Harris Poll co-director Mark Penn noted that “Even in 1953, the height of McCarthyism, Gallup had 78 percent saying J. Edgar Hoover, Jr. was doing a good job and only 2 percent a poor job.  Comey’s ratings...suggest a crisis of confidence in his leadership.”

--Editorial / Washington Post

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) chastised Democrats on Tuesday for threatening to block Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court.  ‘If Judge Gorsuch can’t achieve 60 votes in the Senate, could any judge appointed by a Republican president be approved with 60 or more votes in the Senate?’  Well, that is rich. Democrats said the same sort of things about Merrick Garland, the judge President Barack Obama nominated more than a year ago, whom Mr. McConnell blocked in a cynical power play.  In fact, Democrats had more reason to complain: More than Mr. Gorsuch, whom conservative activist groups handpicked, the moderate Mr. Garland was a consensus nominee.  Of all the people to take Democrats to task, Mr. McConnell has the least standing.

“Nevertheless, the national interest requires that Democrats judge Mr. Gorsuch ‘on the merits,’ as Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said at this week’s confirmation hearings. Those merits include top-flight academic credentials, a decade on the federal appeals bench, a ‘well-qualified’ rating from the American Bar Association and the support of some key Obama administration legal officials....

“Mr. Gorsuch answers were far from perfect.  He was overcautious in discussing his legal thinking during his hearings. He said less than previous nominees on long-established precedents, raising questions about why. Though he defended the ‘originalist’ approach, holding that the law should be read as it was understood when written, he said too little about what happens when the original meaning was in dispute at the time or is debatable now....

“We are likely to disagree with Mr. Gorsuch on a variety of major legal questions.  That is different from saying he is unfit to serve.  He deserves the deference due any presidential nominee.  Senate Democrats are nevertheless poised to demand that Mr. Gorsuch garner 60 votes for confirmation, rather than a simple majority, a stand they could seek to enforce by filibustering a motion to confirm the nominee.

“The resulting standoff could end in three ways. First, a cloture vote could attract sufficient Democratic votes to reach the 60-vote threshold to stop a filibuster, which is unlikely. Second, Mr. McConnell could move to eliminate the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees, which would be deeply unwise and injure both parties in the long term. Third, the parties could strike a deal that would preserve the filibuster for the minority party in the case of future nominees while providing for an up-or-down vote on Mr. Gorsuch’s confirmation. That, not deepening the politicization of the judiciary, is the best path forward.”

The committee is expected to vote April 3, with the nomination then going to the Senate floor and then, as the Post notes above, we’ll see how the whole 60-vote rule goes down.

For now, Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, has vowed to lead an attempt to filibuster the nomination and if at least 41 of the chamber’s 48 Democrats stick together in the filibuster, it would force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to decide whether to try to change the rules of the chamber and approve Gorsuch with a simple majority, a step Trump has urged (the nuclear option).

--Kyle Smith / New York Post

“When Donald Trump moved into the White House, were you under the impression it was tantamount to either Fifth Avenue Moses coming in to part the filthy waters of the Swamp, or MussoHitler about to bring down the mighty hammer of neo-fascism upon the U.S.?

“If so, the joke’s on you.  If there’s any ancient tale that presaged the start of the Trump Era, it’s the Voyage to Lilliput in ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’

“Gulliver-like, Trump finds himself tied down by a thousand tiny strings, paralyzed by micro-people he can barely detect. Because of their combined power, he can’t do much of anything.  If it’s the system vs. Trump, the system is winning, bigly....

“Since being promoted from private citizen to president, the only thing Trump has exercised undisputed authoritarian control over has been his Twitter account. And even that mysteriously seems to go silent at the exact times his aides are being badgered with questions about his latest tweet....

“The judiciary is a check on the president....

“Even with his party in control of both houses in Congress, Trump is finding major limits to what he can do legislatively....The Jenga game that is ObamaCare is so wobbly that removing a single block could cause the health-care system to come crashing down.  Which is why Republicans can’t agree on whether AHCA leans too far in the direction of the free market, or not far enough.

“Passing a budget? Hey, guess what?  The president can’t spend a dime without Congress.  As Marco Rubio so cruelly, but accurately, put it: ‘We do the budget here....’  Marco may still be little. But Congress is still big....

“Stopping someone like Trump (or Obama, or Reagan or FDR) from doing too much with just his pen and his phone is exactly the point of the checks and balances installed by the Framers.

“If Trump wants to get anything done in Washington, he’d better learn that he wasn’t elected dictator.  Being an effective president means much more (and less) than grand speeches riffing about Hillary Clinton in front of roaring crowds.  It means homework.

“It means recognizing the importance of all the boring stuff like making the right judicial appointments and sub-Cabinet hires. It means getting out of the White House to sell his ideas to Washington insiders, not just to adoring crowds of fans. Trump needs to learn about compromise, negotiation and sweet talk.

“To succeed as president, he needs to study up on what someone once called the art of the deal.”

--Last week I wrote of the United Nations’ plea for $4.4 billion to avert “disaster” with “more than 20 million people across four countries” facing starvation and famine. 

Stephen O’Brien is the United Nations Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief and in my ongoing quest to bring two sides to the bigger stories, Michael Laitman wrote the following in the Jerusalem Post after O’Brien’s comments.

“Here is what I’d like to know: Mr. O’Brien has been in office for nearly two years now. What has he been doing all this time?  What has the UN been doing? Starvation of twenty million people does not happen overnight. What has the UN not sounded the alarm before? All of a sudden, the Internet and newsfeeds are inundated with harrowing images of emaciated children. Could the UN not tell the world about this when only five or ten million people were starving?  Apparently, someone in that defunct institution calculated that it requires no less than twenty million starving people to redeem a ransom of $4.4bn by July.

“The billions of dollars the organization already receives could have cured the world’s hunger problems several times over. They could have shipped a few million of the 1.3 billion tons of excess food trashed each year and solved this crisis, but they have no interest in doing so. Starving children bring in donations.  Feeding them would dry up the flow of money and kill this cash cow.

“More than anything, Mr. O’Brien’s declaration is an admission that the UN is rotten to the core.  The sole interests of the politicians and diplomats who serve in it are their paychecks and promoting their careers.”

--Ivanka Trump was given an office in the West Wing, next to senior adviser Dina Powell, who serves on the National Security Council. Ivanka will get access to classified information and be given security clearance.

When she moved to Washington earlier this year, Ivanka said she would not be playing a formal role in the administration, with her husband, Jared Kushner, already a senior adviser to the president.

Jamie Gorelick, a lawyer and ethics adviser for Ms. Trump, detailed her new privileges and said she would follow the ethics rules that apply to government employees.

Federal anti-nepotism laws prevent relatives from being appointed to government positions, but the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel recently ruled the president’s “special hiring authority” allowed him to appoint Mr. Kushner to the West Wing staff.  It was also ruled the president could consult family members as private citizens, which is what Trump will be doing.

--Fox News dismissed analyst Andrew Napolitano, a former Superior Court judge, indefinitely following his discredited claims that a British intelligence agency was conducting surveillance on President Trump at the behest of President Obama.

Napolitano’s allegation was repeated by press secretary Sean Spicer during a White House press conference and by Trump.  The charge was immediately refuted by elected officials and the news division of Fox, and, in a rare public statement, by the British agency itself, GCHQ.

Napolitano had been working at the network since 1998.

--Mike Huckabee / Washington Post

“Donald Trump wasn’t my first choice for president.  I was.  But he was my second choice, and I’m proud that I supported him.  In tackling the federal budget, he faces a debt that has doubled to $20 trillion in the past eight years.  No doubt a chainsaw seems more appropriate to the task at hand than a carving knife, but I would urge my president and friend to hold back from one tiny area of the budget whose elimination would cost far more than it would save.

“Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts might seem expendable – especially given how often celebrity artists insult and even threaten the president. But such hateful high-dollar Hollywood and music-industry stars don’t receive anything from the NEA, and they shouldn’t. Not because of their insufferable political whining, but because they get rich selling their talents to the highest bidder in the private sector.  I have zero interest in spending a dime of tax money to prop up those who hate the president and the tens of millions who elected him.

“I do care greatly about the real recipients of endowment funds: the kids in poverty for whom NEA programs may be their only chance to learn to play an instrument, test-drive their God-given creativity and develop a passion for those things that civilize and humanize us all.  They’re the reason we should stop and recognize that this line item accounting for just 0.004 percent of the federal budget is not what’s breaking the bank.

“Participation in the arts leads to higher grade-point averages and SAT scores, as well as improvements in math skills and spatial reasoning. Do we want students who are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to have academic success, particularly in math and science?  Music and art deliver, especially for students likely to get lost in an education assembly line that can be more Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ than about creative thinking and problem solving.  Creativity finds cures for diseases, creates companies such as Apple and Microsoft and, above all, makes our culture more livable.  Many children get their only access to music and the arts via grants made by the NEA – 40 percent of which go to high-poverty neighborhoods, while 36 percent reach underserved people, such as veterans and those with disabilities.  In fiscal 2016, NEA grants went to nearly 16,000 communities, in every congressional district in the country....

“If it seems unusual that a conservative Republican would advocate for music and the arts, don’t be so surprised. The largest increase in arts funding ever came under President Richard Nixon, and when budget hawks thought about cutting the minuscule funding of the NEA in the 1980s, it was no less than President Ronald Reagan who stepped in to make sure those in our poorest neighborhoods continue to have access to this road to academic success and meaningful way to express their creative gifts

“I’m for cutting waste and killing worthless programs. I’m not for cutting and killing the hope and help that come from creativity.”

--Norway ranks No. 1 among 155 countries rated for happiness in a United Nations report out this week; moving up from fourth place last year to dethrone Denmark.  A cold climate seems to correlate with happiness, as the top seven are in northern locations: Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands and Canada, according to the World Happiness Report. [No. 8 is New Zealand, 9 Australia, 10 Sweden.]

Countries that achieved positive results have “high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance,” said John Helliwell, a professor at the University of British Columbia.  “All of these are found in Norway, as well as in the other top countries.”

“Happiness in the United States appears to be declining.  Rattled by a slow economic recovery and deeply partisan political landscape, the U.S. dropped down one spot from last year to the 14th happiest in the world.  But Germany (16th), the United Kingdom (19th) and France (31st) are less happy than the U.S.

The five lowest ranked are Central African Republic, Burundi, Tanzania, Syria and Rwanda.

--Editorial / New York Daily News

“The great, aching, acid, hilarious, humane, infuriating, painfully real Jimmy Breslin, who told stories equal to the great, aching, acid, hilarious, humane, infuriating, painfully real city he chronicled, is dead.

“He leaves readers of the Daily News, his home for a golden stretch of his career, bereft, but in deep debt to his spirit.

“For more than four decades, Breslin trawled the city’s streets to channel and champion the working people who make the world run, and to excoriate the elites who dared presume otherwise....

“There was the Jimmy Breslin who, assigned by the Herald Tribune to cover John F. Kennedy’s funeral, made a beeline for the graveyard to interview the men digging out the President’s final resting place, because, he showed, we learn most about the powerful among us from the vantage of the least.

“There was the Jimmy Breslin who was the chosen confidant of the elusive Son of Sam, aka the .44 Caliber Killer, who wrote to ‘J.B.’ care of the Daily News: ‘I read your column daily and find it quite informative,’ adding ominously: ‘Sam’s a thirsty lad and he won’t let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood.’

“To which Breslin replied: ‘The only way for the killer to leave this special torment is to give himself up to me,’ adding: ‘The only people I don’t answer are bill collectors.’

“Into the vortex Breslin plunged whenever he heard a siren.  ‘Step on it...it could be the end of Pennsylvania’ he recalled barking to his driver as they raced in 1979 to Three Mile Island, as it leaked radioactivity on the verge of a meltdown.

“Hurtling toward Crown Heights in a taxi in the thick of the 1991 race-religion riots – true New Yorker that he was, he never learned to drive – Breslin became the target, and the chronicler, of rage: ‘The kid on the hood swung the baseball bat with as much speed as you could want and with a look on his face that told you all you ever want to know about life in New York at this time.’

“He emerged from the melee with a busted lip, black eye and no clothes – and a hell of a column.

“Jimmy Breslin’s voice is silent now. His words, and the words of the New Yorkers whose stories he told, whose values he defended, forever roar.”

--The first restoration since 1810 on the site of Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was completed and thousands of tourists and clergy members from across the globe gathered Wednesday at the Old City’s Christian quarter to view it.

“For the first time in over two centuries, this sacred edicule has been restored,” said Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem.  “This is not only a gift to our Holy Land, but to the whole world.”

---

Pray for the men and women of our armed forces...and all the fallen.

God bless America.

---

Gold $1246
Oil $48.14

Returns for the week 3/20-3/24

Dow Jones  -1.5%  [20596]
S&P 500  -1.4%  [2343]
S&P MidCap  -2.1%
Russell 2000  -2.7%
Nasdaq  -1.2%  [5828]

Returns for the period 1/1/17-3/24/17

Dow Jones  +4.2%
S&P 500  +4.7%
S&P MidCap  +2.0%
Russell 2000  -0.2%
Nasdaq  +8.3%

Bulls  56.7
Bears  17.3  [Source: Investors Intelligence]

Have a great week.

Brian Trumbore



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Week in Review

03/25/2017

For the week 3/20-3/24

[Posted 12:30 AM ET, Saturday...all date references, though, are to Friday]

Note: StocksandNews has significant ongoing costs and your support is appreciated.  Click on the gofundme link or send a check to PO Box 990, New Providence, NJ 07974

Edition 937

Trump, AHCA, Intel Investigation and more....

This is a running history, always has been since Day One...now 937 weeks out of 938, one week off, and boy this one wasn’t easy.

To be true to my principles, I can’t just write, “For the United States, participation in World War II commenced with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and ended with the fall of Berlin and the dropping of some atomic bombs on Japan.”  No, if I was writing a weekly review back then, well, I imagine I would have been a mental basket case.

I need to stay as consistent as possible and the first two months of the Trump presidency have been something else.  For starters, selfishly, I wish big stuff would stop happening on Fridays!

What is certain is this was the worst week of the nascent Trump administration.

I have my own comments on the failure of the AHCA at the end of the following segment, and you can be sure I will have far more next time.  For now, if you aren’t more worried about our president than before, send whatever you’re smoking to me. 

AHCA, RIP...for now....

Sunday, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said there is only one way to have universal healthcare in the country.

“The only way to get truly universal care is to throw people in jail if they don’t have it,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”  “And we are not going to do that.”

Trump had said in January that a plan to replace ObamaCare would include the goal of having “insurance for everybody.”

Mulvaney said on Sunday that people should keep in mind what the GOP healthcare plan is replacing.

“What you’ve got now is we’re forcing people to buy it under ObamaCare under penalty of law, and people are still looking for a way not to buy it,” he said.

“So clearly the government mandate doesn’t work. The better process, the better function is exactly what we’re trying to do now, which is to encourage people and enable them to buy a policy they want and can afford.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said, “The president is committed to (providing healthcare insurance for all Americans) as am I and those of us at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Price repeatedly stressed that the AHCA is in the first of three phases.

“So the plan in its entirety is the one that the president has assured the American people every single American will have access to affordable coverage that works for them, not for government, and that’s what we have in mind,” Price told Jake Tapper.

“The fact of the matter is, this bill moving through Congress right now is simply the first step in this process.  The three steps include not just this bill, but the administrative changes that we’re able to put in place at the Department of Health and Human Services,” Price added.

Tuesday, Trump issued a stern warning, telling Republicans they could lose their seats – and the House majority – in 2018 if they fail to repeal and replace ObamaCare.

During a closed-door meeting, Trump told rank-and-file House Republicans if the party is not successful in passing its healthcare bill, “I believe many of you will lose in 2018,” according to a source in the room.

Trump singled out House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who opposes the legislation.

“I think Mark Meadows will get there too,” Trump told Meadows, half-joking, “Mark, I’m coming after you.”

Meadows said at least 21 Freedom Caucus members remained opposed to the legislation.

After the meeting with Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “This is our chance and this is our moment. I think our members are beginning to appreciate just what kind of a rendezvous with destiny we have right here.”

Republicans tried to address concerns of more moderate members, but the modified version still didn’t seem to have enough support.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, one of the bill’s strongest critics, tweeted Tuesday night that opponents have more than enough votes to stop the bill in the House.

Wednesday, the aforementioned Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Meadows, said, “We’re not there yet, but we’re very optimistic that if we work around the clock between now and noon tomorrow, that we’re going to be able to hopefully find some common ground.”

Paul Ryan / Wall Street Journal op-ed

“The election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress provides an opportunity: We can immediately halt the leftward drift of American social policy, while renewing prosperity through market-based, state-driven solutions that empower people instead of bureaucrats. This is the stuff of conservative dreams.  But it will become reality only if Republicans keep the promises we have made.

“That’s what the American Health Care Act is all about.  It is the boldest and most conservative health-care legislation to come before Congress in decades.  Bold because it dismantles the progressive health-care experiment and replaces it with a dynamic, patient-centered system. Conservative because it applies America’s founding principles – freedom, free enterprise and federalism – to the problems of the day.

“Repeal of ObamaCare must happen, and urgently – not because of any ideology but because American families are already paying the price of the law’s collapse. The average premium for a midlevel ObamaCare policy rose 25% this year.  One out of three counties now have only a single insurance provider to choose from. This trend will only worsen: Humana has announced it will not offer coverage in the ObamaCare marketplace for 2018.  Others are threatening to withdraw. As the CEO of Aetna said last month, the individual market is in  a death spiral.  Our plan takes a radically different approach. Instead of imposing arrogant and paternalistic mandates, it would increase choice and competition, creating a vibrant market where every American will have access to quality, affordable coverage....

“The American Health Care Act is the linchpin. It is modeled on legislation introduced during numerous Congresses by Tom Price, now the secretary of health and human services.  It reflects decades of policy making by conservative scholars and organizations.

“The bill effectively guts ObamaCare – all its taxes, mandates and spending. It initiates a stable transition, without pulling the rug out from under anyone.  And it puts in place good, conservative health-care policies.

“First, the legislation gives control of Medicaid back to the states. This is – without question – the biggest entitlement reform in generations.

“Medicaid is a critical lifeline for millions of Americans. Far from modernizing the program, ObamaCare threw more money at Medicaid and set it on an unsustainable course of growth.  With all the bureaucracy and strings attached, too many doctors won’t take Medicaid patients.  It is a broken system.

“Under our plan, for the first time, Medicaid spending will be capped, and states will have the option to receive a pure block grant....

“Second, our bill equips state insurance markets to take care of people with pre-existing conditions without driving up costs for everyone else.

“For decades, many states successfully served high-risk populations by segmenting them from the market into ‘risk pools’ and directly subsidizing their coverage. This gave the most vulnerable Americans access to affordable coverage and stabilized markets, but without requiring higher premiums on healthier individuals to offset the costs....

“ObamaCare effectively did away with these programs. Instead the law relied on mandates to cross-subsidize care – with disastrous results.  Our plan goes back to what works. The bill establishes a stability fund to help states set up their own risk pools and reinsurance mechanisms.  These programs would provide direct support for people with pre-existing conditions, giving states more power to create dynamic markets for consumers.  Ultimately this would lower costs for everyone else, so that more people can purchase a plan that meets their needs.

“Third, our legislation expands health savings accounts, which a Republican Congress established during George W. Bush’s presidency in 2003.

“ObamaCare imposes strict limits on how you can spend your health-care dollars.  This bill nearly doubles the allowable contributions to HSA’s, making it easier to pay out-of-pocket costs.  Giving people more purchasing power will create incentives to shop around, look for the best services, and demand more transparent prices – all of which helps lower costs.

“Fourth, the bill equalizes the tax treatment of health care, addressing an unfairness conservatives have long sought to rectify.

“Right now, the tax code discriminates against people who don’t get health care from their jobs. It makes no sense that those who have insurance through work see a tax benefit, while those who don’t, get nothing....

“By passing the American Health Care Act, we will deliver on our promise to repeal and replace ObamaCare.  By applying conservative ideas and principles, we will remake our health-care system for generations.  The responsibility is ours, and so is the opportunity.”

Well the above was written for publication Thursday morning and that afternoon, the vote was delayed and a few hours later we learned it was to take place Friday, as President Trump said he was tired of negotiating.  Budget director Mulvaney attended a Thursday night Republican conference and demanded that representatives hold the vote.  If they can’t pass the bill, Trump will reprioritize and let ObamaCare stay in place for the foreseeable future, Mulvaney said.  Two of Trump’s closest advisers, Steve Bannon and Gary Cohn, agreed.

House Minority Leader Mancy Pelosi crowed, “So far he’s acting like a rookie.  It’s really been amateur hour.  He seems to think that a charm offensive or a threat will work – that saying ‘I can do this for you’ or ‘I can do this against you’ will work.  That’s not the way it works.”

Also Thursday, a Quinnipiac University national poll was released and American voters disapprove of the GOP health plan by a 56-17 margin, with 26% undecided.  Support among Republicans is a lackluster 41-24.

Quinnipiac found that if their U.S. senator or member of Congress votes to replace ObamaCare with the AHCA, 46% of voters say they will be less likely to vote for that person, while 19% say they will be more likely and 29% say this vote won’t matter.

As to the question of whether Americans approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling health care, 29% approve, 61% disapprove.

And yesterday the Congressional Budget Office said the new version of the Republican health care bill would reduce the deficit by $150 billion over the next decade, not the $336 billion from the original bill.

The deficit reduction figures dropped mostly because the updated measure has additional tax breaks and makes Medicaid benefits more generous for some older and disabled people.

The CBO said the updated legislation would still result in 14 million additional uninsured next year and 24 million more in a decade.

Average premiums for people buying individual coverage would still rise over the next two years compared to current law, but then fall.

I’m not saying the CBO is ever right in these matters, just reporting what their latest analysis reveals.

On to today, Friday, and with a vote rescheduled for the afternoon, it was clear in the morning that Republicans still didn’t have the votes.  Around 3:30 p.m., we learned there would be none.

It was said President Trump had lost confidence in House Speaker Ryan and that he regretted making health care reform one of his first presidential priorities, as close associates of Trump’s told the New York Times.  You can imagine Trump fuming Thursday night, let alone as I write.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized for Friday’s paper, prior to the scrapping of the vote:

“As Republicans contemplate wasting this historic reform opportunity, they should start thinking about the costs and responsibility of failure....

“The real obstacle to progress has been the 29 or so Members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have the power to deny Mr. Ryan a majority of 216 with a mere 22-vote margin of error.  The Freedom Caucus blocked incremental reform progress after the GOP took Congress under President Obama, and the question is whether they will indulge the same rule-or-ruin tactics now against Mr. Trump.”

Thus far they have.

Wall Street Journal:

“By insisting on the impossible over the achievable, these self-styled guardians of conservative purity could become the worst friends conservative ideas and free markets have had in decades.”

After the vote was squelched, Paul Ryan said in a press conference, addressing the Freedom Caucus without naming them, that “everyone needs to say ‘yes’ to the good, even if it’s not ‘perfect.’”

My sentiments exactly.  I’m sick of these guys, the same ones who shut down the government, and how did that work out?! 

Trump said around 4:00 p.m. from the Oval Office, flanked by Vice President Pence and Sec. Price, “We’re going to go for tax reform.”

Trump added, as he blamed Democrats solely, that he believed they will “end up with a truly great healthcare bill in the future once this mess known as ObamaCare explodes.”

At the same time, he said he was open to Democrats’ ideas.  But Trump has shown zero ability to rally those outside his base, which I guarantee will soon begin abandoning him.  He is seriously intellectually deficient.

Plus Trump took zero blame for the fiasco.  Gee, I really respect that.

The bottom line, for now, is that during the Obama years, Republicans voted 60 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  Then they get the power and can’t do it.  It’s been the key promise, campaign after campaign.

Trump told us, you’ll be “tired of winning.”  Instead, I’m already long tired of writing about the guy.

Far more postmortems next week as we see how the administration shifts its focus.

The Issue of Potential Russian Involvement in the Election....

Sunday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes was asked during an interview on “Fox News Sunday” if he has seen any evidence of any collusion between “Trump world” and Russia to swing the 2016 presidential election.

“I’ll give you a very simple answer: ‘No,’” Nunes said.

Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the panel’s top Democrat, also said there is no proof of a wiretap: “We are at the bottom of this: There is nothing at the bottom.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a radio interview that with regards to Trump’s allegations of wiretapping, “If there was a warrant issued to surveil the Trump campaign, I want to know about it. That would be disturbing because you’d have to have probable cause to get one.  If there is no surveillance of the Trump campaign by the FBI or any other group, I think the American people need to know that,” he added.

Graham also said of WikiLeaks that it was a “Russian front...I want Russia to pay a price.  As Republicans we should be very upset that a foreign power would try to interfere in our election.  I want to punish the hell out of Russia,” he added.

Monday, FBI Director James Comey, in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, along with that of National Security Director Michael Rogers, denied publicly (ditto Rogers) that Trump had been wiretapped.  Comey then stated the FBI was investigating Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and potential links of Trump’s associates to the Kremlin.

“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 president election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.  As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”

On the accusation of wiretapping, Comey asserted that the FBI has no evidence supporting the wiretapping claims, Comey added: “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.”

While Democrats pushed their belief that there were ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, Republicans insisted the real issue was that people with access to classified information were leaking it to damage the new administration.

Several Republicans were upset by how the controversy surrounding Michael Flynn came into the public domain.

Republicans also tried to advance the narrative there is a “deep state” working to undermine the president.

Near the end of the day’s proceedings, Devin Nunes told Comey he had put “a big gray cloud” over the White House and that Comey should act quickly to finish his investigation.

Bottom line, there was no smoking gun from either side’s perspective.

While the hearing was going on, in the afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer sought to distance the White House from figures mentioned during the testimony, such as Paul Manafort, who Spicer insisted played “a very limited role” in Trump’s campaign.

Of course every American who watched the news last year knew Manafort was a key figure, especially between June and the convention in August.

And Spicer described Carter Page, a key campaign adviser at one point, as a “hanger-on.”  But Page’s dealings with Russia were called into question.

Anthony Zurcher / BBC News:

“What FBI Director James Comey didn’t say during intelligence hearings today on possible Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election was as important as what he did say.

“Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who had ties to pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians?  No comment.  Long-time Trump adviser Roger Stone, who reportedly had communications with individuals who hacked the Democratic National Committee emails?  No comment.  Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after leaked evidence surfaced that he had communicated with a Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions?  No comment.

“ ‘I don’t want to answer any questions about a U.S. person,’ Mr. Comey said.

“All of this is evidence that the investigation isn’t just ongoing, it’s substantive and far-reaching.

“While Democrats will likely be encouraged by this, it was telling that Republicans pursued the White House line that the topic of greatest concern was the intelligence leaks that put this story in the headlines.

“If Mr. Trump can consolidate his party’s support, it will go a long way towards insulating the president against any fallout from this investigation.”

Editorial / Washington Post

“A House Intelligence Committee hearing Monday produced the remarkable spectacle of FBI Director James B. Comey publicly testifying that there was ‘no information that supports’ tweets by President Trump alleging wiretapping of his New York headquarters on the order of President Barack Obama. It saw National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers agree with the British government that it was ‘utterly ridiculous’ for the White House to suggest that such surveillance had been undertaken by Britain’s signals agency. And it produced official confirmation by Mr. Comey that the agency is investigating Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election, including possible coordination with members of the Trump campaign.

“You’d think that all of this would be of surpassing concern for Republican members of Congress. The president who leads their party has been officially reported to have made false statements alleging criminal activity by his predecessor. What’s more, his campaign is under scrutiny for possible cooperation with a dedicated and dangerous U.S. adversary in order to subvert American democracy.

“Yet to listen to Republican members of the Intelligence Committee, the most pressing problem to arise from Russia’s intervention and the FBI’s investigation of it is that reports of contacts between Russia’s ambassador and Mr. Trump’s designated national security adviser were leaked to The Post.  The priority of Chairman Devin Nunes and other Republican members, judging from their statements, is not fully uncovering Russia’s actions but finding and punishing those who allowed the public to learn about them.

“Mr. Nunes and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) could not have been more zealous in their outrage over the exposure of Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign as national security adviser after reports in The Post exposed his lies about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.  Mr. Flynn accepted nearly $68,000 in payments from Russian companies, including the state propaganda outlet, before advocating greater cooperation with Moscow during his brief White House stint.  Yet Mr. Nunes and Mr. Gowdy would have it that hunting down the sources for the disclosure that Mr. Flynn discussed the lifting of U.S. sanctions with Mr. Kislyak is more urgent than learning the full extent of the contacts he and other Trump aides had with Moscow.

“The Republicans seem to be slavishly following the cues of the president, who, while failing to retract his accusation against Mr. Obama, is seeking to direct attention elsewhere.  ‘The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information,’ he tweeted Monday morning.  Such a diversion, like anything else that distracts attention from Vladimir Putin’s support for his election, would be to Mr. Trump’s advantage.”

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“Well, that wasn’t very helpful.  FBI director James Comey took his latest star turn before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday and didn’t disclose much of anything new about Russian meddling in the presidential election or wiretaps of Trump Tower.

“Mr. Comey did confirm what four bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees said last week – that the FBI has ‘no information’ to support President Trump’s assertion that Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. He also acknowledged that the FBI is investigating Russia’s electoral meddling and any connection to the Trump campaign, which everyone also knew.

“In other words, Mr. Comey was his usual political self, handing out the headline that Democrats wanted about Mr. Trump’s false accusation but offering little to educate the public about what really happened.

“Mr. Comey also refused to answer whether the FBI has evidence of collusion between Trump officials and Russia.  He kept mum even though former Obama director of national intelligence James Clapper, former acting Obama CIA director Michael Morell, and House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes have said publicly that they have seen no such evidence.

“While there’s no evidence for Mr. Trump’s typically over-the-top claim of Trump Tower wiretapping, we do know that some parts of the U.S. government listened to and then leaked word about conversations that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

“Yet Mr. Comey pre-empted questions about the instigators or methods of this surveillance, including whether there was a FISA court order on Mr. Flynn or other campaign officials.  Mr. Comey said he couldn’t comment on a pending investigation, which would be more credible if he hadn’t been so voluble during the election campaign.

“The point of the House-Senate Intelligence probes should be to learn and then disclose to Americans what happened on both questions: What the Russians did with whom, and whether and why the Obama Administration eavesdropped on the Trump campaign?

“If Mr. Comey won’t help, our hope is that the intelligence committees will go further than they usually do in declassifying relevant details. The public needs to know if there was political canoodling with a foreign government and whether the Obama Administration used cloak-and-dagger methods for partisan purposes.”

Wednesday, House Intelligence Chair Nunes suddenly went to the White House to personally brief President Trump about intelligence he says he has seen regarding surveillance of foreign nationals during the presidential transition.

The surveillance inadvertently picked up the president or members of his transition team, the chairman said, Nunes the first high-ranking lawmaker to assert this.

“What I’ve read seems to me to be some level of surveillance activity, perhaps legal. I don’t know that it’s right,” Nunes told reporters outside the White House. “I don’t know that the American people would be comfortable with what I’ve read.”

“The president needs to know these intelligence reports are out there,” Nunes added.  “I think the president is concerned, and he should be.”

Trump was asked whether he felt vindicated in his claims that he was wiretapped during the campaign at his Trump Tower headquarters by President Barack Obama’s administration. That claim has been roundly rejected by members of the intelligence community, including FBI Director James B. Comey and Nunes himself, who again dismissed the wiretapping allegation Wednesday outside the White House.

“I somewhat do. I must tell you somewhat do,” Trump said when asked the question by reporters.  “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found.”

Nunes said earlier, before heading to the White House, that U.S. intelligence agencies may have picked up communications involving Trump as part of court-approved surveillance of foreign intelligence targets in the period between Trump’s election and his inauguration.

Nunes told reporters that Trump and other members of his team probably had their communications intercepted through “incidental collection,” or surveillance of foreign nationals.

Nunes said he had been handed the information from a source but was confident the information he received is official and from the intelligence community.

“From what I know right now, it looks like incidental collection,” Nunes said.  “We don’t know exactly how that was picked up, but we’re trying to get to the bottom of it.”

Nunes said the situation will be clarified after he receives a full list of American citizens who were “unmasked” during the surveillance.  He expected to receive that Friday from the National Security Agency, the FBI and the CIA.

The NSA sweeps up phone calls and emails from around the world, looking for intelligence that might be of interest to U.S. officials. If something is found, an analyst writes it up.

Names of Americans are “minimized” to remove their identities and protect their privacy.  But senior U.S. officials can ask for the names if they believe the information would allow them to better understand the intelligence, which is “unmasking.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee, blasted Nunes for going over his head and briefing Trump himself on the apparent findings, saying that the move “casts quite a profound cloud” over the panel’s investigation.

“I have expressed my grave concerns with the Chairman that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way,” Schiff said in a statement.

“Because the committee has still not been provided the intercepts in the possession of the Chairman, it is impossible to evaluate the Chairman’s claims. It certainly does not suggest – in any way – that the President was wiretapped by his predecessor,” Schiff added.

Nunes told CNN after meeting at the White House, “The unmasking really bothers me. There has to be a reason for the unmasking. We have to know who ordered the unmasking.”

“The reason that we do this and that we have all these procedures in place is to protect American citizens,” Nunes said, adding that there is a “certain threshold met to make it into intelligence products.”

Go back to a week ago, Thursday, when President Trump said in a Fox News Channel interview, “I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”

Last Sunday, Nunes said Trump could be referring to new information about whether intelligence officials “unmasked,” or identified, U.S. citizens who were captured speaking with foreign officials who are under routine surveillance.

So look what then happened Wednesday.  Who was Nunes’ source?

After the Nunes visit to the White House without first informing the Democrats on the House Intel Committee, Arizona Sen. John McCain said: “It’s a bizarre situation, and what I think, the reason why I’m calling for this select committee or a special committee, is I think that this back-and-forth and what the American people have found out so far that no longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone. And I don’t say that lightly.”

The White House was forced to distance itself from President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who has long maintained he never worked to advance Russia’s interests, which Trump has repeatedly repeated.

But Wednesday saw the revelation Manafort had signed a $10 million annual contract in 2006 with a Kremlin-connected oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, and wrote a memo indicating he could “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage in the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government.”

Manafort called the Associated Press report, “smear and innuendo.”

“I have always publicly acknowledged that I worked for Mr. Deripaska and his company, Rusal, to advance its interests,” he said in the statement.  “I did not work for the Russian government.”

Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign in August after reports he had received $12.7 million in undisclosed payments from deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Ukrainian political party.

So Trump officials, including White House press secretary Sean Spicer, are frantically downplaying Manafort’s role, while saying Trump didn’t know anything about the new report.

Tuesday, in Kiev, a Ukrainian lawmaker, Serhiy Leshchenko, released documents, long rumored, that he said showed Manafort used offshore accounts and falsified invoices while working there as a political consultant to disguise payments from Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president. This related to a criminal case against one Ukrainian government official, and prosecutors have said they believe the notations in a previously released ledger detailing $12.7 million in cash payments to Manafort from the pro-Russian Party of Regions to be genuine.

Manafort has denied receiving any of the payments recorded in the ledger.    [Alan Cullison and Nathan Hodge / Wall Street Journal]

So today, Friday, Chairman Nunes started backtracking. What became clear is he hasn’t really seen any hard documents regarding “unmasking.”  This is pathetic.  He also canceled a public hearing for next week after pressure from the White House. Instead, he said the committee needed to have a closed-door briefing from Comey and Rogers.  Schiff blasted the move.

The scheduled witnesses were former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, all in office when the purported hacking and disinformation by Russia to influence the election took place.

Nunes then announced Paul Manafort, through his lawyers, told the committee he is volunteering to be interviewed, though it’s not known if this would be in open or closed session.  Nunes acted as if it would be the latter, which is an easier way for the incredibly sleazy Manafort to cover his rich butt.

Opinion....

Editorial / USA TODAY

“The import of what unfolded Monday on Capitol Hill is difficult to overstate.  FBI Director James Comey testified that the presidential campaign of the man now occupying the White House is under investigation for potentially cooperating with the Russians to win the 2016 election.

“Comey, with National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers beside him, repeated previous findings that the Russians hacked into the Democratic National Committee and indirectly passed stolen findings to WikiLeaks for the express purpose of helping Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.  ‘They wanted to hurt our democracy,’ Comey told the House Intelligence Committee.

“That is stunning enough.  But Comey went a step further and acknowledged for the first time publicly that the investigation, which began last July, also involves whether Trump associates colluded with the Russians, including ‘an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.’

“That appears to contradict Trump’s tweet at 3:49 a.m. Monday: ‘Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign.’ Would the FBI feel compelled to disclose an investigation ‘made up’ by the Democrats?

“Now the nation enters a new and difficult phase for Trump’s young presidency, one that carries the potential of scandal for those who helped bring Trump to power and could conceivably overshadow his efforts to recast health care, reform the tax system and fight terrorism.  Already, the House hearing eclipsed what normally would be a major event, the first Senate confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court nominee.

“Let’s be clear. There’s no evidence that the Russian hacking altered enough votes to change the outcome of the election. The main potential crime discussed Monday was whether information was illegally leaked about former national security adviser Michael Flynn.  And no one has said that Trump himself is a suspect.  Comey talked only of ‘investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.’

“But neither can the nation assume that when James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, reported no evidence of ‘collusion’ between the Trump campaign and the Russians, at least through the end of the Obama term, that was the final word on the subject.

“One case, however, should be mercifully closed at this point: Trump’s ludicrous allegation during a tweet storm this month that President Obama bugged Trump Tower.  ‘I have no information that supports those tweets,’ Comey told the committee, and Rogers dismissed speculation that British intelligence might have bene involved.

“In light of their testimony, it’s time for Trump to take the advice of many, including Republican congressmen such as Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Will Hurd of Texas, and apologize for those tweets, explaining that he simply misinterpreted news reports.”

Gerald F. Seib / Wall Street Journal

“In fits and starts, the nascent administration of Donald Trump is trying to show that it really does value traditional allies and alliances, despite the president’s past campaign rhetoric and current Twitter flourishes suggesting the contrary.

“Good thing, too, because America’s allies and alliances are under exceptional stress right now.

“Scan the globe and you will see three distinct theaters of stress. Collectively, they affect nearly all of America’s friends abroad, making this a particularly important time for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the two most important adults in the foreign-policy room, to send the right reassuring signals to America’s friends.

“In Asia, the twin threats of Chinese bullying and North Korean nuclear brinkmanship are unsettling an entire region. China’s territorial claims and island-building in the South China Sea are intimidating the Philippines and Vietnam, while the North Korean threat is unnerving South Korea and Japan....

“In Europe, Russian attempts at intimidation range from overt bullying of Ukraine to more subtle interference in elections.

“The Kremlin’s intimidation recently has taken on troubling nuclear overtones. Russia has deployed short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a small Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania, and its bombers last month came close enough to British airspace that the Royal Air Force scrambled jets to intercept them.

“The third theater of stress is in the Middle East, where Islamic State, and to a lesser degree Iran, question the very legitimacy of existing Arab governments....

“Administration officials look at this triple play of challenges and find a common thread: Each threat represents an attack on the existing state system. The prevailing world order is under more strain than is commonly recognized.

“It’s no coincidence that a new book by Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former aide to presidents of both parties, is titled ‘A World in Disarray.’  He refers to a global ‘trend toward disorder’ and ‘a world in which centrifugal forces are gaining the upper hand.’

“All told, it is a disconcerting time for an American president who has questioned the value of traditional alliances and a more globalized economy.  As a candidate, Mr. Trump was skeptical of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, suggested American allies were freeloaders, and, at one point, implied that American allies in Asia were free to develop their own defenses, including nuclear ones, rather than rely on the U.S.

“The good news is that there is no law mandating that campaign statements must become administration policy. And indeed, Mr. Trump is steadily inching back from some of his campaign posturing....

“What’s still lacking, though, is a coherent statement of a national-security strategy to reconcile conflicting Trump impulses.  For example, the president has criticized past American commitments in the Middle East while also making his own commitment to wipe out Islamic State forces.  He has said the U.S. has been too eager to send the military into foreign fights, yet seeks a $54 billion increase in the  fiscal 2018 budget for that military.  He has pledged both to confront China and Russia and to try to get along better with them.

“What does it add up to?  Most likely a strategy of seeking sufficient power to negotiate from a position of strength.  In any case, a clear strategic message would be welcome at a time of exceptional global stress.”

Wall Street

Stocks played a waiting game all week on the Republicans health-care plan, with little movement on Monday, Wednesday or Thursday, in anticipation of the vote Thursday, then postponed.  Friday, the Dow Jones and S&P fell, while Nasdaq rose a bit.

But Tuesday saw the biggest one-day decline since September on the Dow, down 237 points, really over fears generated in the hearings Monday on the wiretapping issue and the FBI director’s declaration that there was a formal investigation of Russian involvement in the election and possible Trump campaign collusion.  It was the sense that the whole Trump agenda could collapse, plus the knowledge this market has been priced for perfection and the passage of market-friendly, pro-growth policies.  Friday’s news on the AHCA doesn’t hurt this view and I would expect next week to be very sloppy.

On the economic front, existing home sales for the month of February came in lower than expected, a decline of 3.7% to 5.48 million on an annualized basis, as low supply in the affordable price range impacted buying.  The median home price rose 7.1% year-over-year to $228,400, which isn’t exactly a help.  New home sales for the month did come in better than expected at 592,000, up 6.1%, the best pace since July.

Durable goods orders for February were slightly higher than the Street forecast, 1.7%, 0.4% ex-transportation.

On the Fed side, John Williams, head of the San Francisco Fed, told the Wall Street Journal that he reckons “the economy is in a good place right now,” noting that growth is “basically a little bit above trend.”

But the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow barometer is at just 1.0% growth for the first quarter, a tick up from last week’s 0.9% projection.

Personally, I do not believe the Fed will hike again in May and that rates will just rise two more times, max, the rest of the year because I am changing my tune on the administration’s ability to advance its agenda.  Certainly the bond market is telling you, at least today, that rates will remain lower, for longer.

Earnings season commences in earnest in three weeks and forecasts for a 10% hike in same for all of 2017 are still in order, according to the experts. I believe by end of April these same folks will be scrambling as confidence evaporates as quickly as it formed.

Lastly, at last weekend’s Group of 20 meeting of finance ministers, the world’s top economic powers dropped a pledge to oppose trade protectionism amid pushback from the Trump administration.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, taking part in his first international meeting since being sworn in, sought to downplay the wording issue.

“The historical language was not really relevant,” he said.  “We believe in free trade: we are one of the largest markets in the world, we are one of the largest trading partners in the world.  Having said that, we want to re-examine certain agreements...And to the extent that agreements are old agreements and need to be renegotiated we’ll consider that as well.”  Mnuchin said trade deals need to offer a “win-win situation.”

Mnuchin said the administration would be looking at relationships where the U.S. was buying more than it could sell to its partner, and would be more aggressive in seeking enforcement of existing rules that would benefit U.S. workers through the World Trade Organization.

Editorial / Bloomberg News

“Presumably at the insistence of the U.S. administration, the latest statement from the Group of 20 big economies conspicuously dropped the standard promise to ‘avoid all forms of protectionism.’  It’s worth pausing to understand why that promise was ever worth making, and honoring.

“The reason is surely not that governments always keep their word.  For years they’ve been backsliding on their ritual commitment to keep markets open – and partly for that reason, the prospects for world trade were already looking poor.  But those prospects will be so much worse if governments, led by the U.S., now come to regard protectionism as a policy to be openly embraced.

“In the recovery from the recent global recession, the volume of world trade has grown more slowly than it should.  During the past four years, especially, the slowdown has been pronounced.  Disentangling the causes isn’t easy.  Weak investment demand due to the unusual severity of the slump is one factor.  But trade policy is another.  Since 2012, protectionism has been quietly ratcheting up.

“As always, traditional measures such as state aid, export incentives and public pronouncement are being used to protect domestic producers. In addition, governments everywhere have been using new local-content requirements to discriminate against foreign competitors.  According to one analysis, the U.S. has led this post-2008 trend, even with an avowedly pro-trade administration in charge.

“It’s a cliché of trade policy that you need to keep moving to stand still, and the experience of the past few years proves the point.  Without big new agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership – strongly championed by former President Barack Obama, but rejected by Congress – international competition gets nibbled away.  Instead of this mildly debilitating process of attrition, President Donald Trump now contemplates a frontal assault on liberal trade.

“Although the basic case for free trade has gone out of academic fashion lately, it remains as strong and simple as ever.  Competition is the wellspring of prosperity – and liberal trade promotes competition....

“Changes in rhetoric are one thing, changes in policy quite another – but if deeds follow words, the world is in trouble.  If Trump leads governments toward a new era of outright protectionism, he will do untold damage both to the U.S. and to the wider global economy.”

* I urge you to read my current “Wall Street History” piece on trade from 3/20.

Europe and Asia

First a little news on the eurozone economy.  As reported by Markit, a flash reading on activity in March for the EA19 showed the composite reading on manufacturing and services came in at 56.7 (50 being the dividing line between growth and contraction), a 71-month high, with manufacturing, specifically, at 56.2, and services at 56.5, both 71-month highs as well.

Germany’s composite was 57.0, a 70-month high, manufacturing 58.3, a 71-mo. high, and services 55.6.

France’s flash reading for this month was 57.6, a 70-mo. high, with manufacturing at a solid 53.4 and services 58.5, 70-mo. high.  Again, it’s ironic that now that the French economy is turning around, and has been for about six months in earnest, it’s too late for President Francois Hollande, who pulled out of the presidential race long ago.  [France economic growth for the fourth quarter was confirmed to be 0.4%, in line with Germany’s after years of falling behind its major rival.  Rising tax revenues have also pushed France’s deficit from 3.8% to 3.2% in Q4, though 3.4% for the year – still above the EU’s 3% ceiling.

In the U.K., the consumer price index for February was the highest since Sept. 2013, 2.3%, on its way to 3% this year, according to most estimates, but with no real wage growth. The Bank of England is loath to hike rates because it also sees an imminent economic slowdown with the consumer being pinched, as well as the Brexit uncertainty, now that the actual negotiating process is about to begin.

The euro hit a six-month high on the French election debate, see below, and the feeling that Marine Le Pen didn’t have a shot at upsetting the entire European Union in Brexit-like fashion.

Eurobits....

Speaking of Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May said she will trigger Article 50 on March 29, launching two years of complex negotiations that will pit Britain’s need for a trade deal against the rest of the EU’s view that Britain should not benefit, in order to set an example for the others... ‘don’t try this.’

The European Union announced it would hold a summit of leaders to conclude its response to the U.K.’s notification of exit on April 29, in the middle of France’s presidential elections.  At the summit, leaders will adopt their formal guidelines for negotiations which will be headed by the European Commission.

At stake is whether Britain can regain powers over immigration and lawmaking without derailing trade with its largest market, or threatening London’s status as the region’s leading financial center.  This last item is already breaking down as European financial centers such as Frankfurt and Paris, let alone the likes of Poland, vie for workers, knowing the banks headquartered in London will most assuredly have to break out to maintain easy access to the EU.  This, and immigration, will probably dominate discussion in this space the next 18-24 months.

Should Theresa May and her government not be able to reach a good deal, Britain would crash out of the EU with devastating consequences.  As Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny warned, and as I’ve said since last June and the Brexit referendum, talks could turn “vicious” and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker predicted they will be “very, very difficult.”

But Tim Barrow, the U.K.’s man in Brussels, told MPs this week that he was convinced Britain and the EU can strike an ambitious free trade agreement within the negotiating window.

At the same hearing, David Jones, the minister responsible for Exiting the EU, said the U.K. was at a “huge advantage” in negotiating a trade deal as all of its current arrangements were “already in alignment” with the bloc’s standards.

The EU, remember, will set the size of the ‘divorce bill,’ which has been estimated at around 600bn euro, while one official responsible for negotiations, Sir Bill Cash (an appropriate name), said it was worth “bearing in mind” that the U.K. helped restructure Germany’s post-war debts at the London conference in 1953.

“It might be worth tactfully reminding people, not one of my strongest points, that there is a realistic position here that we don’t really owe anything to the EU whether it is legal or political,” he said, change jingling in his pocket.

Meanwhile, Scotland is to hold a vote next week on whether to go through with a referendum in 2018 on independence.

Support for independence is at 44% of Scottish voters, one percentage point less than the result for leaving the U.K. in a 2014 vote.  A survey by the Sunday Times also showed 51% of Scots don’t want another vote in the next few years, while 32% do.

In France, the first big presidential debate for the April 23 / May 7 election was held Monday, with five candidates (including the Socialist and Leftist leaders) on stage for 3 ½ hours.

It was felt ‘centrist’ Emmanuel Macron won it, though there was no knockout blow and it was more about Macron doing nothing to dispel the notion that at 39 years old he is qualified, than details on policy.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen said on immigration: “I want to stop immigration both legal and illegal and I’m proud of my plan.”  In her closing statement, in which she attacked the EU: “Savage globalization has been a nightmare for you,” she told voters.

The recent polls all show Macron and Le Pen at 24-26% for the first round, with Francois Fillon at 17-18, though an OpinionWay survey Friday had it Le Pen 25, Macron 24 and Fillon 19.  In this one, Macron was seen wiping out Le Pen in the run-off, 63-37, while Fillon would win a second round 57-43.

Fillon late Thursday accused President Hollande of directing a covert operation to meddle with the judicial investigation against him and aiding the spread of damaging revelations.  He also asked the French justice system to investigate Hollande, Fillon citing a newly released book on the Interior Ministry’s practices in recent years, which he says show the sitting president has “a black cabinet” and also show Hollande is meddling with the justice system.  [Financial Times]

Earlier in the week, a report surfaced that Fillon had received $54,000 for setting up a meeting between a Lebanese billionaire, Russian President Putin and Total SA CEO Patrick Pouyanne in 2015.

And then today, Fillon made comparisons with his treatment by the media with that of a politician who committed suicide in 1993, Pierre Beregovoy.  “I understood why you could be brought to this extreme when suddenly the image of you that is presented is the opposite of what you are.”  The dead politician’s nephew called Fillon’s comments “sickening” and the remarks whipped up another media storm, yet another misstep by Fillon.

Meanwhile, Le Pen had a surprise meeting with Russian President Putin in Moscow.  Le Pen was there to look for financial support from Russian banks, her party cut off from French ones (it’s a PR nightmare for a French bank to be associated with her, as you can imagine) and unexpectedly, Putin met with her at the Kremlin.

Putin said in televised comments: “We’re not trying in any way to influence events but we reserve the right for ourselves to meet with representatives of all political forces of the country, as our partners do, for example in Europe and the U.S.”

Le Pen said before her meeting that she’s always opposed EU sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine as “counterproductive.”

For his part, Emmanuel Macron has accused the Kremlin of cyberattacks on his campaign and spreading false rumors.

One other item, the attack at Orly airport on Saturday, where a man tried to snatch a patrol soldier’s weapon and was shot dead, didn’t hurt Le Pen’s cause as he was known to intelligence services.  Earlier the same day he had shot and injured an officer in another part of the Paris region when stopped for an identity check.

--Worrisomely, Greek deposit outflows resumed, prompting the central bank to raise the ceiling of emergency liquidity available to lenders, as a deadlock in bailout talks sparked fears of a repeat of the 2015 drama that pushed Greece to the brink of collapse.

--The European Union is celebrating its 60th anniversary on Saturday in Rome, this as Britain is pulling out of it days later.

--Relations between the EU and Turkey continued to deteriorate, as Brussels sought an explanation from Turkey for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s suggestion that mounting strains between the two sides could threaten the safety of Europeans.

Erdogan said this week that Europeans would be unable to “walk safely on the streets” in any part of the world if they did not change their attitude towards his country.

Erdogan continues to make comments such as comparing Germans and the Dutch to Nazis for refusing to allow Turkish ministers to address rallies in their countries in support of the April constitutional referendum, discussed further below.

Erdogan also said Turkey was “not a country you can pull and push around, not a country whose citizens you can drag on the ground.”

In his first speech as president of Germany (a figure-head position), Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned Erdogan that he risked destroying everything his country had achieved in recent years. 

 “End the unspeakable Nazi comparisons!  Do not cut ties to those people who want partnership with Turkey!  Respect the rule of law and the freedom of media and journalists! And release Deniz Yucel,” this last one a reference to a German-Turkish journalist who has been detained on trumped up terrorism charges.

The real immediate danger is that Erdogan will go back on the refugee deal struck with the European Union after the referendum and allow millions to flee into Europe.

One more on this topic...Erdogan implored his Turkish compatriots on the Continent to have multiple children as an act of revenge against the West’s “injustice.”

“Go live in better neighborhoods. Drive the best cars.  Live in the best houses,” he said on Friday.  “Make not three, but five children.  Because you are the future of Europe. That will be the best response to the injustices against you.”

A recent Pew Research Center study notes that the Muslim population in Europe was 4 percent in 1990 and is expected to grow to 8 percent by 2030.

--Lastly, you had the terror incident at the British parliament on Wednesday, including on Westminster Bridge, where a home-grown Islamist extremist mowed down people in his car before crashing into a gate at parliament, stabbing a policeman there to death and killing three others on the bridge, before being shot to death himself by security.

“An act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy,” Prime Minister May told a packed House of Commons the day after.  “We are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism,” she said.

Police fanned out across Britain and arrested eight in raids linked to the rampage. ISIS claimed responsibility, saying “the perpetrator...was a soldier of ISIS and the operation was carried out in response to calls to target coalition countries,” said a spokesman for the group.  It is felt the attacker acted alone and he had been inspired by international terrorism.

The carnage was unleashed on the one-year anniversary of the twin attacks on Brussels that killed 32 people.

Europe has been on high alert for two years now amidst a wave of deadly extremist assaults.

Poland’s prime minister drew a link on Thursday between the London attack and the European Union’s migrant policy, saying the assault vindicated Warsaw’s refusal to take in refugees.

Poland’s right-wing, Eurosceptic government has refused to accept any of the 6,200 migrants allocated to it under the European Union’s quota scheme that is designed to share the burden of taking in large numbers of migrants and refugees.

Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said in a television interview: “I hear in Europe very often: do not connect the migration policy with terrorism, but it is impossible not to connect them.”

In Asia, China’s February home prices in the 70 largest cities rose 12.4% from a year ago, but 0.4% over January.  Prices in Beijing rose 22.1%.

In Japan, the flash manufacturing reading for March came in at 52.6 vs. 53.3 in February.

Street Bytes

--The Dow Jones suffered its worst weekly loss since prior to the election, -1.5% to 20596.  The S&P 500 lost 1.4% and Nasdaq 1.2%

--U.S. Treasury Yields

6-mo. 0.89%  2-yr. 1.26%  10-yr. 2.41%  30-yr. 3.01%

Treasuries continued to rally, with the yield on the 10-year down 20 basis points since a high of 2.61% on March 13.  All about a fall in confidence over just how much the Trump administration can accomplish.

--President Trump unveiled his administration’s official go-ahead for the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project that was rejected by his predecessor.

--The Trump administration made it tougher for millions of visitors to enter the U.S. by demanding new security checks before giving visas to tourists, business travelers and relatives of American residents. Consular offices have been instructed, through Sec. of State Rex Tillerson, to broadly increase scrutiny, i.e., “extreme vetting.”  Good.

The new rules don’t apply to citizens of 38 countries, including most of Europe and longstanding allies like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.

Even stricter security checks for people from six predominantly Muslim nations remain on hold because federal courts have temporarily blocked President Trump’s travel ban.

--Related to the above, and the reason why it’s in this section, is the new restriction, via Homeland Security, that passengers on foreign airlines headed to the United States from 10 airports in eight majority-Muslim countries are barred from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone.

This could have an impact on business travel as those who like to get their work done on the long flights might opt to choose alternatives.  American-operated airlines, for example, aren’t part of the measure.  The United Kingdom quickly followed suit in announcing a similar ban.

The reason for the new restriction is intelligence related to the 2015 downing of a MetroJet airliner over Egypt, which was downed by a bomb in a soda can, as well as other incidents, such as the following, not mentioned in the articles you’ve read on the topic as they cite the downing of a Somali plane.

WIR 5/28/16

“Egypt: Human remains retrieved from the site where EgyptAir flight 804 went down suggest that an explosion may have brought down the aircraft, Egyptian forensic officials told news agencies on Tuesday.  The impact zone apparently has been identified, but no word on how long it will take to bring up the fuselage, let alone the black boxes.

“As for why if it was a bomb that brought down the plane there has been no claim of responsibility, al-Qaeda would have reason not to stake a claim. It took a year after the 7/7 attacks in London before the group stepped forward, and in this case al-Qaeda may not want to return to the center of the radar.... 

“If it was AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) there really would be zero reason to claim responsibility as it would have proved its new methods worked, whether the bomb was planted in one of the stops the plane made that day, or it was incorporated into a laptop brought on board.”

6/18/06

“Egypt: The flight data recorder from the EgyptAir plane that crashed in the Mediterranean Sea last month was recovered, Egyptian investigators said; a day after search teams recovered the cockpit voice recorder from the wreckage of Flight MS804.

“The data recorder was retrieved 'in several pieces' but it is thought critical information will be obtained from it.  Not sure how long it will take to analyze it.  While a terror attack is still suspected, no group has come forward to claim responsibility.  But as I noted when the plane went down, if it was the work of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), they have zero incentive to claim responsibility as they want to keep their bomb-making capabilities secret.”

12/17/16

“Egypt: Aside from the above-noted bombing of the Coptic cathedral in Cairo last Sunday morning that killed 25, Egyptian authorities said this week that traces of explosives had been found on the remains of victims of an EgyptAir flight that crashed en route from Paris to Cairo last May 19, killing all 66 people on board.

“French investigators had seen trace levels of TNT on the plane’s debris back in September, but the French wanted more time to confirm it,  working with their Egyptian partners.

“But some Western sources told Reuters they still believe a technical cause remained the most likely reason for the crash.  No one has ever claimed responsibility, though I argued last spring that if it was AQAP, they would never claim responsibility because they want their methods to be kept secret.”

I told you exactly why no claim of responsibility had ever been issued, and now the U.S. and U.K. are scared to death that AQAP has perfected the laptop bomb.

--Verizon and AT&T said on Wednesday that they would suspend digital ads on Google’s YouTube, joining a list of well-known British brands such as retailer Marks and Spencer Group Plc that are deserting Google.  Thursday, Johnson & Jonson joined the list.  Friday, JPMorgan Chase did as well.

The issue is control over online ad placement and advertisers have sought to avoid having their brands appear beside content that they categorize as hate speech.  J&J said it wanted to ensure that its product advertising did not appear on channels that promote “offensive content.”

YouTube has been a key driver of growth for Google as its traditional business of search advertising matures.  Google’s net ad revenue worldwide from YouTube last year was $5.58bn, according to eMarketer.

But Google said while it prevents ads from running near inappropriate material, such as from extremists, it does so “in the vast majority of cases.”  In other words, ‘we’re trying.’  AT&T said in its statement: “We are deeply concerned that our ads may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate.”

At the same time Google’s global ad revenue is projected to be $73.75 billion, grabbing 62% of the $99.62bn search market.  So it’s not clear if the financial hit to Google with some firms leaving is really that big.  Plus the likes of AT&T and Verizon did not extend their pulling of ads from YouTube to Google search.

But this issue isn’t going away.  Advertisers have control about how and where their ads will be placed on television and print publications.  Google and Facebook as yet can’t provide the same assurances.

--Walt Disney’s board of directors extended Bob Iger’s contract to serve as chairman and CEO through July 2, 2019, while the company looks for a successor.

Iger had said he was open to staying on past the expiration date of his contract, which was to run out June 30, 2018, if it were in the “best interest of the company.”

All are in agreement Iger has done a super job in his 11 years at the helm thus far.

--Sears Holdings, the parent company of Sears and Kmart, says there is “substantial doubt” about its financial viability after years of mounting losses.

“Our historical operating results indicate substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern,” the company said in its annual report.

Sears Holdings has $4.2 billion in debt, up from $3 billion a year ago.  The company hasn’t turned an annual profit since 2010 and last year, it reported losses of $2.2 billion. Annual revenue declined 12% to $22.1 billion.

Last month the company announced it was closing an additional 150 Kmart and Sears stores, while selling its Craftsman brand of tools and lawn equipment to Stanley Black & Decker for roughly $900 million.

With all the bad news, it’s no wonder that vendors are pulling back, including reducing shipments and asking for better payment terms.

Sears’ fate was sealed about 10 years ago when owner Eddie Lampert, a hedge fund billionaire who was praised to no end by CNBC’s Jim Cramer, bought Sears, merged it with Kmart, and then decided to stop investing in the chains’ upkeep and capital spending.

--Shares in Nike fell this week after reporting quarterly sales that missed Wall Street’s estimates.  But then during a subsequent call with analysts, the company said that Nike brand future orders, always a key metric for the company, were down 4 percent compared to the same time last year.

CFO Andrew Campion said, ‘don’t worry about futures,’ the key is growth in international markets like China, where the opportunity is “massive,” with the number of marathons growing 500 percent over five years and a projected sports economy valued at $850bn by 2025.

Nike has been facing competition from a resurgent Adidas AG, which I’ve kind of found surprising...that the German sportswear maker could find its mojo.

--FedEx fell short on profits for its fiscal third quarter, but revenue of $15 billion exceeded Street estimates, up 18%.  The former was hurt by larger retailers shipping fewer packages during the holiday season than forecast, which FedEx had ramped up for, i.e., unused capacity.  But the latter was helped by higher rates.

--Apple Inc. announced a new, cheaper iPad and Product Red special editions of its iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.  All three are supposed to be in stores today, Friday.

The new iPad boasts a 9.7-inch display, a more powerful computer chip and a 10-hour battery life. The starting price with Wi-Fi is $329, down from $399.

--Eric Mindich, a 49-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive, sent a letter to investors on Thursday saying he was closing down his Eton Park Capital Management hedge fund, which manages about $7 billion.

Eton Park’s returns were down 9% last year and the performance thus far in 2017 has been flat.

Hedge funds have been suffering from poor relative performance, redemptions and complaints over high fees.

Mindich made his name at the age of 25, heading up Goldman’s arbitrage desk.  In 1994, at just 27, he became Goldman’s youngest partner ever.

--Federal prosecutors are building cases that would accuse North Korea of directing one of the biggest bank heists of modern times, the theft of $81 million from Bangladesh’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Imminent charges, if filed, would target alleged Chinese middlemen who prosecutors believe helped North Korea orchestrate the theft.

Cyberthieves used access codes of Bangladesh’s central bank in one February 2016 weekend to transfer the funds at the New York Fed to four bank accounts in the Philippines.

--Global art sales fell more than 10 percent in 2016.  A report published by UBS and consulting firm Arts Economics shows total sales value fell 11 percent to $56.6 billion (public and private), the lowest level since 2012 and reflecting a second straight annual drop after a 2014 peak of $68.2bn.

The value of sales at public auction dropped 26 percent, with sales of high-end works for more than $1m falling 34 percent in 2016.

The U.S. remains the top location for sales with an annual market share of 40 percent by value.  The U.K. is second with 21 percent. But China is up to 20 percent.  [Financial Times]

--Speaking of China, it temporarily suspended imports of Brazilian meat following a scandal in Brazil over the alleged bribery of health officials to allow the sale of tainted meat.  South Korea tightened inspections of imported Brazilian chicken meat and temporarily barred sales of chicken products.  This is a big deal for Brazil.  It’s also gross.

--The nation’s airlines expect to set a new record for travel this spring, with nearly 145 million taking to the air, up 4% over last year, according to a trade group Airlines for America.

A record 823 million travelers flew on U.S.-based airlines in all of 2016.

--I’ve been writing about U.S. airlines cutting back to Cuba because of much-lighter demand than first thought, and after I wrote last week’s review addressing same, the following day Frontier Airlines and Silver Airways announced they were joining JetBlue and American Airlines in scaling back.

Florida-based Silver, which flies 21 round-trip flights a week, primarily to smaller Cuban cities, said it will end Cuba service on April 22, citing excess supply.  The average round-trip ticket to this hellhole has fallen from $399 to $342, according to the Airline Reporting Corp. (and Hugo Martin of the Los Angeles Times).

--Jeff Jones, the president of embattled ride-hailing company Uber, resigned after just six months.  Uber didn’t say why he left.  But Jones told the tech blog, Recode, that his values didn’t align with Uber’s.

“The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business,” he said in a statement.

Last month, a top engineering executive, Amit Singhal, left Uber five weeks after his hire was announced.  He allegedly failed to disclose that he’d left his previous job at Google because of a sexual harassment allegation.  Two other top executives resigned earlier this month.

CEO Travis Kalanick said prior to Jones’ departure that the company will hire a chief operating officer who can help write its “next chapter.”

--I forgot to report last time that sales at Tiffany’s flagship Fifth Avenue store tumbled 7 percent in its recent quarter due to being next door to security-barricaded Trump Tower.  Interim CEO Michael Kowalski said Tiffany is working with the Secret Service and NYPD to maximize access and minimize disruption.

--In a survey for the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, Singapore is the most costly city in 2016, with Hong Kong second, ahead of Zurich.

--Prices of supermarket items declined 1.3% last year, compared to 2015, says the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service.  It was the first annual decline since 1967.  I know I’m amazed how cheap food is.

I mean think of this.  At Costco, a carton of 18 extra large eggs was $3.61 last year. It’s down to $1.79.

One of the largest supermarket chains in the country, Cincinnati-based Kroger’s, just ended a 13-year streak of quarter-over-quarter higher sales at stores open at least a year.  It blamed lower food prices.

Meat, chicken and eggs have seen the biggest cuts because of oversupply and lower than expected exports.  [And some of Donald Trump’s potential trade policies will certainly make this worse for America’s farmers and ranchers.]

--Speaking of food, heavy rain in California threatens almond, celery, strawberry and other crops in the Salinas Valley, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.  This area produces most of the leafy greens for the U.S. during this stretch of the season until cooler areas supplement supply.

The record rain in this area interrupted the sensitive growing season.  For example, the rain kept bees from flying out to pollinate nut trees that produce most of the world’s supply of the nuts.

Sunshine has returned and there’s a chance the crop cycle could still turn out relatively OK.

--The Chicago Cubs’ team president, Theo Epstein, was placed on top of the list of “World’s Greatest Leaders” on Thursday, as selected by Fortune magazine.  The 43-year-old baseball mastermind beat out Chinese businessman Jack Ma, the executive chairman of Alibaba, as well as No. 3 Pope Francis.

Well this is kind of absurd. Nonetheless, Fortune cited Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci’s book “The Cubs Way,” with the magazine noting Epstein’s emphasis on the importance of “human qualities among his players,” including understanding the ways in which character, discipline and chemistry interact, that allowed Epstein “to engineer one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports.”  [Marissa Payne / Washington Post]

--For a seventh straight week, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” drew more viewers than rival “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” though Fallon continues to draw a larger crowd among the coveted 18-49 demographic.

Fallon has been much lighter on the political jokes than Colbert, who has found his audience through Trump-bashing.

--Microsoft founder Bill Gates again tops Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, in a year when the number of billionaires rose 13% to 2,043.  Gates’ fortune rose to $86bn, from $75bn, followed by investor Warren Buffett, up $14.8bn to $75.6bn.

Following these two were....Jeff Bezos, $72.8bn; Amancio Ortega (Inditex founder), $71.3bn; and Mark Zuckerberg, $56bn.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is 10th at $47.5bn.  Donald Trump slipped 220 spots to 544 at $3.5bn.

Gates has topped the list 18 of the past 23 years.  If Trump tweets about his own standing, it’s another ‘sell’ signal.

--We note the passing of David Rockefeller, 101.  He was the last of his generation in a rather prominent American family that taught its children that with wealth came great responsibility.  Even as children, he and his siblings had to set aside portions of their allowances for charitable giving.

To mark his 100th birthday in 2015, Rockefeller gave 1,000 acres of land next to a national park to the state of Maine.

David Rockefeller was the grandson of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller and the youngest of five sons and one daughter born to John D. Rockefeller Jr.  He was the guardian of his family’s fortune and, unlike his brothers Nelson, the governor of New York who hungered for the White House, and Winthrop, a governor of Arkansas, David Rockefeller wielded power and influence without seeking public office.

“American capitalism has brought more benefits to more people than any other system in any part of the world at any time in history,” he said.  “The problem is to see that the system is run as efficiently and as honestly as it can be.”

Rockefeller served in the Army during World War II, then began climbing the ranks at Chase Bank, where he was named president in 1961 and chairman and CEO eight years later.

He is estimated to have met more than 200 rulers in more than 100 countries during his lifetime, and often was treated as if he were a visiting head of state.

Under Rockefeller, Chase – now JPMorgan Chase – was the first U.S. bank to open branches in the Soviet Union and China.

But while he met clandestinely with underground black leaders in South Africa, he took heat for his dealings with the white separatist regime, and for helping the deposed Shah of Iran get medical help in the U.S., which triggered the Iranian revolution, let alone the hostage crisis.

Foreign Affairs

Iraq/Syria/ISIS/Russia/Turkey: Among the more important items on the week, in Syria, U.S.-led coalition aircraft have for the first time airlifted allied fighters battling ISIS.  The Pentagon said members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance were dropped behind ISIS lines west of the city of Raqqa.  Fierce fighting continues at the Tabqa Dam, thought to be a base for hundreds of foreign fighters.

The U.S. said all aircraft had returned safely and that troops had not come under fire during the operation.  This is a small but significant stepping up of the U.S. commitment on the ground in Syria. U.S. advisers are also closer to the front lines and better able to help coordinate operations.  One can imagine American Special Forces being directly involved in the assault on the dam.

At a meeting of coalition member states in Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the gathering that it was “only a matter of time” until IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed, with “nearly all” of his deputies now dead.

In a disturbing incident, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is highly credible, said at least 33 people were killed in a U.S.-led coalition strike on a school used as a center for displaced people near a jihadist-held Syrian town outside Raqqa early Tuesday.

“We can now confirm that 33 people were killed, and they were displaced civilians from Raqqa, Aleppo and Homs,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.  “They’re still pulling bodies out now.” The U.S. disputed the claim but said it was looking into it.

Meanwhile, in Damascus, rebels and extremists launched a fresh assault in the eastern part of the capital, with clashes raging between regime forces on one side and opposition fighters and allied extremists from Fateh al-Sham Front, formerly al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.  Clashes Sunday and Monday killed at least 72 people, including 38 government forces, according to the Syrian Observatory and AFP.

And Russia sent a clear message to Israel this week that the rules of the game have changed in Syria and its freedom to act in Syrian skies (to go after Hizbullah arms shipments) is over, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations said last weekend.

Syria’s use of anti-aircraft fire against Israel has also changed the rules of the game.

In Iraq, the battle for west Mosul grinds on.  Iraqi interior ministry forces are now battling ISIS in the Old City, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to reside.  I can’t imagine the terror felt by these folks.  There is no running water, no electricity, and no food coming in.

But Friday, Iraq announced it was deploying new tactics in a fresh push against the Old City due to the fierce resistance by ISIS.  This area is where the al-Nuri mosque is, the site where Baghdadi declared a caliphate.

Separately, in Baghdad, a car bomb killed at least 23 on Monday, probably the work of ISIS.

Afghanistan: U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, warned that Russia may now be arming the Taliban here, something I wrote of weeks ago.

This was a bad week for the country, with the strategic district of Sangin in Helmand province falling to the Taliban as they continued a years-long offensive to extend their reach in southern
Afghanistan.

Sangin was the deadliest battlefield for UK forces in Afghanistan and 104 British troops died in the effort to keep it out of the Taliban’s hands over the years.

The Afghan government vowed to mount a counter-attack to recapture the town.

Scaparrotti told a Senate hearing this week, “I’ve seen the influence of Russia of late -  increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban.”

A senior Pakistani military source told the Daily Star (Beirut) that Russia could be tempted to stage a Syria-style intervention in Afghanistan if Taliban and ISIL strength continues to grow.

The Afghan military has suffered huge casualties, they have equipment shortages, and salaries aren’t being paid.  The other day, an Afghan policeman (essentially the same as the Army in some areas) killed nine of his comrades as they slept and then fled to join the Taliban.  This happened in the northern province of Kunduz, part of a spike in “insider attacks” where Afghan forces are turning on their own.

President Trump is going to have to do something big here, quickly. I agree with Sen. John McCain, we can’t lose this place but it will take Trump to convince the American people that a renewed commitment (and potential extensive casualties) is in our interests, should he decide to go that route...but this is where his credibility, or lack thereof, is critical.

Iran: The Financial Times’ Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports that there are growing concerns among Iranians that hopes for economic prosperity and political stability are being undermined by a confluence of global events, including the election of Donald Trump, which has raised tensions with the U.S.  The key is an intense power struggle is taking place ahead of May’s crucial elections at which President Hassan Rouhani, the “centrist,” is expected to seek a second term.

Trump’s attack on the 2015 nuclear deal has already put Tehran “on notice,” raising the prospect of new economic curbs or even military conflict. Reformers fear Washington’s stance will embolden the hardliners – who have used the nuclear agreement against Rouhani.

Hardliners have yet to identify a candidate, though, and it is still expected Rouhani will win, but as I wrote at the time of his death, the passing of Rouhani supporter, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and ally of the reformists, was a big blow.  The reformists’ proposals for change do not have the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Rafsanjani was a valuable bridge between the two sides.  Khamenei has never forgiven reformists for the Green Movement in 2009.

Khamenei is 77 and in poor health.  If he died before this is all straightened out, that could be disastrous because today he is the only one who can intervene to stop the infighting.  Remember, it did not exactly go real well for the Green Movement and hardliners will have no problem launching a major crackdown.

The field of candidates for president is not finalized until April.  Rouhani did importantly receive the support of respected conservative leader, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, who might have his eye on the presidency in 2021.

As to the ongoing claims Rouhani is a real “moderate,” we’ll be tackling that as the election draws near.  Tehran’s Prosecutor-General on Sunday announced it had sentenced a couple to death because they had founded a new “cult.”  As the Wall Street Journal opined, “the charges could mean anything from running a New Age yoga studio to a political-discussion club.”

Last month the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps arrested two Iranian Catholics in northwestern Iran and seized their Bibles and prayer books, an incident that Fox News first reported on.

Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fragile coalition is in crisis over a dispute involving reform of public broadcasting, and Netanyahu is threatening to dissolve parliament and hold a snap election to block a plan to begin independent television and radio broadcasts.

The prime minister has long distrusted Israel’s mainstream print and broadcast outlets, which he has accused of being “Leftist” and “Bolshevik” and of engaging in a personal witch hunt against him.

Netanyahu helped pass legislation in 2014 shuttering Israel’s state-run broadcast authority, replacing it with a new public broadcasting corporation whose executives wouldn’t be political appointees.

But allies from his Likud Party in recent months have said the new network is liable to be overly critical of the government.  It was supposed to commence operation April 30.  Other members of the coalition are against canceling the new corporation as it would be a waste of money.  An election could be the result if the other party, Kahlon, doesn’t back down.

Turkey: President Erdogan’s campaign on the April 16 referendum on constitutional reform that would grant him greatly increased powers is not going nearly as well as he expected, with opinion polls showing a deadlock among likely voters.

A “Yes” result would support the transformation of Turkey’s parliamentary system with the establishment of an executive presidency with significant power to shape legislation and appoint judges.

Erdogan continues to rule today under a state of emergency declared following last summer’s failed coup attempt, but the economy is struggling mightily and there is the constant terror threat from both ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

Libya: Last week I wrote of strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is battling to oust extremists from Libya’s second city of Benghazi and is receiving Russian support. This week a fighter jet of forces loyal to Haftar was shot down in the city, according to a spokesman for him.  The pilot was safe but it shows the extent of the conflict.

Reminder, Haftar controls much of eastern Libya, in defiance of the U.N.-backed unity government in Tripoli.

Russia/Ukraine: A former Russian parliamentarian who was harshly critical of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin was shot dead in Kiev.  Denis Voronenkov, formerly a Communist Party lawmaker in the State Duma, was one of two killed outside Kiev’s Premier Palace hotel on Thursday.

Voronenkov served in the State Duma until October 2016 when he lost his seat in parliamentary elections.  Having lost parliamentary immunity, he fled a corruption investigation with his wife, former United Russia lawmaker Maria Maksakova, and in December 2016, Voronenkov received Ukrainian citizenship.

Last month Russia launched a large-scale fraud investigation against him after Voronenkov gave a damning interview to a Ukrainian media outlet.

During the interview, he said that Russia was in the grip of a “pseudo-patriotic frenzy” similar to Nazi Germany, and claimed that it was a “mistake” for Russia to annex the Crimean peninsula.  [Moscow Times]

Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, and Yuriy Lutsenko, the general prosecutor, immediately accused Russia of orchestrating the mob-style hit.  Voronenkov was also a witness in treason proceedings in Kiev against Viktor Yanukovich, the former president, over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

Lutsenko said Voronenkov was killed either over the proceedings against Yanukovich or because he had evidence of corruption in the Russian security services.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said accusations of Russian involvement were “absurd.” Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “shocked” and called for an impartial investigation.  [You can stop laughing.]

Separately in Ukraine, 20,000 people were evacuated after a series of explosion at a massive arms depot in eastern Ukraine described by officials as sabotage.  [This occurred the same day as Voronenkov’s assassination.]

The base in Balakliya, near Kharkiv, is around 60 miles from the front lines of fighting against Russian-backed separatists.

What was the danger? The dump is used to store not just tons of ammunition, but also artillery shells and missiles.  Everyone within a 6-mile radius was evacuated.

Authorities were exploring the possibility an explosive device was dropped from a drone.  A drone was reported to have been used in an earlier attempt to set the facility on fire in December 2015.

There were no reports of injuries to servicemen or civilians.  But, overall, more than 9,700 people have died in the conflict that erupted in 2014.

One other involving Ukraine. The annual Eurovision Song Contest, a huge deal on the continent, is being hosted by Ukraine and it formally banned entry to Russia’s wheelchair-bound contestant.

Ukraine banned Julia Samoylova for three years from entering Ukraine for “violating Ukrainian legislation.”

The woman is guilty of entering – without Ukrainian permission – the Crimean Peninsula three times.  It’s important to remember the annexation in 2014 is not internationally recognized and has been disputed by Ukraine in international courts.  Kiev has imposed similar travel bans on scores of Russian citizens for “illegally” entering Crimea.

But, boy, this sets the stage for quite a contest.  Ukraine’s Susana Jamaladinova, better known by her stage name Jamala, edged out a Russian contestant last year with a politically charged song, ‘1944,’ that recounted Stalin’s forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars from the peninsula during World War II.

Lastly, Russia said on Friday that six of its soldiers had been killed “while successfully repelling” a militant assault on a military base in Chechnya.  Six of the attackers had been killed, according to the National Guard of Russia.

China/North Korea/South Korea: Pyongyang launched a new missile Wednesday morning, but it appears to have exploded seconds after lift-off.  The reported launch failure came as U.S. and South Korean troops were conducting their annual military drills that the North calls an invasion rehearsal.

But last weekend, North Korea announced it had tested a new high-performance rocket engine, a most-worrisome development, as this is part of the quest for an intercontinental ballistic missile that could target the United States.

South Korean officials said on Friday that another North Korean nuclear test seemed imminent.

And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “described North Korea as rapidly advancing its capacity to produce nuclear weapons on two fronts: the production of plutonium at its Yongbyon nuclear facility and the enrichment of uranium.”

Amano said: “This is a highly political issue. A political agreement is essential, (but) we can’t be optimistic. The situation is very bad. We don’t have the reason to be optimistic.”

Comparing North Korea to Iran, he said: “The situation is very different. Easy comparisons should be avoided.” [Jay Solomon / Wall Street Journal]

Separately, Sec. of State Rex Tillerson wrapped up two days of meetings in Beijing on Sunday with little progress made in narrowing the two sides’ differences on the North Korean nuclear crisis.

But to Beijing’s relief, Tillerson emphasized the differences on any one issue should not be allowed to derail the overall relationship.  It was a change in tone from his statement in Seoul concerning Pyongyang: “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended...All options are on the table.”

“You said that China-U.S. relations can only be friendly,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told Tillerson, adding that “we are both expecting a new era for constructive development.”

“The joint interests of China and the United States far outweigh the differences, and cooperation is the only correct choice for us both,” Xi added.

Xi and President Trump are meeting early next month in Mar-a-Lago.

One bit on Taiwan...the Defense Minister confirmed Monday that China has deployed its most advanced medium-range ballistic missiles that can launch precise strikes against the island.

Beijing has also increased the “intimidation” of Taiwan by staging six military exercises in the West Pacific, with its navy and air force passing areas around Taiwan, said Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan.  [South China Morning Post]

Well, I know from my experience in Fujian, China, that the Chinese missiles are largely stationed there, it being the shortest point between the mainland and the island.  Domestic flights into Fuzhou, for example, are often delayed due to military exercises.

Lastly, in a World Cup qualifier in Seoul, there was “unprecedented” security Thursday night for a match between China and South Korea, China emerging victorious 1-0, though the chances of its qualifying for the World Cup in Russia next year are basically slim and none.  It appears there weren’t any major incidents.  China had issued warnings to traveling fans with deteriorating relations between the two countries, especially after South Korea agreed with the United States to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system,

Retail giant Lotte has now closed more than 80 percent of its stores in China after boycotts and protests against the company because it donated a golf course as a site for a THAAD battery.

Northern Ireland: We note the passing of one of the more controversial figures of the 20th century, Sinn Fein deputy and former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, who died of a rare heart disease at the age of 66.

McGuinness was a former IRA leader turned peacemaker who was at the heart of the power-sharing government following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

He became deputy first minister in 2007, standing alongside Democratic Unionist Party leaders Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster.

McGuinness stood down from his post in January in protest against the DUP’s handling of an energy scandal, in a move that triggered a snap election.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said: “Throughout his life Martin showed great determination, dignity and humility and it was no different during his short illness.

“He was a passionate republican who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation and for the re-unification of his country. But above all he loved his family and the people of Derry and he was immensely proud of both.”

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Enda Kenny said his passing represented a “significant loss, not only to politics in Northern Ireland, but to the wider political landscape on this island and beyond.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: Many people “will find it very hard to forgive” Mr. McGuinness for his early actions, but he was key to the success of the Good Friday Agreement:

“The steel that he showed back then in pursuit of armed struggle, that same determination was brought forward in the peace process.  The character of Martin McGuinness in one sense did not change, that steel was always there.  But once he decided to deploy it in pursuit of peace he showed a lot of courage and a lot of leadership.”

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern: “Ireland today has lost a great leader....

“Martin McGuinness was a pivotal figure in Irish republicanism for over 40 years. He made a journey, if not without historical precedent, then certainly without equal in modern Ireland. It began for a very young man in pursuit of violent struggle. It ended only weeks before his death, after years in office, spent strengthening the peace he worked for and to which his leadership was essential.”

Former President Bill Clinton: “As Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, his integrity and willingness to engage in principled compromise were invaluable in reaching the Good Friday Agreement.

“In the years that followed, he played an even more important role in ensuring that the peace would last – personally overseeing the arms decommissioning, joining the new government as the first Education Minister, and later serving as Deputy First Minister, and doing it all with a sense of humor and fairness that inspired both his friends and former foes....

“He believed in a shared future, and refused to live in the past, a lesson all of us who remain should learn and live by.”

Colin Parry, whose 12-year-old son, Tim, died in an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993, said although he did not forgive the IRA or Martin McGuinness, he found him a man who was “sincere in his desire for peace.”

Andy McSmith / The Independent: “McGuinness was prepared to bomb and kill to drive the British out, but he was also an incorruptible, church-going Catholic and a loyal family man, a combination that made him one of the most dangerous enemies the British state ever had.”

McGuinness grew up in Derry’s Bogside, radicalized, he said, by discrimination and murder on the streets of his city.

In 1972, at the age of 21, he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry at the time of Bloody Sunday, when 14 civil rights protesters were killed in the city by soldiers.  He was a leader in the IRA during a time when the paramilitary organization was bombing his home city.  [Between 1971 and 1973, more than 100 people died in the political violence in Derry, including 54 members of the security forces.]

He was convicted by the Republic of Ireland’s Special Criminal Court after being arrested near a car containing explosives and ammunition. He served two prison sentences – he was also convicted of IRA membership.

At 22, he and Gerry Adams were secretly flown to London for talks with the British government: MI5 considered him serious officer material with strategic vision.

McGuinness claimed he made the transition to politics when he left the IRA in 1974 but security experts believe he was still a leader during some of the organization’s most notorious attacks in the mid-1980s.

Editorial / The Economist

“It was crystal clear (to McGuinness in his early years) that this was a war, and had to be fought like one. Armies must oppose armies.  There was a peaceful path available, through political pressure and the Social Democratic and Labor Party, but he did not take it.  Nothing could be achieved that way.  His aim was now to fight until the last British soldier was driven down the River Foyle or down the Lagan, and Ireland became a socialist republic of 32 counties.  From 1976 he took shared command of the Irish Republican Army, groomed its volunteers, organized its bloody campaigns, improved its weaponry (from fertilizer stuffed in milk churns to surface-to-air missiles from Libya) and played the alternately shifting or immovable hard man in talks, or back-channel maneuvers, with the British government.

“And on the other hand there he was, in 1997, minister of education in the first unionist-republican power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland. He was still listed on the Army Council of the IRA; but the bomb-thrower was now congeniality itself, and the most violent thing he was proposing was to scrap the 11-plus exam, which he had failed as a child. And there he was in 2007, even more astonishingly, deputy first minister to Ian Paisley, the most diehard of the arch-unionists, laughing along with him and having the craic, until they were known as the Chuckle Brothers.  In 2014, all smiles, he shook the hand of Queen Elizabeth.  People were confounded by the change.

“Yet to his mind, there was no change. In 2017 he was as committed a republican as he had been at the start. He desired with all his heart the union of the north and south of Ireland. But having fully embraced violence as the only cure for oppression and discrimination against the Catholic minority in the north, having always held out the threat of bloodshed or refusal to decommission weapons when the peace process faltered, he gradually became aware that he was getting nowhere. The IRA would never give up its aim, as he would not, but the path now lay through politics.

“Besides, there was always a part of him that kept away from violence....and in his parents’ house there was no politics discussed whatsoever, just nightly kneeling to say the rosary....He did not drink, smoke or womanize, went to Mass, and enjoyed thoughtful tasks: fishing, digging and, on holidays, in Donegal, cutting turf and setting potatoes....

“In effect, his chief usefulness was his undeniable (much as he denied it) power within the IRA.... Eventually he persuaded members that there was need for a cessation, for laying down weapons and working through Sinn Fein, the political arm of the movement.”

Most of you know of my affection for Ireland, having been there over 20 times since my first trip in 1989, back when in certain spots there was still a sense of foreboding, as in my trip to Northern Ireland with some golf buddies in the early ‘90s.  I was a little more politically aware of the situation back then and warned my friends not to say anything stupid (they’ll chuckle when they read that).  One night in Newcastle, we started our evening festivities in a Protestant pub and then walked across the street to a Catholic establishment.  The patrons of each never would be seen in the other’s pub.  There was no such thing as sharing drinks, at least in this neighborhood.  And I’ll never forget giving a Catholic boy a lift home that evening, as he spilled out his guts to us.

I do have to admit I wish I was in a pub in Lahinch yesterday, during McGuinness’ funeral, watching the coverage, silently, soaking it all in. 

Random Musings

--President Trump’s approval rating sank to a new low of 37% on Sunday, according to the Gallup poll.  58% disapprove. His approval had stood at 45% last week.  [Thursday, it was back to 41%.  We’ll see about next week, though.]

But a Harvard-Harris Poll for The Hill showed Trump had a 49% approval rating, with 87% approval from Republicans and 80% disapproval from Democrats.  Independents are split, with 47% approving and 53% disapproving.

The latest Rasmussen tracking poll, which has always been seen to be sympathetic to Republicans, has Trump down to 44% approval, as of today, which is down from about 55% at its peak.  Earlier this week, the Rasmussen survey had Trump with just a 40% job approval rating.

--Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faced major complaints over his plan to skip a formal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in April, but he moved to reassure allies by suggesting alternative dates for the meeting.

Tillerson was opting out of the NATO confab in order to be in the U.S. for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit as well as a trip to Russia, which raised some concerns, to say the least.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that aside from Tillerson seeing most of his colleagues at a meeting of the anti-Islamic State coalition this week, Deputy Secretary of State Tom Shannon would attend the meeting in Tillerson’s place.

But now NATO officials are trying to come up with a new date, though you need consensus from all 28 allies.

Separately, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will meet with President Trump on April 12, ahead of the NATO leaders’ summit on May 25, and Trump announced he will attend that event.

--Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him?  Would the rest of the world?  We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.

“The latest example is Mr. Trump’s refusal to back off his Saturday morning tweet of three weeks ago that he had ‘found out that [Barack] Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory’ on Election Day.  He has offered no evidence for his claim, and a parade of intelligence officials, senior Republicans and Democrats have since said they have seen no such evidence.

“Yet the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle, rolling out his press spokesman to make more dubious claims.  Sean Spicer – who doesn’t deserve this treatment – was dispatched last week to repeat an assertion by a Fox News commentator that perhaps the Obama Administration had subcontracted the wiretap to British intelligence.

“That bungle led to a public denial from the British Government Communications Headquarters, and British news reports said the U.S. apologized. But then the White House claimed there was no apology.  For the sake of grasping for any evidence to back up his original tweet, and the sin of pride in not admitting error, Mr. Trump had his spokesman repeat an unchecked TV claim that insulted an ally.

“The wiretap tweet is also costing Mr. Trump politically as he hands his opponents a sword.  Mr. Trump has a legitimate question about why the U.S. was listening to his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and who leaked news of his meeting with the Russian ambassador.  But that question never gets a hearing because the near-daily repudiation of his false tweet is a bigger media story.

“FBI director James Comey also took revenge on Monday by joining the queue of those saying the bureau has no evidence to back up the wiretap tweet.  Mr. Comey even took the unusual step of confirming that the FBI is investigating ties between the Trump election campaign and Russia.

“Mr. Comey said he could make such a public admission only in ‘unusual circumstances,’ but why now?  Could the wiretap tweet have made Mr. Comey angry because it implied the FBI was involved in illegal surveillance?  Mr. Trump blundered in keeping Mr. Comey in the job after the election, but now the President can’t fire the man leading an investigation into his campaign even if he wants to....

“This week should be dominated by the smooth political sailing for Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and the progress of health-care reform on Capitol Hill.  These are historic events, and success will show he can deliver on his promises. But instead the week has been dominated by the news that he was repudiated by his own FBI director.

“Two months into his Presidency, Gallup has Mr. Trump’s approval rating at 39%.  No doubt Mr. Trump considers that fake news, but if he doesn’t show more respect for the truth most Americans may conclude he’s a fake President.”

--Jim Comey is unpopular across the political spectrum, according to a Harvard-Harris Poll of registered voters, with only 17 percent having a favorable view of the director, compared to 35 percent who have a negative view.

41 percent of Democrats have an unfavorable view of Comey, with only 12 percent saying they view him positively.

Comey is almost at break-even among Republicans, with 26 percent viewing him positively and 27 percent viewing him negatively.

On other topics....

Q: Did the Obama administration wiretap the Trump campaign during the election?  Yes 34%, No 66%.

Q: Did the Trump team coordinate with Russia to influence election?  Yes 46%, 54% No.

Q: Do you believe that holdovers from the Obama administration are behind leaks of classified information?  Yes 45%, No 55%.

Harvard-Harris Poll co-director Mark Penn noted that “Even in 1953, the height of McCarthyism, Gallup had 78 percent saying J. Edgar Hoover, Jr. was doing a good job and only 2 percent a poor job.  Comey’s ratings...suggest a crisis of confidence in his leadership.”

--Editorial / Washington Post

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) chastised Democrats on Tuesday for threatening to block Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court.  ‘If Judge Gorsuch can’t achieve 60 votes in the Senate, could any judge appointed by a Republican president be approved with 60 or more votes in the Senate?’  Well, that is rich. Democrats said the same sort of things about Merrick Garland, the judge President Barack Obama nominated more than a year ago, whom Mr. McConnell blocked in a cynical power play.  In fact, Democrats had more reason to complain: More than Mr. Gorsuch, whom conservative activist groups handpicked, the moderate Mr. Garland was a consensus nominee.  Of all the people to take Democrats to task, Mr. McConnell has the least standing.

“Nevertheless, the national interest requires that Democrats judge Mr. Gorsuch ‘on the merits,’ as Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said at this week’s confirmation hearings. Those merits include top-flight academic credentials, a decade on the federal appeals bench, a ‘well-qualified’ rating from the American Bar Association and the support of some key Obama administration legal officials....

“Mr. Gorsuch answers were far from perfect.  He was overcautious in discussing his legal thinking during his hearings. He said less than previous nominees on long-established precedents, raising questions about why. Though he defended the ‘originalist’ approach, holding that the law should be read as it was understood when written, he said too little about what happens when the original meaning was in dispute at the time or is debatable now....

“We are likely to disagree with Mr. Gorsuch on a variety of major legal questions.  That is different from saying he is unfit to serve.  He deserves the deference due any presidential nominee.  Senate Democrats are nevertheless poised to demand that Mr. Gorsuch garner 60 votes for confirmation, rather than a simple majority, a stand they could seek to enforce by filibustering a motion to confirm the nominee.

“The resulting standoff could end in three ways. First, a cloture vote could attract sufficient Democratic votes to reach the 60-vote threshold to stop a filibuster, which is unlikely. Second, Mr. McConnell could move to eliminate the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees, which would be deeply unwise and injure both parties in the long term. Third, the parties could strike a deal that would preserve the filibuster for the minority party in the case of future nominees while providing for an up-or-down vote on Mr. Gorsuch’s confirmation. That, not deepening the politicization of the judiciary, is the best path forward.”

The committee is expected to vote April 3, with the nomination then going to the Senate floor and then, as the Post notes above, we’ll see how the whole 60-vote rule goes down.

For now, Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, has vowed to lead an attempt to filibuster the nomination and if at least 41 of the chamber’s 48 Democrats stick together in the filibuster, it would force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to decide whether to try to change the rules of the chamber and approve Gorsuch with a simple majority, a step Trump has urged (the nuclear option).

--Kyle Smith / New York Post

“When Donald Trump moved into the White House, were you under the impression it was tantamount to either Fifth Avenue Moses coming in to part the filthy waters of the Swamp, or MussoHitler about to bring down the mighty hammer of neo-fascism upon the U.S.?

“If so, the joke’s on you.  If there’s any ancient tale that presaged the start of the Trump Era, it’s the Voyage to Lilliput in ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’

“Gulliver-like, Trump finds himself tied down by a thousand tiny strings, paralyzed by micro-people he can barely detect. Because of their combined power, he can’t do much of anything.  If it’s the system vs. Trump, the system is winning, bigly....

“Since being promoted from private citizen to president, the only thing Trump has exercised undisputed authoritarian control over has been his Twitter account. And even that mysteriously seems to go silent at the exact times his aides are being badgered with questions about his latest tweet....

“The judiciary is a check on the president....

“Even with his party in control of both houses in Congress, Trump is finding major limits to what he can do legislatively....The Jenga game that is ObamaCare is so wobbly that removing a single block could cause the health-care system to come crashing down.  Which is why Republicans can’t agree on whether AHCA leans too far in the direction of the free market, or not far enough.

“Passing a budget? Hey, guess what?  The president can’t spend a dime without Congress.  As Marco Rubio so cruelly, but accurately, put it: ‘We do the budget here....’  Marco may still be little. But Congress is still big....

“Stopping someone like Trump (or Obama, or Reagan or FDR) from doing too much with just his pen and his phone is exactly the point of the checks and balances installed by the Framers.

“If Trump wants to get anything done in Washington, he’d better learn that he wasn’t elected dictator.  Being an effective president means much more (and less) than grand speeches riffing about Hillary Clinton in front of roaring crowds.  It means homework.

“It means recognizing the importance of all the boring stuff like making the right judicial appointments and sub-Cabinet hires. It means getting out of the White House to sell his ideas to Washington insiders, not just to adoring crowds of fans. Trump needs to learn about compromise, negotiation and sweet talk.

“To succeed as president, he needs to study up on what someone once called the art of the deal.”

--Last week I wrote of the United Nations’ plea for $4.4 billion to avert “disaster” with “more than 20 million people across four countries” facing starvation and famine. 

Stephen O’Brien is the United Nations Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief and in my ongoing quest to bring two sides to the bigger stories, Michael Laitman wrote the following in the Jerusalem Post after O’Brien’s comments.

“Here is what I’d like to know: Mr. O’Brien has been in office for nearly two years now. What has he been doing all this time?  What has the UN been doing? Starvation of twenty million people does not happen overnight. What has the UN not sounded the alarm before? All of a sudden, the Internet and newsfeeds are inundated with harrowing images of emaciated children. Could the UN not tell the world about this when only five or ten million people were starving?  Apparently, someone in that defunct institution calculated that it requires no less than twenty million starving people to redeem a ransom of $4.4bn by July.

“The billions of dollars the organization already receives could have cured the world’s hunger problems several times over. They could have shipped a few million of the 1.3 billion tons of excess food trashed each year and solved this crisis, but they have no interest in doing so. Starving children bring in donations.  Feeding them would dry up the flow of money and kill this cash cow.

“More than anything, Mr. O’Brien’s declaration is an admission that the UN is rotten to the core.  The sole interests of the politicians and diplomats who serve in it are their paychecks and promoting their careers.”

--Ivanka Trump was given an office in the West Wing, next to senior adviser Dina Powell, who serves on the National Security Council. Ivanka will get access to classified information and be given security clearance.

When she moved to Washington earlier this year, Ivanka said she would not be playing a formal role in the administration, with her husband, Jared Kushner, already a senior adviser to the president.

Jamie Gorelick, a lawyer and ethics adviser for Ms. Trump, detailed her new privileges and said she would follow the ethics rules that apply to government employees.

Federal anti-nepotism laws prevent relatives from being appointed to government positions, but the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel recently ruled the president’s “special hiring authority” allowed him to appoint Mr. Kushner to the West Wing staff.  It was also ruled the president could consult family members as private citizens, which is what Trump will be doing.

--Fox News dismissed analyst Andrew Napolitano, a former Superior Court judge, indefinitely following his discredited claims that a British intelligence agency was conducting surveillance on President Trump at the behest of President Obama.

Napolitano’s allegation was repeated by press secretary Sean Spicer during a White House press conference and by Trump.  The charge was immediately refuted by elected officials and the news division of Fox, and, in a rare public statement, by the British agency itself, GCHQ.

Napolitano had been working at the network since 1998.

--Mike Huckabee / Washington Post

“Donald Trump wasn’t my first choice for president.  I was.  But he was my second choice, and I’m proud that I supported him.  In tackling the federal budget, he faces a debt that has doubled to $20 trillion in the past eight years.  No doubt a chainsaw seems more appropriate to the task at hand than a carving knife, but I would urge my president and friend to hold back from one tiny area of the budget whose elimination would cost far more than it would save.

“Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts might seem expendable – especially given how often celebrity artists insult and even threaten the president. But such hateful high-dollar Hollywood and music-industry stars don’t receive anything from the NEA, and they shouldn’t. Not because of their insufferable political whining, but because they get rich selling their talents to the highest bidder in the private sector.  I have zero interest in spending a dime of tax money to prop up those who hate the president and the tens of millions who elected him.

“I do care greatly about the real recipients of endowment funds: the kids in poverty for whom NEA programs may be their only chance to learn to play an instrument, test-drive their God-given creativity and develop a passion for those things that civilize and humanize us all.  They’re the reason we should stop and recognize that this line item accounting for just 0.004 percent of the federal budget is not what’s breaking the bank.

“Participation in the arts leads to higher grade-point averages and SAT scores, as well as improvements in math skills and spatial reasoning. Do we want students who are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to have academic success, particularly in math and science?  Music and art deliver, especially for students likely to get lost in an education assembly line that can be more Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ than about creative thinking and problem solving.  Creativity finds cures for diseases, creates companies such as Apple and Microsoft and, above all, makes our culture more livable.  Many children get their only access to music and the arts via grants made by the NEA – 40 percent of which go to high-poverty neighborhoods, while 36 percent reach underserved people, such as veterans and those with disabilities.  In fiscal 2016, NEA grants went to nearly 16,000 communities, in every congressional district in the country....

“If it seems unusual that a conservative Republican would advocate for music and the arts, don’t be so surprised. The largest increase in arts funding ever came under President Richard Nixon, and when budget hawks thought about cutting the minuscule funding of the NEA in the 1980s, it was no less than President Ronald Reagan who stepped in to make sure those in our poorest neighborhoods continue to have access to this road to academic success and meaningful way to express their creative gifts

“I’m for cutting waste and killing worthless programs. I’m not for cutting and killing the hope and help that come from creativity.”

--Norway ranks No. 1 among 155 countries rated for happiness in a United Nations report out this week; moving up from fourth place last year to dethrone Denmark.  A cold climate seems to correlate with happiness, as the top seven are in northern locations: Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands and Canada, according to the World Happiness Report. [No. 8 is New Zealand, 9 Australia, 10 Sweden.]

Countries that achieved positive results have “high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance,” said John Helliwell, a professor at the University of British Columbia.  “All of these are found in Norway, as well as in the other top countries.”

“Happiness in the United States appears to be declining.  Rattled by a slow economic recovery and deeply partisan political landscape, the U.S. dropped down one spot from last year to the 14th happiest in the world.  But Germany (16th), the United Kingdom (19th) and France (31st) are less happy than the U.S.

The five lowest ranked are Central African Republic, Burundi, Tanzania, Syria and Rwanda.

--Editorial / New York Daily News

“The great, aching, acid, hilarious, humane, infuriating, painfully real Jimmy Breslin, who told stories equal to the great, aching, acid, hilarious, humane, infuriating, painfully real city he chronicled, is dead.

“He leaves readers of the Daily News, his home for a golden stretch of his career, bereft, but in deep debt to his spirit.

“For more than four decades, Breslin trawled the city’s streets to channel and champion the working people who make the world run, and to excoriate the elites who dared presume otherwise....

“There was the Jimmy Breslin who, assigned by the Herald Tribune to cover John F. Kennedy’s funeral, made a beeline for the graveyard to interview the men digging out the President’s final resting place, because, he showed, we learn most about the powerful among us from the vantage of the least.

“There was the Jimmy Breslin who was the chosen confidant of the elusive Son of Sam, aka the .44 Caliber Killer, who wrote to ‘J.B.’ care of the Daily News: ‘I read your column daily and find it quite informative,’ adding ominously: ‘Sam’s a thirsty lad and he won’t let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood.’

“To which Breslin replied: ‘The only way for the killer to leave this special torment is to give himself up to me,’ adding: ‘The only people I don’t answer are bill collectors.’

“Into the vortex Breslin plunged whenever he heard a siren.  ‘Step on it...it could be the end of Pennsylvania’ he recalled barking to his driver as they raced in 1979 to Three Mile Island, as it leaked radioactivity on the verge of a meltdown.

“Hurtling toward Crown Heights in a taxi in the thick of the 1991 race-religion riots – true New Yorker that he was, he never learned to drive – Breslin became the target, and the chronicler, of rage: ‘The kid on the hood swung the baseball bat with as much speed as you could want and with a look on his face that told you all you ever want to know about life in New York at this time.’

“He emerged from the melee with a busted lip, black eye and no clothes – and a hell of a column.

“Jimmy Breslin’s voice is silent now. His words, and the words of the New Yorkers whose stories he told, whose values he defended, forever roar.”

--The first restoration since 1810 on the site of Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was completed and thousands of tourists and clergy members from across the globe gathered Wednesday at the Old City’s Christian quarter to view it.

“For the first time in over two centuries, this sacred edicule has been restored,” said Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem.  “This is not only a gift to our Holy Land, but to the whole world.”

---

Pray for the men and women of our armed forces...and all the fallen.

God bless America.

---

Gold $1246
Oil $48.14

Returns for the week 3/20-3/24

Dow Jones  -1.5%  [20596]
S&P 500  -1.4%  [2343]
S&P MidCap  -2.1%
Russell 2000  -2.7%
Nasdaq  -1.2%  [5828]

Returns for the period 1/1/17-3/24/17

Dow Jones  +4.2%
S&P 500  +4.7%
S&P MidCap  +2.0%
Russell 2000  -0.2%
Nasdaq  +8.3%

Bulls  56.7
Bears  17.3  [Source: Investors Intelligence]

Have a great week.

Brian Trumbore