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03/30/2019

For the week 3/25-3/29

[Posted 11:30 PM ET, Friday]

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Edition 1,042

There is no other way to describe the 4-page summary of the Mueller Report that Attorney General William Barr sent to congressional leaders Sunday other than to say it was a major victory for President Donald Trump.  There was no collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, by any American, for that matter, and that’s a good thing.

For the president, it’s too bad the report wasn’t released in June 2018, or June 2020, because Americans have the attention span of gnats, and there is no way Trump can now keep up the anger for 19 months, at least in ways that remotely builds his base.  On this I agree with Karl Rove, who said at some point you have to move on, if you’re a Republican. 

Democrats do, too, and I’m just guessing when we receive the full details from AG Barr, there won’t be much there...though a ton that is redacted.

As for the other investigations, such as in the Southern District of New York, once again, I’m consistent.  I wait for the facts.  From day one I did not yell and scream about what might be in the Mueller Report.  I’ll instead remind you of what I wrote exactly three months ago, 12/29/18:

It was a Trump tweet:

“Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States.  See?  Isn’t it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbors rather than a Great Country, the U.S., that is 5000 miles away.  Thanks to Saudi A!”

I then wrote:

“I found no such news story, and does the average American understand what the cost to rebuild Syria (and Iraq, for that matter) is?  Try $388 billion for Syria alone...$388 billion...per a UN agency.  Syria’s government has asked for $48bn, short term, just for housing needs.  Saudi Arabia won’t end up kicking in more than $1 billion, over time, especially with oil at $45 a barrel.

“In fact, the Saudis committed just $100 million to a stabilization fund back in August, and the Saudi Embassy in Washington confirmed this week there were no new commitments.”

These are the kinds of things I worry about when it comes to President Trump.

But I also know 95% of Americans couldn’t give a damn.  Donald Trump Jr., on Hannity this week, stumbled into the truth.  Hannity interviewed him after the Grand Rapids rally, and Don Jr. said that when he’s out in America, away from the coasts, in other words, “How many people ask about Russia?”

No one, and that’s a problem of a different kind.  Of course Don Jr. was referring to Russia, as in the Russia ‘hoax,’ but Americans need to care about Russia and Vlad the Impaler, because he has successfully sown discord in not just America, but the West, through his election shenanigans, whether it is in Grand Rapids, Lyon, or Milan.

Three months ago, you may recall, President Trump was also railing about the reaction to the resignation of James Mattis.  The president was declaring victory over ISIS.

“If anybody but your favorite President, Donald J. Trump, announced that, after decimating ISIS in Syria, we were going to bring our troops back home (happy & healthy), that person would be the most popular hero in America.  With me, hit hard instead by the Fake News Media.  Crazy!”

But as I’ve noted the  past few weeks, including extensively down below, we better not leave Syria today, and our generals, who deserve major kudos for helping to wrap things up this week in terms of the caliphate’s territory, know this far better than the man in the White House. Syria is a seething cauldron of hate more than ever.  The ISIS ideology is far from dead.  There are millions of people that hate us more than you or I can imagine.

But we have a president that, spurred on by a coterie of television and radio personalities, will now focus on retribution.  Believe me, just as in the release of the Mueller Report, I’m just waiting to see what Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz reveals in his own report pertaining to possible abuses in the FBI.

I give you the facts as best I know them, and I rely in no small part on my life experiences, like seeing my relatives behind the Iron Curtain as a 15-year-old...and getting royally screwed by the Chinese.

I make no apologies that this is a record long column.  As with all major topics, I have a ton of outside opinion on the Mueller Report.  It’s part of building the archives...the history of our times.

For now, imagine President Trump’s approval ratings if he had simply said from day one, “I’m just going to wait, like all Americans, for Robert Mueller to finish his report.  In the meantime I have a job to do.”

He sure as hell wouldn’t have lost the House in 2018, if he had done so.  You aren’t being intellectually honest if you say otherwise.  And I apologize for repeating myself, but I literally straddle two congressional districts, the second beginning a block from where I live, and they were both Republican my entire life, and now they are Democrat.

And so we move on....

The Mueller Report / Summary...Trump World

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of potential obstruction charges against Trump included a “thorough factual investigation,” but Mueller opted against making “a traditional prosecutorial judgment” and he “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction,” Attorney General William Barr wrote in the summary he released Sunday.

Instead, Mueller “sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact.”

“The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,’” Barr writes.

In his letter, Barr says that Mueller “recognized that ‘the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,’” which “bears upon the President’s intent with regard to obstruction.”

“In cataloguing the President’s actions, many of which took place in public view, the report identifies no actions that, in our judgement, constitute obstructive conduct, had a nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding, and were done with corrupt intent,” Barr wrote.

Immediately after the report was released, President Trump told reporters:

“There was no collusion with Russia. There was no obstruction, and none whatsoever. It’s a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this.”

Trump tweeted:

“No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.

“KEEP AMERICA GREAT!”

But, Mueller didn’t absolve the president of obstructing justice.

Mueller’s full report is nearly 400 pages and will be released by mid-April, per a second letter from William Barr this afternoon, saying he would be able to release it to Congress (after proper redactions, including for all grand jury testimony and classified material).

“Everyone will soon be able to read it on their own,” wrote Barr to the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House Judiciary committees.  He said he is willing to appear before both committees to testify about Mueller’s report on May 1 and May 2.

Barr added today that certain information must be redacted before the report is released, including intelligence sources and methods and information that by law cannot be public or might infringe on privacy.  He said that while Trump has the right to assert executive privilege on some materials, “Trump has stated publicly that he intends to defer to me.”  Because of that, he said, there are no plans for the Justice Department to submit the report to the White House for a privilege review.

Of course Democrats have called into question Barr’s four-page summary.

“What Mueller has done stands on its own,” said Robert Ray, who served as an independent counsel in the investigation into Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful Arkansas land deal that expanded to include his extramarital relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“I think he has done as much as he could do and more than I expected,” Ray said of Mueller.  “He’s already shown that there was penetration into our election system by Russian operatives. That, alone, should be frightening.”

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Trump ally, said of the findings: “What they do is they clear the deck for there to be an evaluation based upon his record as president,” Christie calling it a “very good day” for the president.  “It lifts a cloud that was over the White House for the entire time he was there.”

Regarding the ongoing investigations, such as in the Southern District of New York, Christie said: “There is always peril there.  I’ve always thought that the SDNY investigation was much more dangerous than the Mueller investigation because it has no restriction on its scope.”

We also learned at week’s end that the grand jury that Mueller convened to examine the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election is still alive and well, a federal prosecutor said in court, but these wouldn’t involve the president directly.

Opinion...all sides....

Editorial / USA TODAY

“The finding that Donald Trump and his 2016 presidential campaign didn’t conspire with the Russian government is somewhat mystifying.

“Not because it cannot be accepted as true. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s reputation for excellence, diligence and thoroughness underscores how the finding is credible and ought to be welcomed.

“No, it mystified because Trump could have sat quietly waiting for the truth to emerge. The president’s underlings could have honestly answered questions by the FBI and lawmakers. But this didn’t happen.

“The president spent nearly two years trashing an inquiry that ultimately cleared him and his campaign of criminally conspiring with Russia, and several former aides are now convicted felons for lying under oath – apparently about something that didn’t warrant concealment.  Some evidently lied out of a misbegotten, twisted sense of loyalty that only made matters worse.

“Mueller’s conclusions, as characterized in a four-page summary released Sunday afternoon by Attorney General William Barr, are deeply disappointing to partisans who saw the inquiry as a prelude to impeachment.  But that was never the intent of Mueller’s investigation, which provides needed clarity after nearly two years of rumors and speculation that swirled about Russia’s interference in the 2016 president election.

“Trump quickly and inaccurately called the report a ‘complete and total exoneration.’  Actually, the special counsel stated that ‘while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him’ on obstruction of justice.

“So how do Mueller’s findings, as described by Barr, stack up against Trump’s repeated characterizations of the investigation?  Let’s take them one by one:

“ ‘There is no collusion.’  Trump, it appears, was right all along.  Clearly there were attempts at collusion, most notably the Trump Tower meeting in 2016 where aides and family members eagerly met with Russians dangling dirt on Hillary Clinton.  But Mueller reported that his ‘investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’

“ ‘There is no obstruction.’  Mueller’s investigation began after what looked like obstruction of justice in plain sight: Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to go easy on national security adviser Michael Flynn, fired Comey after he demurred, bragged about it to Russian officials in the Oval Office, and told NBC News’ Lester Holt that Russia was the reason he fired Comey.

“Mueller didn’t draw a legal conclusion about obstruction, but Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, after reviewing Mueller’s full report, said there was not enough evidence demonstrating the president was guilty of wrongdoing.  It would certainly be difficult to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt of a cover-up when no underlying offense – such as conspiracy – took place.  Even so, Barr needs to explain to Congress and the public how he reached his decision, and did it so quickly.

“ ‘This investigation is a witch hunt.’  Trump repeated this endlessly, and it was always a canard.  Mueller’s reputation was sterling. He’s a highly respected, by-the-book former FBI director and a lifelong Republican who served with valor in Vietnam.  In 22 months as special prosecutor, he won convictions of five Trump aides – in most cases, for lying.... In all, 34 people and three companies were indicted on scores of charges.

“The investigation included more than 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants and interviews with about 500 witnesses (but not Trump himself in person).  So now, the president is in the ironic position of hailing the accuracy of an inquiry he repeatedly tried to discredit.

“ ‘The Russia thing is a hoax.’  This depends on the definition of ‘thing.’  If it means criminal collusion, then Trump has a point.  But if it refers to Russian interference in the election, Mueller dispatched this assertion months ago when he indicted – with pages of extraordinary detail – dozens of Russian nationals on charges of hacking Democratic computers and waging a disinformation campaign aimed at sowing division and helping Trump.

“So now what?  Congress and the public deserve to see Mueller’s full, taxpayer-funded report, and that should happen, with redactions only to protect sources and methods.

“Nor is the end of Mueller’s efforts the end of Trump investigations. Lawmakers and other federal prosecutors are examining a host of issues: possible campaign violations involving payoffs to women who allegedly had affairs with Trump, inauguration funding, the Trump Foundation, Trump’s taxes, real estate deals and potential insurance fraud.

“Beyond Trump, the special counsel gave Congress plenty of homework that transcends partisanship.  Mueller unearthed a plot by a foreign adversary to undermine America’s democracy.  Even if the president didn’t collude – something for which the nation should be thankful – Mueller’s findings cry out for steps to prevent this from ever happening again.

“With the 2020 presidential campaign already underway, there is little time to lose.”

Edward Luce / Financial Times

“Mr. Mueller is indeed ‘America’s straightest arrow.’  The fact that he could not prove conspiracy with Russia does not mean it did not exist. Courtesy of the special counsel, there is more than enough prima facie evidence to pursue many investigations into the Trump Organization’s business dealings.

“Likewise, Mr. Mueller proved the Russians interfered in the 2016 election – as they have tried to do in other democracies.  That threat still exists. Mr. Trump publicly requested Russia’s help and Russia obliged.  It could happen again. Washington has done almost nothing to strengthen its electoral infrastructure since 2016.

“Yet Democrats are now saddled with two big problems. The first will be the backlash. Never mind that Mr. Mueller’s report did not ‘exonerate’ Mr. Trump.  That word will now go viral.    It is likely the full Mueller report will contain damaging revelations about Mr. Trump’s misconduct....

“But no amount of circumstantial evidence will overshadow the report’s key finding.  It was said that Mr. Mueller’s appointment was the worst day in Mr. Trump’s presidency.  Mr. Mueller’s report is arguably the best.  Mr. Trump will believe he now has full license to escalate his attacks on the ‘fake news media.’  In light of Mr. Mueller’s conclusions, Mr. Trump might be making fewer complaints about the ‘deep state,’ however.

“The second problem for Democrats is understanding what was behind Mr. Trump’s victory so they can stop it from happening again. The reasons are as complex as faith in a Mueller ‘hail Mary pass’ was simple.  They include the woodenness of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the FBI’s decision to reopen her email investigation 11 days before the election, disgust with run-of-the-mill politics, middle America’s economic gloom and Mr. Trump’s appeals to the so-called ‘deplorables.’  They also include help from Russia....

“But they would be wise to graduate from what conservatives call ‘Trump derangement syndrome.’ There is a dose of truth in that critique too.  If Mr. Trump is true to form, he will now stoke ‘TDS’ as much as he can.  It will help his re-election campaign.

“The question Democrats must answer is whether they can hold the Trump administration to account without being swallowed by their personal revulsion for the president. They must also brace for a sustained backlash.

“Mr. Trump has been chafing at the investigation since he took office.  As the saying goes, when you strike at the king make sure to kill him.  A wounded, vindicated, Mr. Trump is not a prospect to relish.”

Rich Lowry / New York Post

“The release of Robert Mueller’s finding that Donald Trump didn’t collude with Russia should settle a question his critics – and, quietly, some of his allies – have asked repeatedly over the last two years: Why was he acting so guilty?

“It turns out that he was acting innocent, only in a typically combative, over-the-top Trump fashion.

“The Left and the media were never willing to credit the idea that Trump sincerely believed that he was being treated unfairly – because he was.

“When Trump said in his infamous Lester Holt interview that he fired James Comey because the Trump-Russia thing ‘is a made-up story,’ he wasn’t confessing to obstruction of justice, he was stating a fact that the Mueller probe would establish 2,800 subpoenas and 500 search warrants later.

“The prudent thing for Trump to do once the Mueller probe got going would have been to cooperate without complaint and bide his time awaiting his eventual vindication. Instead, Trump fought like a caged animal (while actually cooperating with the probe).

“Trump is a creature of the media and cares a lot about what is said about him.  So imagine him sitting in the White House and watching the media constantly suggest that a smoking-gun Russia-collusion revelation is just over the over the horizon, that the walls are closing in, that he might be guilty of one of the worst political crimes committed in the history of the republic – and all the while knowing that it wasn’t true.

“It’s very easy to be relaxed about someone else’s reputation. We saw this during the Kavanaugh controversy when progressives were outraged that Brett Kavanaugh got emotional about being falsely accused of gang rape.  Trump, apparently, was supposed to be cool and nonplussed about being accused of treason.

“Of course, he wasn’t, and got caught in an endless feedback loop with the press.  He’d be presumed guilty in the coverage, he’d lash out and then commentators would take his reaction as further evidence he was guilty. For two long years.

“As recently as a couple of weekends ago, an epic Trump tweet-storm was taken as a sign that he was completely panicked over the impending Mueller report.

“It didn’t occur to anyone that he might be acting out of a sense of aggrieved, although often self-defeating, innocence.  This is what got the Mueller probe rolling in the first place.  Trump fired James Comey because the FBI director refused to state publicly what he told Trump privately – that the president himself wasn’t under investigation.

“Democrats’ fallback position now is that they can get Trump for obstruction for all his impure thoughts about a probe that reached its conclusion unimpeded, and that found no underlying Russian collusion to cover up....

“You don’t have to endorse Trump’s attacks on the integrity of Robert Mueller, his mockery of his former Attorney General Jeff Sessions or his distorted view of the Justice Department to find the dynamic here unsettling. Trump was basically told that he’d be investigated and smeared over years over Russia collusion that didn’t happen, and if he objected and wanted to make it stop, they’d investigate him for that, too.

“The ultimate weapon he had was, funnily enough, the truth. As he said again and again, there was no Russia collusion. Every time he repeated the phrase, the press rolled its eyes and opined about how it showed an untoward defensiveness. Then, they dug into another news cycle devoted to Trump’s impending doom.

“A news industry that should have a healthy skepticism could never apply any skepticism to its own narrative and assumptions. And so, on the question of Russia collusion that put a cloud over the White House and dominated the last two years of our public life, Donald Trump was a more reliable narrator than the media that so self-righteously scorns him.”

George F. Will / Washington Post

“Robert S. Mueller III’s report is a gift to the nation, which now knows what was already a reasonable surmise; that its chief executive’s unlovely admiration for a repulsive foreign regime, Vladimir Putin’s, is more a dereliction of taste and judgment than evidence that he is under that regime’s sway. The report is an even larger gift to the nation because it might help stabilize the Democratic Party – if the party reacts more reasonable to it than most of the party’s most conspicuous presidential candidates have been reacting to the political stimuli of 2019.  What Mueller’s report makes possible is something like a normal presidential election in 2020.

“After thousands of hours of cable television obsessing about Mueller’s report in advance of it, with most of the obsessives basing their speculations on less than the reading of tea leaves or of chicken entrails, and most of the obsessives grinding partisan axes, it is difficult, but important, to remember two things.  First, before Mueller was appointed special counsel, it was indisputable that Russia hacked American emails as part of its activities to work for Donald Trump’s election.  Second, while Mueller investigated these activities, the accusation of 2016 collusion between professional Russian operatives and the ramshackle Trump campaign apparatus was already implausible because Russia could pursue its ends without coordinating its activities with a campaign rife with lowlifes and bottom-of-the-barrel Republican operatives.

“The report comes to no conclusion about whether Trump intended to obstruct justice. This agnosticism is, however, a political nullity: Voters are unlikely to care what the president intended when he used a constitutional power (e.g., firing the FBI director) or indulged his incontinent anger (rhetorically and on Twitter) during an investigation into an alleged crime he did not commit....

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pitch-perfect, five-word suffocation of the impeachment agitation coming from the wilder shores of her party – ‘He’s just not worth it’ – was welcome.  But the world’s oldest and, by reasonable metrics, greatest political party, which led this nation through two world wars and its worst economic crisis, today seems unable to process the following:

“An embarrassed nation aches for a president who is one thing: normal.  Democrats, however, are looking weirder and weirder while cooking a bouillabaisse of indigestible ingredients: End meat, air travel, private health insurance, the distinction between late-term abortion and infanticide and perhaps Israel as a Jewish state; defend ‘constitutional norms’ by abolishing the electoral college, changing the nature of the Senate and enlarging the Supreme Court to make it more representative, i.e., to break it to the saddle of politics; give socialism one more chance; etc....

“Thanks to Mueller, the 2020 campaign will not be about the 2016 campaign.  It will be about a post-Trump future – if unhinged Democrats can stop auctioning themselves to their party’s most clamorous factions, thereby making Trump seem to be what Mueller’s report does not say that he is: acceptable.”

Editorial / New York Post

“Attorney General William Barr’s Sunday letter to Congress leaves no doubt: Three years of investigation, including two years under special counsel Robert Mueller, found no evidence of Team Trump ‘collusion’ with Russia.

“Yes, the news is a bit less definitive on the ‘obstruction’ front: Barr says Mueller’s findings were ‘not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense,’ but that basically boils down to the Washington establishment’s distaste for the way President Trump fired FBI chief Jim Comey, and raged against the Mueller probe as a ‘witch hunt.’

“Crucially, Barr says that the president’s questionable actions ‘were not done with corrupt intent.’  That is: Trump knew he hadn’t colluded, and acted accordingly toward those who seemed bent on suggesting otherwise to the American public.

“Three years of intensive work by the nation’s best prosecutors and investigators resulted only in convicting Paul Manafort on crimes that had nothing to do with Trump or the 2016 campaign (and for skullduggery that also involved top Democratic lobbyists), plus a host of ‘process’ charges (mostly lying to the FBI or Congress) against various peripheral Trump associates.

“Oh, and indictments against a host of Russians for meddling in the 2016 campaign – but not in cooperation with Team Trump.

“None of that – zero, zilch, nada – validates the years of breathless reporting about the investigations, nor (for example) the repeated claims of top House Intelligence Committee Democrat Adam Schiff that he had seen serious evidence of collusion.

“For more than two years, America has been assured time and again that Mueller was onto clear evidence of Trump treason, more or less – and now it all stands exposed as wishful fantasies and outright lies.

“Trump’s 2016 team did indeed sign up some pathetic third-raters, plus the sleazoid Manafort. The odious Roger Stone was a hanger-on, too.

“But cleaner and better talent (especially from the GOP foreign- and national-security establishments) wouldn’t touch the long-shot populist campaign.

“The Trump camp shouldn’t have hired Manafort or self-promoters like George Papadopolous. But none of them ever mattered.

“The whole sorry affair shows at its core that Democrats just couldn’t and still can’t come to grips with 2016.  They can’t believe Americans don’t think the way they do and so have to blame something, anything, for what went wrong....

“Attorney General Barr’s clear duty going forward (and that of FBI chief Christopher Wray) is to discover and expose every official in the Justice Department and the national-security and intelligence bureaucracies who put partisan politics ahead of justice and the national interest – abusing key security powers such as FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrants – to launch an investigation that now stands exposed as an obscene miscarriage of justice.”

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“Well, so much for the claim that Donald Trump or his campaign conspired with Russians to steal the American Presidency.  That conspiracy theory, which has distorted American politics for more than two years, expired in an instant Sunday when Attorney General William Barr delivered Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ‘principal conclusions’ to Congress.

“ ‘The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election,’ Mr. Barr wrote in a four-page letter to the Judiciary Committees of he House and Senate.

“Mr. Barr’s letter also said that Mr. Mueller investigated the evidence of whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice but made no ‘prosecutorial judgment.’  Mr. Barr said that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein examined that evidence and concluded there is nothing sufficient to prove that the President ‘engaged in obstructive conduct.’  Mr. Trump called all this an ‘exoneration,’ and it certainly looks to be, but it’s worth stepping back from the partisan claims for some larger political context.

“The Russia conclusion in particular ought to be good news to all Americans.  Mr. Mueller spent two years and the vast resources of the FBI and Justice Department to search for ‘collusion.’  He found ample evidence that Russia did try to influence the election.  But he found that no one in the Trump campaign ‘coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,’ Mr. Barr wrote.

“This lifts the cloud over the 2016 election that authoritarians like Vladimir Putin hope to promote with their meddling in democracies.  It means no Trump officials abetted the hack into Democratic emails, and no Trump officials conspired with WikiLeaks (Roger Stone’s fantasies aside).  The conclusion should restore a measure of public confidence in our political system and the integrity of U.S. elections.  Imagine the political crisis had Mr. Mueller found the opposite?

“The end of the collusion illusion should also cause the media to do some soul-searching about rushes to judgment.  For two years, with the help of ex-Obama officials, they spun anecdotes of contacts between Russians and Trump campaign advisers into a conspiracy.  With few exceptions they went well beyond First Amendment oversight into anti-Trump advocacy.  But it was always odd that those individual Russia-Trump contacts never added up to anything or went anywhere, which is why we warned about waiting for the facts.

“Many in the press also took Mr. Trump’s denunciations against the investigation and his odd solicitousness for Mr. Putin as an admission of guilt.  But Mr. Trump is often his own worst enemy, and bursts of ego and anger aren’t evidence of anything but predictable Trump behavior.

“The question has always been whether Mr. Mueller would be able to connect those anecdotes into a larger conspiracy, but now we know he could not.  By the way, Mr. Mueller’s probe is the third to find no Russia-Trump collusion, following the House and Senate Intelligence Committee findings.  Perhaps the press corps will finally take no conspiracy for an answer.

“As for obstruction of justice, some Democrats will assert that Mr. Mueller’s failure to reach a conclusion justifies more investigation.  They will demand to see the evidence Mr. Mueller compiled, though most of this is already in the public domain since it concerned the firing of James Comey as FBI director.  And they will claim that Messrs. Barr and Rosenstein are politically conflicted.

“But note that Mr. Barr says that he and Mr. Rosenstein took into account that Mr. Mueller found that ‘the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,’ which bears on motive.  Without an underlying crime, what was Mr. Trump trying to cover up?

“Mr. Barr says he and Mr. Rosenstein reached their judgment about obstruction without getting to the constitutional issue of whether a sitting President can be indicted.  But in our view Mr. Trump had every right as President to fire Mr. Comey for whatever reason he saw fit.  The Constitution gives the President the power to hire and fire at will, and it cannot be illegal to perform an act that the Constitution says is legal, no matter the motive.

“House Democrats will have to decide what to do with all this, and their first resort will be a demand to see the entire report.  Mr. Barr in his letter again promised to disclose as much as he can subject to grand-jury secrecy and other Justice rules.  But we also hope he includes in his disclosures the documents that explain how this entire Russia conspiracy story began at the FBI and inside the Obama Administration.  With Mr. Mueller’s conclusions, we now know that someone may have conned the FBI into one of the great dirty tricks in American political history.

“The Mueller report won’t end this rancorous period in American politics, but at least it should put the Russia conspiracy file to bed.  And for that we can all be grateful.”

Kimberley A. Strassel / Wall Street Journal

“The FBI unleashed its powers on a candidate for the office of the U.S. presidency, an astonishing first. It did so on the incredible grounds that the campaign had conspired to aid a foreign government.  And it used the most aggressive tools in its arsenal – surveillance of U.S. citizens, secret subpoenas of phone records and documents, even human informants.

“The wreckage is everywhere.  The nation has been engulfed in conspiracy theories for years.  A presidency was hemmed in by the threat of a special counsel.  Citizens have gone to jail not for conspiracy, but for after-the-fact interactions with Mr. Mueller’s team.  Dozens more have spent enormous amounts of money and time defending their reputations.

“None of this should ever have happened absent highly compelling evidence – from the start – of wrongdoing.  Yet from what we know, the FBI operated on the basis of an overheard conversation of third-tier campaign aide George Papadopoulos, as well as a wild ‘dossier’ financed by the rival presidential campaign.  Mr. Mueller’s no-collusion finding amounts to a judgment that there never was any evidence.  The Papadopoulos claim was thin, the dossier a fabrication.

“Which is all the more reason Americans now deserve a full accounting of the missteps of former FBI Director James Comey and his team – in part so that this never happens again.  That includes the following: What ‘evidence’ did the FBI have in totality?  What efforts did the bureau take to verify it?  Did it corroborate anything before launching its probe?  What role did political players play?  How aware was the FBI that it was being gulled into a dirty-trick operation, and if so, how did it justify proceeding?  How intrusive were the FBI methods?  And who was harmed?

“If Mr. Mueller has done his job properly, his report will address some of this.  His team would have had to look into the sources of the allegation as part of determining the documents’ (lack of) veracity.  A Mueller report that doesn’t mention the dossier and its political provenance, or questionable news stories used to justify surveillance warrants, for instance, is a report that is playing politics.

“The fuller accounting will come only through total disclosure of FBI and Justice Department probe documents.  Mr. Trump promised that disclosure in September but has yet to follow through.  That transparency is now a necessity. The Mueller report is only half the story.  With the special-counsel probe at an end, it’s time to go back to the beginning – to the documents that explain its origin.  Only then will Americans have the full story of the Russia-collusion narrative.”

---

In a Quinnipiac University National Poll released Tuesday, American voters say 84-9 percent that Mueller’s report should be made public.  Republicans by 75-17 agree, and every other listed party, gender, education, age and racial group supports making the report public by even wider margins.

55 percent said Mueller conducted a “fair” investigation, 26 percent say it was not fair.  But 49 percent said the investigation was “legitimate” and 43 percent say it was a “witch hunt.”

At his first rally since the Mueller report was submitted, President Trump railed against his political opponents in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“After three years of lies and smears and slander, the Russia hoax is finally dead.  The collusion delusion is over,” Trump told the cheering throng.

Trump called the investigation “a plan by those who lost the election to try and illegally regain power by framing innocent Americans – many of them, they suffered – with an elaborate hoax.”

The president called the investigation “ridiculous bullshit.”

Trumpets

--Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Trump administration took aim at striking down the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday, handing Democrats a potential political gift on an issue that damaged Republicans badly in last year’s midterm elections.

Trump told reporters later: “Let me tell you exactly what my message is: The Republican Party will soon be known as the party of health care.  You watch.”

Thursday, Trump continued to reach out to Republican lawmakers to take the lead on crafting a health plan to replace ObamaCare.

But Senate Republicans want the administration to take the lead while they remain on politically safer ground, working on popular voter issues such as lowering drug prices and ending surprise medical bills.

The standoff means there is no clear path to a GOP health plan, or certainty that a replacement to the ACA will be crafted, Republicans still stinging over voter backlash against their attempt to repeal the health law, the GOP losing the House as a result...or at least to a certain extent.

In the Quinnipiac survey, by a 55-32 margin, American voters say they would prefer to improve rather than replace the health care system in the U.S.

43 percent say it’s a “good idea” to remove the current system and replace it with a single payer program in which Medicare is expanded to cover all medical expenses, while 45 percent say “Medicare for all” is a “bad idea.”

Support is 51 – 30 percent for keeping the current health care system while allowing all adults the option of buying into Medicare.  Among Republicans, 43 percent support this Medicare buy-in option, with 39 percent opposed.

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“An abiding mystery of the Trump Presidency is why it can’t stand prosperity. And right on time, after its victory on Russian collusion, the Administration decided this week to elevate a legal fight over health care that it is almost sure to lose.

“The Justice Department this week reversed itself to support a decision by a federal judge in Texas invalidating the Affordable Care Act. The lawsuit Texas v. Azar is brought by roughly 20 GOP state attorneys general and led by Ken Paxton of Texas....

“Recall that Chief Justice John Roberts upheld ObamaCare’s individual mandate as a tax in 2012 in NFIB v. Sebelius.  But Congress zeroed out the penalty as part of tax reform in 2017.  The lawsuit argues that therefore the mandate is no longer a tax and is thus unconstitutional, and the rest of the law must fall with it.  Voila, no more ObamaCare....

“Unlike in 2012, millions of people now rely on the law for health insurance. It’s often bad insurance but it is coverage....

“As for the politics, the White House calculation seems to be that a legal decision striking down the law would force Congress to act.  President Trump said on Wednesday that ‘if the Supreme Court rules that ObamaCare is out, we will have a plan that is far better than ObamaCare.’  The GOP and Democrats can then offer Americans their competing healthcare visions in 2020, and may the best plan win.

“But the White House had better hope it doesn’t have that debate after millions have lost their insurance in an election year due to a court case.  The GOP couldn’t agree on a plan to replace ObamaCare when it ran all of Congress, and many of the GOP Members most knowledgeable about health care have retired.  If there’s some new emerging GOP consensus, we haven’t heard it....

“(Going) on offense will require more than a vague promise of something good or running against Medicare for All.  Democrats might even unite around something less radioactive than single-payer.  The GOP will need ideas that can persuade Americans that choice and competition will provide better plans at more affordable rates than ObamaCare....

“The Administration has written new rules that allow highly affordable short-term health insurance, as well as association health plans that offer group insurance across different risk pools than a single employer or the ObamaCare exchanges.  The GOP can build on that base to offer a new campaign vision to take to voters.  But better to do it without pursuing a legal strategy that is likely to fail and could blow up politically.”

--President Trump tweeted a threat, re Mexico, today:

“The DEMOCRATS have given us the weakest immigration laws anywhere in the World.  Mexico has the strongest, & they make more than $100 Billion a year on the U.S.  Therefore, CONGRESS MUST CHANGE OUR WEAK IMMIGRATION LAWS NOW, & Mexico must stop illegals from entering the U.S.....

“....through their country and our Southern Border.  Mexico has for many years made a fortune off of the U.S., far greater than Border Costs.  If Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through our Southern Border, I will be CLOSING....

“....the Border, or large sections of the Border, next week.  This would be so easy for Mexico to do, but they just take our money and ‘talk.’  Besides, we lose so much money with them, especially when you add in drug trafficking etc.), that the Border closing would be a good thing!”

--From Defense News: “The U.S. Air Force says it needs nearly $5 billion over the next three years to rebuild bases in Florida and Nebraska severely damaged by weather in the past six months.

“If it does not receive $1.2 billion of those funds by June for repairs at Tyndall Air Force Base and Offutt Air Force Base, service officials warned they would be forced to cut projects at bases in 18 states and cancel 18,000 pilot training hours.

“ ‘We desperately need the supplemental funding to recover from the natural disasters that hammered Tyndall and Offutt,’ Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Wednesday at a Heritage Foundation event in Washington.”

Tyndall was leveled by Hurricane Michael in October.  Offutt was under seven feet of water as a result of the current flooding in Nebraska.

But President Trump, through his controversial emergency declaration, is preparing to raid $3.6 billion from the Pentagon’s military construction budget to extend barriers along the U.S. border with Mexico.

--Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, after months of soft-pedaling his criticism of President Trump as Puerto Rico struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria in 2017, voiced his frustration with the White House in an interview with CNN.

“If the bully gets close, I’ll punch the bully in the mouth,” Rossello said when asked about a tense meeting between members of the Trump administration and Puerto Rican officials.  “It would be a mistake to confuse courtesy with [lack of] courage.”

The meeting was requested after reports Trump was considering halting further disaster relief to the beleaguered U.S. territory.

In a Wednesday meeting with Senate Republicans, Trump said the amount of aid Puerto Rico had so far received “is way out of proportion to what Texas and Florida and others have gotten,” according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who attended the meeting.

Thursday, en route to the rally in Grand Rapids, Trump told reporters he’s given millions to Puerto Rico and claimed elected leaders were mismanaging the funds.

“Puerto Rico has been taken care of better by Donald Trump than by any living human being and I think the people of Puerto Rico understand it,” he said.  “You have the mayor of San Juan that, frankly, doesn’t know what she’s doing and the governor, they have to spend the money wisely. They don’t know how to spend the money and they’re not spending it wisely.”

--President Trump said Thursday he wants the federal government to continue funding the Special Olympics, an abrupt reversal from his own budget proposal that eliminated federal money for the charity and sparked bipartisan condemnation.

His statement on the South Lawn of the White House came after his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, spent three days defending the proposal, most recently at a contentious Senate hearing Thursday morning.

“The Special Olympics will be funded, I just told my people,” Trump told reporters.

The funding was never really in jeopardy, as key Republicans were going to insist it be maintained, but the issue became a real political problem with the hearings.

Comedian Conan O’Brien wrote on Twitter: “Look, I’m not perfect but at least my obituary won’t say, ‘and in 2019, he defunded the Special Olympics.’”

--Former Trump campaign adviser Stephen Moore, a familiar face for cable television viewers, is President Trump’s latest pick for a Federal Reserve Board seat.  Moore said the central bank’s recent policy pivot shows that he was right to criticize its December interest-rate increase.

Back in a December interview with the Wall Street Journal, Moore called Chairman Jerome Powell “totally incompetent” and said he should resign.

Moore told the Journal on Monday that the Fed’s rate increase was a mistake but that he could have chosen his words about Powell more carefully.

Moore’s selection is being harshly criticized in some circles because he hardly seems like the classic ‘independent’ Board member, but it’s obvious to see why the president selected him, which is a blatant attempt to influence Fed policy following his monthslong criticism of its rate increases, four last year.

For his part Moore said Monday, “I’m a big fan of the president, and I’m a big fan of what he’s done for the economy.”  But he pointed to his opposition to Trump’s steel tariffs as counterproductive as an example of his independent thinking.  “I’m not a sycophant for Trump,” he said.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that Moore owes the IRS $75,000 for taking improper deductions on his income taxes.

--Trump tweets:

“The Mainstream Media is under fire and being scorned all over the World as being corrupt and FAKE.  For two years they pushed the Russian Collusion Delusion when they always knew there was NO Collusion. They truly are the Enemy of the People and the Real Opposition Party!”

“Wow, ratings for ‘Morning Joe,’ which were really bad in the first place, just ‘tanked’ with the release of the Mueller Report.  Likewise, other shows on MSNBC and CNN have gone down by as much as 50%.  Just shows, Fake News never wins!”

“Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking, should be forced to resign from Congress.”

“FBI & DOJ to review the outrageous Jussie Smollett case in Chicago. It is an embarrassment to our Nation!”

[Much more on this one below.]

Wall Street and the Trade War

As we closed out a highly successful quarter in terms of equity market returns, with the major indices having their best 3-month performance in years (details below), the economic data was mixed.

The final reading on fourth-quarter GDP did come in below the first reading of 2.6%, growth reduced to 2.2%, though for the year the official reading is 2.9%, and 3.0% Q4 over Q4 (down from an initial 3.1%), which economists prefer. Regardless, call it 3%, and the Trump campaign is pleased.

2018

Q1... 2.2%
Q2... 4.2%
Q3... 3.4%
Q4... 2.2%

The revisions to the quarter reflected markdowns to consumer and business spending.  After tax corporate profits were unchanged for the first time since the third quarter of 2016, after growing at a 3.5% rate in the third quarter.  Growth for all of 2018 was the strongest since 2015 and an acceleration from 2.2% in 2017.  By July, the expansion will be the longest on record.

In other economic news, February housing starts were less than forecast at 1.162 million, annualized, with single-family starts down 17% year-over-year.

February new-home sales, on the other hand, were robust at 667,000, the best pace since March 2018, with the median price up 3.8% over a year ago.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller barometer for January, however, was just 3.6%, year-over-year, the lowest rate of growth in prices since Sept. 2012 for the 20-city index, with Las Vegas leading the way, up 10.5%, followed by Phoenix, 7.5%.  San Diego, 1.3%, and San Francisco, 1.7%, brought up the rear.

One thing in housing’s favor in the near term is the fact mortgage rates are falling, down to 4.06% on a 30-year fixed, the lowest since Jan. 2018.

The Chicago PMI on manufacturing for March was 58.7 (50 being the dividing line between growth and contraction), which while robust was down sharply from the prior month’s 64.7.

Meanwhile, the government folks are still trying to catch up after the shutdown, so we had February personal income, a less than expected 0.2%, and January consumption, just 0.1%.  The core personal consumption expenditures index, the Fed’s preferred inflation barometer, came in at 1.8% for January, so still no issue there for Chairman Powell and friends.

The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow barometer for first quarter activity has moved up from 0.4% on March 14 to 1.7% today.  If we come in at 2%, that will probably bode well for the balance of the year.  Consensus GDP for 2019 is still around 2.5%, or slightly less, while the Federal Reserve is pegging it at 2.1%.

Finally, we had the White House and the Fed today. National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow was telling media outlets that the Fed should cut rates 50 basis points “immediately,” although there is no economic duress.  He later tempered his call for cuts, framing it as a “protective measure.”

President Trump then tweeted from Mar-a-Lago:

“Had the Fed not mistakenly raised interest rates, especially since there is very little inflation, and had they not done the ridiculously timed quantitative tightening, the 3.0% GDP, & Stock Market, would have both been much higher & World Markets would be in a better place!”

Kudlow knows what the Fed has done...buy insurance for the inevitable downturn.  With a funds rate of 2.25%-2.50% currently, they have some ammunition.  That’s important. 

As for the trade negotiations with China, talks resumed in Beijing this week; U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arriving in Beijing on Thursday for discussions with their Chinese counterparts and the talks apparently went well, with more talks slated for Washington next week.

According to various reports over the course of the week, China was ready to sharply expand market access for foreign banks and securities and insurance companies, especially in its financial services sector, Premier Li Keqiang said on Thursday.  Foreign businesses have long complained that liberalization has been too narrow and implementation spotty.

China is also offering foreign technology companies better access to the country’s cloud-computing market, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

Sources told Reuters on Wednesday the two countries have made progress in all areas under discussions with unprecedented movement on the touchy issue of forced technology transfers, but there still are differences on protections for intellectual property and how to enforce any deal.

Larry Kudlow said the U.S. may drop some tariffs if a trade deal is reached while keeping others in place to ensure Beijing’s compliance. 

“We’re not going to give up our leverage,” Kudlow told reporters on the sidelines of a trade conference in Washington.

Kudlow also said he expected negotiations to continue “for a few more weeks, if not months, to strike a deal.”

“This is not time-dependent.  This is policy- and enforcement-dependent.”

In a meeting with foreign and Chinese business executives on Thursday, Premier Li said he sees no deficit of trust between China and the United States.  “We need to prevent a trust deficit from occurring – otherwise the damage it could do to U.S.-China relations is incalculable,” he said.

But Li added, China must protect intellectual property; otherwise there is no hope for the nation’s transformation.

The two sides are reportedly working on written agreements in six areas: forced technology transfer and cyber theft, intellectual property rights, services, currency, agriculture and non-tariff barriers to trade.

Late today, the White House said in a statement: “The two parties continued to make progress during candid and constructive discussions on the negotiations and the important next steps,” but there were no other details.

President Trump said today trade talks were going very well, but cautioned that he would not accept anything less than a “great deal.”  “If it’s not a great deal, we can’t do it.”

China’s state news agency Xinhua said the two sides discussed “relevant agreement documents” and made new progress in their talks, but did not elaborate in a brief report.

As long as there is progress, the two will keep talking. But China wants the tariffs lifted as part of any deal and that is highly unlikely, given it is Washington’s leverage to ensure Beijing complies.

Europe and Asia

With the quarter ending, there will be a slew of economic data for both Europe and Asia next week, with the only news of import this week, aside from Brexit, in China, where industrial companies posted their worst slump in profits since late 2011 in the first two months of this year, down 14%, amid slowing demand at home and abroad.  Premier Li said earlier policy steps to stabilize the economy were gaining traction.

But Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Europe this week, and last weekend Italy endorsed his “Belt and Road” infrastructure project on Saturday, the first Group of Seven industrialized power to do so, as Rome brushed off worries among its Western allies in a bid to revive the moribund Italian economy.

The signing ceremony capped off a three-day trip to Italy by Xi, boosting trade ties between the two at a time of trade tensions with the United States, with the U.S. trying to rally allies against China (see Huawei).

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is aimed at bolstering China’s economic and political reach, but critics say it’s a Trojan Horse that will let China take control of sensitive technologies and critical infrastructure.

Italy’s populist government is anxious to encourage exports and investment, the economy in its third recession in a decade.  Chinese and Italian firms signed 10 additional deals that could be worth as much as $22 billion over time, $2.8 billion initially.

Later, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Tuesday reiterated a call for the region’s businesses to have more access to China’s domestic market, Juncker saying he wanted clearer reciprocity between the EU and China so that “European businesses could have the same degree of access to the Chinese market as Chinese businesses have in Europe.”

Chinese state media gushed over the diplomatic stagecraft accorded Xi, including a reception at the Arc de Triomphe, and a fighter jet escort for his presidential plane.

Separately, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi suggested he could consider further delaying plans to raise interest rates.

“Just as we did at our March meeting, we would ensure that monetary policy continues to accompany the economy by adjusting our rate forward guidance to reflect the new inflation outlook,” Draghi said in remarks at a conference in Frankfurt.

The yield on the German 10-year finished the week at -0.07%.  Netherland’s 10-year now has a yield of 0.02%.

So on to the ongoing saga of....

Brexit: Today, March 29, was supposed to be the day Britain exited the European Union, which was postponed to April 12 and maybe later, with recent negotiations between British Prime Minister Theresa May and the EU.

But this afternoon, Mrs. May lost a vote on her proposal to exit the trade bloc for a third time, 344-286 in the House of Commons.  May had promised Conservative lawmakers this week that she would step down as prime minister if the deal was approved.

May said she will press on with talks to secure support, but Britain is now due to leave on April 12, though her political spokesman said the smaller margin of defeat from the prior two votes showed that things were moving in the right direction and that a number of senior Conservatives had voted with the government.

Britain finds itself in a profound political crisis this weekend.  The government has no idea what it will do next.

Prime Minister May said of the lawmakers’ third rejection:

“The implications of the House’s decision are grave.  I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.  This House has rejected no deal.  It has rejected no Brexit.  On Wednesday it rejected all the variations of the deal on the table. And today it has rejected approving the Withdrawal Agreement alone and continuing a process on the future.”

Influential Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday that Britain could now leave the European Union without a deal.  “The risk of a no-deal Brexit is very real,” Rutte told reporters minutes after the vote in the British parliament.  “One of the two routes to an orderly Brexit seems now to be closed.  This leaves only the other route, which is for the British to make clear what they want before April 12.”

A further extension of the Brexit process beyond that date can only be granted if the purpose is clear, Rutte said, calling upon lawmakers to take a broader look at the available options.

So next week, parliament and Mrs. May will vote again, on just what is unclear.  The European Union (European Commission) has called for an emergency summit on April 10, at which point Britain has to tell it what it wants to do.  If out of nowhere a vote was held in the interim that finally ratified the proposal on the table, Britain would have until May 22 to put it to legislation to formalize the process.  May 22 is a key date because the European Parliament elections are May 23-26.

If the UK were to ask for a long extension, then it would have to participate in the Euro parliament vote.

Among the options on the table next week in negotiations between Mrs. May and the House of Commons would be holding new elections, which would require a long extension.  Ditto if the parties agree on a new referendum, which the prime minister has wanted to avoid at all costs.  Seriously, you could have civil war in Britain if there was a second referendum.  You’d be telling the 52% who voted for Brexit back in June 2016... ‘never mind.’  [Even if the people then had no freakin’ clue what they were really voting for because they were lied to by the leaders of the ‘Leave’ movement...fed totally false information.]

Or Britain could just go ahead and crash out April 12, without an agreement, no trade deal, no nothing.  The chaos would likely lead to shortages of food and medicine, for starters.

Every week you hope the situation will become clearer, and each week the picture becomes murkier.

Anne Applebaum / Washington Post

“ ‘She was dealt a bad hand.’  ‘She took a poisoned chalice.’  From a great distance, it is possible to feel sorry for British Prime Minister Theresa May. She seems so dignified. She seems to be trying so hard. The circles beneath her eyes have grown so much deeper since she became prime minister back in 2016, following the surprise result of the Brexit referendum, the resignation of her hapless predecessor, David Cameron, and an ugly leadership squabble, during which several of her male colleagues metaphorically stabbed one another in the back.  Since then, she has always seemed to outsiders the sensible person in the room, the adult who knows what she is doing, the sane person in a madhouse.

“Alas, she is not any of those things.  She is not sensible, she does not know what she is doing, and, increasingly, she doesn’t seem to be entirely sane either.  Outside of Westminster, the extent of May’s responsibility for this crisis might not be fully appreciated.  But in truth, almost everything about Brexit – from the nature of the deal she negotiated to the divisions in her party and her country – is very much her fault....

“The list of her mistakes is not short. She did not have to trigger Article 50, the legal mechanism for leaving the European Union, before making a plan on how to do so: That decision set a two-year clock ticking and has resulted in the cliff edge the country would have reached on the 29th of this month if an extension had not been granted. She did not have to call an unnecessary parliamentary election in 2017, one which resulted in the loss of her majority and forced her to rely on  a small, radical, Protestant Northern Irish political party, as well as the extreme anti-European faction within her own party, in order to stay in power.

“But her errors go even deeper.  In fact, all of the events of the past two years have been shaped by a decision she made, by herself, following bad advice, at the very beginning of this process.  Remember that the British did not vote for any particular form of Brexit: Thanks to Cameron’s simplistic, open-ended referendum question, they chose to ‘Leave’ the European Union but did not express any view on what should happen next.  When she took office, May could have observed that the vote was very close, that Britain’s commercial and political ties to Europe were strong, and that it would make sense for the United Kingdom to stay within the single market, the pan-European free-trade zone that Britain itself did so much to create – or at the very least within a customs union.

“Instead, she chose to leave both of those institutions, a decision that immediately triggered the problem of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which was eliminated thanks to EU trade treaties but will, if customs barriers are put in place, need to be built back.  Her decision also created potential problems for anyone who trades with Britain or works with Britain... But she was not sorry: She accompanied her decision with a speech that called ‘a citizen of the world’ nothing more than ‘a citizen of nowhere’ and immediately alienated a large part of the country.

“She went on to alienate almost everyone else.  Until this week, nearly three years after the referendum, she made no effort to reach across the aisle and include opposition parties in the planning for this monumental change....She does not respond to pleas, advice, suggestions. Columnist Matthew Parris has described her as ‘the Death Star of modern British politics,’ a black void that sucks in people and ideas and never provides a response....

“The slogan of the ‘Leave’ campaign, back in 2016, was ‘Take Back Control.’  But Europe has now taken back control of May’s botched Brexit.  And however it ends, it won’t be a success.”

Street Bytes

--Stocks closed out one of the better quarters in years, with the Dow Jones gaining 1.7% to 25928, the S&P 500 1.2%, and Nasdaq 1.1%.

For the three months, the S&P registered its best quarter since the third quarter of 2009, +13.1%, its best first quarter since 1998!

The Dow, +11.2%, had its best quarter since 2013, and the Nasdaq, +16.5%, its best since 2012.

The earnings season starts in earnest in two weeks and it is expected to be negative, but that’s seemingly baked in.  This is a mercurial market and for today, any global slowdown fears are also being ignored.

But the fact is there is still no trade deal, after all this time, and who knows what is going to happen on the Brexit front.  We’ve hit my targets for 2019 already. [I forecast S&P and Dow +12%, Nasdaq +13%.]  At this point, keep your powder dry.

--U.S. Treasury Yields

6-mo. 2.42%  2-yr. 2.26% 10-yr. 2.41%  30-yr. 2.81%

The yield on the 10-year hit 2.37% early in the week, the lowest level since December 2017, as government bonds around the world tumbled, with the above-noted signs the European Central Bank would consider delaying rate increases through at least December – months longer than expected.

--Oil prices fell Wednesday because of an unanticipated increase in U.S. inventories, a 2.8-million-barrel jump per the Energy Information Administration’s weekly report.

Then Thursday, President Trump tweeted: “Very important that OPEC increase the flow of Oil. World Markets are fragile, price of Oil getting too high. Thank you!”

But crude rose Friday to close above $60, $60.18, the highest since last November.

Separately, two refiners in South Korea – the top buyer of U.S. crude – have rejected cargoes in recent months due to contamination that makes processing difficult, as reported by Bloomberg.

The issue is that various types of crude pass through the supply chain from inland shale fields spanning Texas to North Dakota, which risks picking up impurities before reaching Asia.  Refiners are worried about the presence of problematic metals as well as a class of chemical compounds known as oxygenates, which can affect the quality and type of fuel they produce.

The two South Korean cargoes that were rejected were sold by BP, with at least one of the ships rerouted to an independent refiner in China with different quality requirements and plant configurations.  Neither the refiners nor BP commented.

But as Bloomberg noted:  “In the U.S., infrastructure needed to link production fields to deepwater ports lags behind the surge in exports as seaborne sales have been restricted until late-2015.  Refiners along the Gulf Coast – where most of American oil was refined before exports were permitted – are used to handling quality issues because their plants are more sophisticated.”

But South Korea cannot completely turn away U.S. crude with uncertain supplies from the Middle East, especially Iran.

--Wells Fargo & Co.’s embattled chief executive, Tim Sloan, who has struggled to get the banking giant out from under a seemingly endless series of customer abuse scandals, suddenly announced he was retiring, stepping down, effective immediately, with the retirement effective June 30, Wells announced Thursday.

Sloan, a veteran of the bank for 31 years, took over the top job in 2016 amid the fallout over the bank’s acknowledgement that employees had opened millions of checking, savings and credit card accounts that customers never authorized.

Sloan replaced John Stumpf, who resigned as the bank’s longtime CEO and board chairman in October 2016 just weeks after he was unable to defuse the anger of lawmakers at incendiary House and Senate hearings examining the fake-accounts scandal.

This past March 10, at a contentious House Financial Services Committee hearing, Democrats and Republicans angrily rejected Sloan’s message of contrition for the bank’s troubles and commitment to treating employees and customers right.

And then in a rare move, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency joined in the criticism, with a spokesman saying it was “disappointed with [Wells Fargo’s] performance under our consent orders and its inability to execute effective corporate governance and a successful risk management program.”

C. Allen Parker, Wells’ general counsel, has been named interim CEO.

--Boeing unveiled details of its planned fix to software implicated in the Lion Air 737 MAX crash last October, which is also being examined by investigators probing the Ethiopian Airlines accident, though it isn’t clear when regulators will clear the planes to fly again.

A Boeing official in Seattle said on Wednesday the timing of the software upgrade was “100 percent independent of the timing of the Ethiopian accident,” and the company was taking steps to make the anti-stall system (MCAS) “more robust.”  The official also said there was no need to overhaul Boeing’s regulatory relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We are going to do everything that we can do to ensure that accidents like these never happen again.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and some lawmakers on Wednesday questioned why Boeing did not require safety features on its top-selling plane that might have prevented the crashes.

“It is very questionable if these were safety-oriented additions, why they were not part of the required template of measures that should go into an airplane,” she said, adding she was not ready to require that all safety options be retrofitted on existing aircraft.

Boeing said it would change the design of the system so that it no longer relied on a single sensor.  The changes also would make standard visual warning messages to the pilots if the system had stopped working.  Previously, those warning messages and displays had been optional.

A spokesman for the FAA said the agency had not reviewed or certified the software upgrade yet.  There was no timetable for when the 737 MAX jets would return to service.

Seven days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the Ethiopian ambassador to China paid a visit to China’s state-owned airplane manufacturer in Shanghai, tweeting a photo of himself sitting in the cockpit of the Comac C919, a new Chinese-built plane aimed to compete with the 737 MAX 8 and  Airbus’ 320neo.

Ethiopian Airlines didn’t announce any airplane orders from the visit, and it could still be years and years before China’s state-manufactured planes are in the air, but that day is coming, to the detriment of both Boeing and Airbus.

EA’s CEO Tewolde GebreMariam, however, it needs to be noted, wrote in a statement earlier in the week:

“Let me be clear: Ethiopian Airlines believes in Boeing. They have been a partner of ours for many years.”

I have been impressed with Mr. GebreMariam, who has been very transparent while facing criticism for the airline’s training, insisting that the crew of Flight 302 had been “fully trained” on the details in the service bulletins issued by Boeing and the FAA.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported that officials investigating the EA flight’s black boxes have reached a preliminary conclusion that the anti-stall system, MCAS, automatically activated before the plane nose-dived into the ground.  A preliminary report from Ethiopian authorities is expected within days.

--Related to the above, Southwest Airlines Co., with the biggest fleet of MAX jets, cut its revenue and capacity guidance for the first quarter, as expected, after grounding the 34 planes on March 13.

But the airline said in a regular investor update that last-minute bookings – usually high-paying business passengers – remain strong.

Southwest is due to receive another 41 MAX jets this year.  The company explained that it was implementing an “enhanced” storage program at its parking facility in California, which analysts say points to an expected return to flight in June.

One of the planes being flown to California, without passengers, made an emergency landing Tuesday at Orlando International Airport because of engine problems.

--Airbus shares rose on Tuesday after the European planemaker won a deal worth tens of billions of dollars to sell 300 aircraft to China.  French officials said it was worth $34 billion at catalogue prices, from which you can receive significant discounts.

The Chinese order coincided with the aforementioned visit to Europe by Chinese President Xi and matched a record held by rival Boeing, which came in 2017, following a visit to Beijing by Donald Trump.

The Airbus order follows a year in which China failed to place a significant order amid global trade tensions.

--A British review of Huawei found “significant” security problems with the company’s telecommunications equipment, which supports the United States’ efforts to ban it from 5G wireless networks.

The British report, released Thursday, said there were “underlying defects” in Huawei’s software engineering and security processes that governments or independent hackers could exploit, posing risks to national security.

So this backs up the Trump administration’s push to convince its allies that Huawei poses a real threat, the company accused of being an arm of the Chinese government, which Huawei has vehemently denied.

But many countries, including Britain, have resisted the effort to ban Huawei, arguing the risk can be mitigated.  Germany, India and the UAE are among those signaling they are unlikely to follow the Americans’ lead on a ban of Huawei’s 5G equipment.

Huawei said in a statement, responding to the British report that it understands the concerns and takes them seriously.

This week, the European Union issued recommendations on securing 5G networks that didn’t call for a Huawei ban.

Separately, Huawei reported it earned more than $105 billion in revenue in 2018, up nearly a fifth from the year before, according to the company’s deputy chairman, Guo Ping, on Friday.  Profit grew by a quarter, to more than $8 billion.  Though Huawei has not sold shares to the public, it publishes audited yearly financial results in a gesture to transparency.

--Bankrupt California utility PG&E Corp. won court approval on Wednesday for a $5.5 billion loan to help maintain electricity and natural gas delivery and for investments to reduce the risk of wildfires as it reorganizes.  PG&E filed for Chapter 11 protection in January in the aftermath of the devastating wildfires that struck California the past two years.

At the same time, PIMCO is among those proposing a $35-billion plan that would allow PG&E to emerge from bankruptcy within a year, which includes a $14-billion cash trust to pay claims tied to the deadly wildfires.  A separate statewide wildfire fund of at least $13 billion would be financed by PG&E, and other California utilities.  And $8bn would be used to recapitalize PG&E.

The utility faces liabilities exceeding $30 billion from wildfires its equipment may have caused.

--A San Francisco jury awarded $80.3 million in damages to a resident the jurors found contracted cancer from exposure to Bayer AG’s Roundup weedkillers.  Of the total damages awarded by the jury, $75 million were punitive. 

In a state-court trial also in San Francisco back in August, a jury awarded $289.2 million to a former groundskeeper, who blamed regular Roundup use for his non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  A judge later reduced the award to $78.5 million, which Bayer is appealing.

--Ride-hailing company Lyft priced its IPO at $72 per share, after raising its price range amid significant demand from prospective shareholders, putting its value at more than $24 billion as it began trading on Nasdaq Friday, under the ticker symbol LYFT.

In total, the company raised about $2.3 billion.  And how did it do?  It closed at $77.60 in the aftermarket, after hitting $88.60.

--Apple Inc. unveiled its Apple News+ service, which will offer content from 300 popular magazines and newspapers for just $10 a month.  Details were lacking, and it’s not immediately clear what is on offer across all publications, Apple leaving it up to the publishers themselves to explain their role in the service.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, said it will provide a selection of general interest news, but only Journal subscribers will continue to have exclusive access to its business reporting and analysis.  The Los Angeles Times said essentially the same thing. 

But the New York Times is unlikely to be part of Apple’s news service, CEO Mark Thompson having previously told Reuters that the company was “leery” about consumers reading its journalism on other platforms and warned publishers of how Netflix disrupted the movie studio business and gained leverage by taking control of distribution.

--Facebook Inc. said it would begin banning content that praises or represents white nationalism and white separatism on its Facebook and Instagram platforms next week.  The move is clearly a reaction to mounting pressure on the company following a live stream of the New Zealand mosque massacre, Facebook blamed for failing to take sufficient action against hate speech and misinformation.

But Facebook risks stoking criticism that it is more aggressive against misbehavior related to far-right politics as opposed to the extreme left.

And then Thursday, federal officials accused the company of unlawful discrimination by allowing real-estate companies to target potential customers by race, religion and other factors, and signaled that other online advertising platforms are in its crosshairs.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development said Facebook violated the Fair Housing Act “by restricting who can view housing-related ads.”

HUD has also sent letters to Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit, as well as Twitter Inc., asking for more information about their sophisticated advertising systems, an agency official said.

A spokesman for Facebook said the company was surprised by HUD’s action, saying it had been working with the department to address its concerns.

--Lululemon Athletica Inc. reported fiscal fourth-quarter net income of $218.5 million, beating the Street’s forecasts, while slightly exceeding expectations on revenue, $1.17 billion in the period, up 26% over year-ago levels.

For the year, the company reported profit of $483.8 million, on revenue of $3.29 billion.  The company also issued guidance for fiscal 2019 in line with the Street.

LULU shares surged 15% on the news.

--OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and members of the wealthy Sackler family that owns the company reached a $270 million settlement to resolve a lawsuit brought by the state of Oklahoma accusing the drugmaker of fueling an opioid abuse epidemic. 

The settlement unveiled by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter on Tuesday was the first to result from a wave of lawsuits accusing Purdue of deceptively marketing painkillers, helping create a deadly crisis across the U.S.

Hunter’s 2017 lawsuit was set to go to a jury on May 28 in what would have been the first trial from roughly 2,000 lawsuits filed in federal and state courts against Purdue and other drugmakers.

Hunter alleged Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. engaged in deceptive marketing that downplayed the addiction risk from opioids, while overstating their benefits, contributing to the epidemic.

Opiods, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, were involved in a record 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017, the latest official data, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hunter said that of the more than 3,000 Oklahomans admitted to hospitals last year for drug overdoses that they survived, 80 percent involved prescription opioids.

As part of the settlement with Purdue, nearly $200 million goes towards establishing a center at Oklahoma State University that would take a national approach toward treating addiction.

--Bed Bath & Beyond laid off almost 150 workers as part of its turnaround strategy.  The move came before activists slammed the company for not adapting to online shopping trends sooner.

--European Union lawmakers approved a directive Tuesday to give writers and artists more protection of their creative rights and incomes, an intensely contentious measure that could have major transatlantic implications for American technology companies.

The EU Parliament voted 348 to 274 to pass the online copyright bill.  If the directive is enacted, companies such as Apple Inc. and Facebook would likely have to pay European artists more and do more to prevent work that appears online from being used without permission.

Lobbying against the bill was intense, with Google saying in a statement that the bill “will still lead to legal uncertainty and will hurt Europe’s creative and digital economies.”

Tens of thousands marched in cities across Germany over the weekend to protest what the EU sees as reforms and what critics see as restrictions that could lead to online censorship.

Artists, on the other hand, argue the tech giants are having a free lunch at their expense.

--The severe flooding in the Midwest, particularly Iowa and Nebraska, is dealing a costly blow to growers and agribusinesses amid a downturn in the farm economy now in its sixth year.  Aside from the inability to plant this year’s crops, the deluge has impeded crop shipments and inundated roads and rail lines that companies such as Hormel Foods Corp. and Tyson Foods Inc. use to move meat.

Cargill Inc. and ADM have suffered closures in some of their grain-milling operations.

--Wall Street bonuses fell last year, though the average check was $153,700, according to data Tuesday from the state comptroller’s office.

The 14% decline in the bonus pool was in an environment where New York’s banks, brokerages and asset managers posted industrywide profits that rose 11%, to $27.5 billion – the most since 2010 – while revenue rose by 6%, to $163 billion.  Elevated bonus figures in 2017 were driven in part by changes to the federal tax code that encouraged firms to accelerate payments.

While Wall Street accounts for only 5% of the city’s workforce, the business and personal tax revenues generated by it accounts for 18% of the state’s tax collections.  [Crain’s New York Business]

Wall Street employment rose 4,700 to 181,300 last year.

--The luxury cruise ship, Viking Sky, with almost 1,400 passengers and crew aboard, sent out a mayday signal on Saturday as it drifted in rough waters in the Norwegian Sea, within 100 meters of land.  All four engines had failed, but crew managed to restart one of them just in time with the ship drifting toward the rocky coast.  Many shipwrecks have occurred in the area through the years.

The ship was on a 12-day cruise along Norway’s coast before its scheduled arrival at the British port of Tillbury.

Rescue services airlifted 479 people in a painstaking mission, hoisting them one-by-one onto helicopters, before the weather subsided and the ship could be towed to port.  Scores were injured, some seriously amid sliding furniture and falling ceiling tiles in the rough seas.

Norwegian officials opened an investigation into why the cruise ship would set sail despite storm warnings.

But it turns out the engines of the cruise ship failed because of relatively low levels of lubricating oil in the engines, the Norwegian Maritime Authority said on Wednesday.  Officials said the heavy seas probably caused movements in the tanks so large that the supply to the lubricating oil pumps stopped, the regulator said. 

--Icelandic discount carrier WOW Air collapsed Thursday, stranding thousands of passengers without compensation.

WOW, founded in 2011, had been trying to steal business from established airlines such as American and Delta, targeting the trans-Atlantic market by offering cheap fares while funneling passengers via its Icelandic hub.

--British Airways passengers were mistakenly flown to Edinburgh rather than Dusseldorf due to a paperwork error.

The pilot of Flight BA3271 took off from London City shortly after 7:30 a.m. on Monday and followed instructions to fly to the Scottish capital instead of the German city.

After the flight crew was alerted to the mistake, the aircraft was refueled and then flown to Dusseldorf, where it touched down more than 3 ½ hours behind schedule.

Many of the passengers knew something was wrong because they weren’t going over water!

--Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” has sold nearly 10 million copies globally since its release in November, publisher Penguin Random House said Tuesday, adding the former first lady’s tome could set a sales record in its genre.

The memoir is the first in a two-book deal struck by Penguin Random House with Mrs. Obama and former President Barack Obama, after they departed the White House in 2017, for a reported $60 million.  The president’s memoir is slated for release sometime this year.

The 10 million for the first lady’s book includes print, digital and audiobook copies.

Foreign Affairs

Syria: Iran is parlaying its military and economic might into a lasting foothold in ISIS’ former eastern Syrian stronghold, by cultivating goodwill and winning converts to the Shiite Muslim sect, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“To Syrians battered by war, Iran is offering cash, food, Iranian ID cards, public services and free education....

“Iran’s hearts-and-minds campaign undermines efforts by the U.S., Israel and Arab states to roll back Tehran’s influence and force it out of Syria.  It also comes as President Trump plans to shrink the U.S. military footprint in the country – currently more than 2,000 troops – after the battle to eliminate Islamic State-held territory was declared over on Saturday.”

The U.S. claims it isn’t abandoning its efforts to check Iran in Syria.

But as I’ve been writing for weeks now, separately the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria is overwhelmed by having to secure thousands of suspected members of ISIS that have been captured or surrendered in the final months of the battle for the last IS enclave of Baghuz, in the east.

While it no longer holds this territory, U.S. officials believe IS may have 15,000 to 20,000 armed adherents active in the region, many of them in sleeper cells, and that it will return to its insurgent roots while attempting to rebuild.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have reportedly captured more than 5,000 militants – from Syria and abroad – since January and put them in detention centers, while women and children are kept in camps for the displaced.  But the camp at al-Hol, run by the Kurds, was designed to accommodate 20,000 and now has 70,000. This is a nightmare, and in such an environment, the ISIS ideology will more than survive.

At the same time we note the 11,000 SDF soldiers who were killed in years of fighting against Islamic State.

As the Kurdish administration’s top foreign affairs official Abdel-Karim Omar warned this week, when addressing the topic of the foreign captives and the threat they pose.

“There are thousands of children who have been raised according to Islamic State ideology.  If these children are not reeducated and reintegrated in their societies of origin, they are potential future terrorists.”

Weeks ago, I told you of the NBC report from Richard Engel I had seen, where he attempted to interview the women of ISIS being taken to the refugee camp at al-Hol.  Their hatred towards Engel and all he represented was terrifying.

Meanwhile, Wednesday, Syria said Israel had attacked targets just north of second city Aleppo and that its air defenses had intercepted several missiles.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, the strike hit an arms depot used by Iranian forces and killed seven people.

It was the first attack in Syria since President Trump recognized the Golan Heights – seized from Syria in the 1967 Mideast War – as Israeli territory, a move which broke with decades of international consensus.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria in the past few years targeting positions held by Iran and Hezbollah, with the goal of preventing Iran from entrenching itself militarily in the war-torn country.

Israel: With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing at his side, President Trump on Monday signed an official presidential proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, formally giving Netanyahu a pre-election gift just two weeks before his countrymen go to the polls.

“Today, I am taking historic action to promote Israel’s ability to defend itself – and really to have very powerful and very strong national security, which they are entitled to have,” Trump said at the White House.

The United States said Wednesday the UN peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights has “a vital role to play in preserving stability between Israel and Syria,” an assurance that the Trump administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the strategic plateau won’t affect its operation.

Acting U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen told an emergency meeting of the Security Council the force’s mandate to ensure that the area of separation between Syria and Israel “is a buffer zone free from any military presence or activities” is of “critical strategic and security importance” to Israel and “can contribute to the stability of the entire Middle East.”

But at the Security Council late Wednesday, speaker after speaker opposed Trump’s recognition of the Golan, many citing a December 1981 Security Council resolution that called Israel’s annexation “null and void and without international legal effect.”

Cohen, however, criticized “the daily presence of the Syrian armed forces” in the area of separation where the peacekeeping force (UNDOF) is the only military force allowed, calling their presence a violation of the 1974 cease-fire agreement.

Cohen said the U.S. is also “alarmed” at reports of Hezbollah fighters in the area, “which further heightens the potential for hostilities.”

“There is no chance for peace between Syria and Israel if Hezbollah is present in the area of separation,” he said.

The European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini released a statement Wednesday on behalf of all 28 union states saying the EU “does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.”

Arab Gulf states – including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait – denounced the decision as well.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who chairs the Palestine Liberation Organization, blasted Trump’s announcement, which he said will further destabilize the Middle East.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “The Golan Heights is an occupied Arab territory, according to the international community and UN resolution 497, which was adopted by the Security Council. The international community should honor its stance, preventing Israeli sovereignty over the area.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said of the Golan decision: “No one could imagine that a person in America comes and gives land of a nation to another occupying country, against international laws and conventions... Such action is unprecedented in the current century,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Editorial / Washington Post

“Mr. Trump’s decision (to recognize Israel’s annexation of Golan) might be more defensible if it were part of a new and innovative U.S. policy in the region. But, like the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, it appears unattached to any strategy other than rewarding Mr. Netanyahu, who has become one of Mr. Trump’s most conspicuous international supporters.  The president’s tweet came as his ally struggles to fend off pending corruption charges and a stiff challenge in an election due April 9.  No one will be surprised if more favors are dispensed when the Israeli leader visits the White House...

“The Israeli leader is, of course, doing his best to exploit his bond with Mr. Trump, including plastering the country with billboards showing the two of them together.  Abandoning what was once a standard Israeli practice of cultivating bipartisan support in Washington, Mr. Netanyahu has bonded himself to the Republican Party and its polarizing leader.  Perhaps that will help him win an unprecedented fifth term as prime minister. The likely damage to long-term Israeli-U.S. relations is a price he and Mr. Trump appear happy to accept.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham / Wall Street Journal

“Mr. Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan (sends) an unequivocal message of condemnation of the Assad regime, which since 2011 has conducted a horrific campaign against Syrian citizens, raining bombs and chemical weapons down on unarmed civilians.  For Mr. Assad and his henchmen not to pay a price for a conflict in which around 500,000 people have been killed and countless atrocities have been committed would again be immoral and dangerous. It sends a message to every dictator around the world that there is no penalty for murdering your own citizens en masse.

“Another negative consequence of the Syrian civil war is the foothold Iran has gained in the country.  Tehran and its proxies, especially the terror group Hezbollah, played a major role saving the Assad regime.  Their presence in Syria opens a new front in their war against Israel.  As the U.S. redeploys forces to Syria, it is important to demonstrate America’s determination to confront Iran, which seeks hegemony in the region.  Recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan helps convey that the U.S. stands with Israel and won’t pressure Jerusalem to take steps that would undermine its own security.

“Mr. Trump has been one of the most effective American leaders in strengthening the country’s relationship with Israel.  His decision to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel should prove yet another major, lasting achievement for his administration.

“Unfortunately, there exists the possibility that Mr. Trump’s decision could be undone by a future president who is a friend to Syria or a foe to Israel.  To guard against that possibility, Congress should immediately vote on the legislation proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Mike Gallagher, putting both chambers on record in support of the Trump policy on the Golan.”

Separately, factions in the Gaza Strip are urging Palestinians to participate in Saturday’s mass protests near the border with Israel.  But the factions urged Palestinians to “maintain the peaceful and popular nature” of the protests, and said they don’t want to give Israel an excuse to use force against the demonstrators.  Close to 200 Gazans have been killed in weekly protests in the past year.

Monday, Hamas launched a rocket from Gaza that landed on a home north of Tel Aviv, injuring seven people.  The Israeli army retaliated with an aerial offensive against Hamas targets – including a military compound and a weapons warehouse – as militias in Gaza fired about 80 missiles toward Israel, according to an Israeli police spokesman.

Editorial / The Economist

“His devotees call him ‘The Magician,’ ‘The Winner’ and – the ultimate accolade – melekh yisrael, ‘King of Israel.’  Binyamin Netanyahu is Israel’s most gifted politician in a generation.  He is his country’s second-longest-serving prime minister and, if he wins his fifth election on April 9th, may beat the record of the country’s founding father, David Ben Gurion.

“ ‘Bibi,’ as he is known by all, is important beyond Israel, too, and not only because he speaks in perfect soundbites in both Hebrew and English and stands tall in today’s chaotic Middle East.  He matters because he embodied the politics of muscular nationalism, chauvinism and the resentment of elites long before such populism became a global force.  Mr. Netanyahu counts among his friends and allies such nationalists as Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, not to mention European ones from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Matteo Salvini in Italy.

“The reign of King Bibi is thus a parable of modern politics: the rise of a talented politician and a long success based on a perplexing mixture of carrying out sound policy and cynically sowing division. As his power is threatened, he has turned to railing more loudly against the free press, the judiciary and shadowy forces.  Now Bibi faces his greatest danger, in the form of criminal charges for corruption. In a different age he would have had to resign, and would now be defending himself as an ordinary citizen. But he is intent on remaining in office, and hopes that voters will yet save him from the policemen, prosecutors and judges.  Israeli politics is turning into a contest between genuine achievement and demagoguery on one side and the rule of law on the other.  All who care about democracy should watch closely.

“Little Israel commands attention because it has a big history: biblical romance and technological talent; the slaughter of the Holocaust and military prowess; energetic democracy and the long occupation of land claimed and inhabited by Palestinians. That said, Mr. Netanyahu is a big figure in his own right. He is more intelligent and capable than many populists, and can claim plenty of successes. By shrinking the bloated state he has helped Israel’s economy flourish, particularly its tech startups. With deft use of diplomacy and the mostly cautious use of military force, he has boosted security without being sucked into disastrous wars. Thanks to that and a shared hostility to Iran, relations with many Arab rulers are better than at any time in Israel’s history.

“Yet Mr. Netanyahu is also worryingly dogmatic. He has paid lip service to peace with Palestinians but has taken no meaningful steps towards it.  He has denounced any Western cooperation with Iran, even if it served to limit Iran’s nuclear program.  In Bibi’s pessimistic view, Israel is surrounded by wolves in sheep’s clothing and wolves in wolves’ clothing. Israel can only manage conflicts, not solve them, he believes, so it must rely on an iron wall and the passage of time....

“But the greatest threat from Bibi’s reign has been at home. He has kept power not just on the strength of his record but also by seeking political advantage at the cost of eroding Israel’s democratic norms....He has played us-and-them politics for so long that he has exacerbated the country’s many schisms – between Jews and Arabs, diaspora Jews and Israelis, western Ashkenazi and eastern Mizrahi Jews, and secular and religious ones.  By casting himself as uniquely able to protect Israel against its enemies, he often treats those who say otherwise as wimps or traitors....

“The corruption charges against him, says Mr. Netanyahu, amount to a ‘blood libel’ a vile medieval canard that accused Jews of mixing the blood of murdered Christian children in their Passover bread.  Yet the police chief who investigated the charges, and the attorney-general who ordered his indictment, were both hand-picked by Mr. Netanyahu. His allies want a law that would grant a prime minister immunity from prosecution....

“On April 9th Israeli voters face a fateful choice.  Re-elect Mr. Netanyahu and reward him for subverting the independence of Israel’s institutions.  Or turn him out in the hope of rebuilding trust in democracy – and aspiring to be ‘a light unto the nations.’”

North Korea: Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, testified to the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, saying North Korea’s activity on nuclear weapons and missiles “is inconsistent with denuclearization.”

Abrams also said that despite a reduction in tensions with North Korea, there had been little to no verifiable changes in its military capabilities.  “North Korea’s conventional and asymmetric military capabilities along with their continued development of advanced conventional munitions and systems all remains unchecked.”

Abrams also warned the United States is not as prepared as it needs to be to detect a sudden North Korean attack on the South, and thus U.S. forces stationed there.

China: The United States sent a guided-missile destroyer and a coastguard vessel through the Taiwan Strait last weekend, the U.S. Seventh Fleet said, part of an ongoing “freedom of navigation operation” in the Pacific Ocean and the congested waterways of the South China Sea, sending warships including aircraft carriers and destroyers to sail in the region.  Beijing is furious in particular over the missions that send warships through the Strait, calling them provocations.

The use of a coastguard vessel for the first time also irked the Chinese, who say the coastguard is responsible for the defense of the U.S. coast, not another country’s shoreline.

As for the massive chemical plant explosion in eastern China last week, the death toll has risen to 78, last I saw.  More than 600 were injured, and lord knows how contaminated the area is.

Russia / Venezuela: In a move hearkening back to the Cold War, Russia flew two planeloads of military personnel into Venezuela over the weekend. 

Russian military advisers will stay in Venezuela as long as needed, the Russian Foreign Ministry has said, a day after President Trump called on Moscow to “get out,” saying “all options” were open to forcing Russia to withdraw.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied reports that Moscow was considering a long-term military base there, but the Russians are world-class liars.

Earlier, the head of the Federation Council’s defense and security committee, told media that Russia should consider a base if Caracas extended the offer.

“Just like the United States of America, Russia has the ability and the right to open military bases anywhere in the world,” said Viktor Bondarev.

Turkey is another failing to heed U.S. requests to halt its support for President Nicolas Maduro, Elliott Abrams warned; Abrams the U.S. special envoy to Venezuela.  Turkish President Erdogan has emerged along with Russia and China as an important ally for Maduro, describing the efforts to force him from power as a “coup attempt.”

Turkey has been accused by Washington of importing Venezuelan gold, an estimated $1 billion worth.

So here we are...again, another week and nothing has changed in terms of the country’s leadership, despite further power failures in Caracas and elsewhere.  Opposition leader Juan Guaido has been totally ineffective in marshaling the overwhelming support he needs to convince the military to turn on Maduro.  He is attempting to gain support for massive demonstrations this weekend to protest the power outages, which are further exacerbating the search for simple basics.

For example, in the western agriculture-heavy state of Tachira, I saw a report that more than 100,000 liters (26,000 gallons) of milk spoiled after 40 hours without electricity for refrigeration, according to the ranchers’ association.

In the third-largest city of Valencia, residents without electricity were forced to cut wood off trees to cook food before it rotted.  [There was no gas in this oil-producing country.]

One 81-year-old woman needing medical treatment died in an elevator at the hospital when the power went out.

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“The stakes for American interests keep rising in Venezuela, as Vladimir Putin is now moving his little green men to keep dictator Nicolas Maduro in power.  U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called his Russian counterpart Monday after Russian air force planes carrying about 100 troops arrived in Caracas Saturday....

“This isn’t Ukraine next to Russia, or Syria in the Middle East.  This Russian military provocation is in America’s backyard, and the Trump Administration will have to do more in response than issue statements or phone calls of disapproval.  The Maduro regime’s fortress socialism is spreading millions of refugees and havoc throughout the region.  President Trump needs to decide if he is going to let Mr. Putin get away with it.”

Late today, the International Federation of the Red Cross said it had received permission from the Maduro government to begin delivering aid in Venezuela, the first acknowledgement by the president that Venezuelans are suffering immense hardship.

The first priority will be medical supplies.  To maintain its impartiality, Red Cross said supplies will be delivered directly to the eight hospitals the organization owns in Venezuela, bypassing the government’s distribution networks.

Ukraine: This nation holds a presidential election on March 31, Sunday.  If no candidate wins more than half the votes, there will be a runoff between the top two on April 21.

The election has boiled down to a three-horse race between President Petro Poroshenko, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.  Zelensky, who plays a fictional president in a popular TV series, is on course to win the first round. Needless to say, some of Ukraine’s friends are concerned.

Mozambique: The last official death toll from Cyclone Idai in the country was 900, but this will rise far higher, though an exact count will never be known as many bodies were washed out to sea.

But due to the slow response of governments in the region, the aftermath could prove even more deadly.

As The Economist points out, contrary to a robust response from South Africa when Mozambique had catastrophic flooding in 2000, this time the government could muster only three helicopters.

Mozambique’s own government has also been pathetic, though a main supply road into the port city of Beira, which has a population of 500,000, has been reopened and some aid is getting in by ship.

1.8m Mozambicans have been impacted and now cases of cholera and malaria are proliferating.

India: The United States is not happy with India’s anti-satellite weapons test carried out on Wednesday, with acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan saying they risk making a “mess” in space because of debris fields they can leave behind.

Shanahan said in a visit to Southern Command: “My message would be: We all live in space, let’s not make it a mess. Space should be a place where we can conduct business. Space is a place where people should have the freedom to operate.”

India’s foreign ministry played down any risk of debris from its missile test, saying the impact occurred in low-Earth orbit and that the remnants would “decay and fall back on to the Earth within weeks.”

But a senior U.S. military official told lawmakers the United States was tracking about 270 objects from the test, a number that would likely grow as the fragments spread out.  The International Space Station is not at risk at this point.

India would be only the fourth country to have used such an anti-satellite weapon after the United States, Russia and China.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi did this as a stunt prior to the elections in India, which go off in phases in two weeks, the biggest election in history with 900 million registered voters.

But it also has ominous repercussions, accelerating a space race with China and destabilizing the balance of power between India and Pakistan.  It could allow India essentially to blind an enemy by taking out its space-based communication and surveillance satellites.

Algeria: 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s days are numbered, as the country’s biggest union and an affiliated political party backed an army call for him to quit in a managed exit, though this was quickly rejected by protesters demanding the overthrow of the entire political elite.

Bouteflika has been rarely seen in public since he suffered a stroke in 2013.  The army has been patiently waiting for the right moment to intervene, winning over the president’s allies.  But the leaders of the massive protest movement want action now.

Both sides, though, want to avoid a repeat of the dark days of the 1990s, when the army’s cancellation of elections that Islamists were poised to win triggered a civil war that killed 200,000 people.

The protests of the past few weeks have thus far been largely peaceful; the army restrained.  The fear is for a radicalization of the country.

Algeria is a leading member of OPEC and a top gas supplier to Europe, though output thus far hasn’t been impacted.  Algeria is also seen by Western states as a partner in counter-terrorism and a leading diplomatic player to resolve crises in neighboring Mali and Libya.

Random Musings

--Presidential tracking polls

Gallup: 39% approval of Trump’s job performance, 57% disapproval; 90% Republicans, 33% Independents (Mar. 15).
Rasmussen: 49% approve, 50% disapprove (Mar. 29...hit 50% approval Mar. 28, which Trump immediately tweeted).

In the above noted Quinnipiac University National Poll, President Trump received a 39% approval rating, 55% disapproved.  89% of Republicans approve, 35% of Independents.

Women disapprove of Trump’s job performance 63-33.  In the 18-34 age group, 22% approve, 71% disapprove.  That should be worrisome for Republicans if that age group shows up in numbers in 2020.

Quinnipiac asked the question: Do you think that President Trump is a good role model for children, or not?

Yes...21%.  No...72%.  [Republicans 50-37, yes.  Democrats 97-2, no.  Independents 78-14, no.]

--In a separate Quinnipiac survey on Thursday, in an early look at the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Joe Biden is the choice of 29% of Democrats and voters leaning Democratic, with 19% for Sen. Bernie Sanders and 12% for Beto O’Rourke.

Sen. Kamala Harris is at 8%, with no other contender getting more than 4%.

But it’s significant that one of those at 4% (the other Sen. Elizabeth Warren) is South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has broken through it would seem.  He’s fresh, super smart, highly likable, a war veteran, and not tainted by Washington. And he’s qualified for the early debates, which start up in June, last I saw.

--In the same Quinnipiac University survey, 36% said they had a negative opinion of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with only 23% giving her a favorable rating, but 38% said they didn’t know enough about the progressive politician to form an opinion of her.

But among millennials, she is viewed favorably by 35%, negatively by 23%.

--According to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), income inequality is worse than most realize. The study looked at hourly wages for all workers 16 years of age and older.

Between 1979 and 2017, the annual wages of the top 1% shot up 157.3%, which was almost four times faster than average wage growth of 40.1%.  And, according to EPI, “over the same period, top 0.1% earnings grew 343.2%, with the latest spike reflecting the sharp increase in executive compensation.”

Let’s face it, sports fans; this is big stuff come 2020.

--The case of Jussie Smollett took a shocking turn on Tuesday.  Chicago prosecutors suddenly abandoned the 16-count indictment of the “Empire” star.  Aside from having to forfeit his $10,000 bond to the city, Smollett skated.

Then the creep had the gall to maintain his innocence.  Watching it live, I was floored.

“I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I’ve been accused of,” said the guy who walked into his apartment building after the supposed attack, carrying his Subway sandwich, and not seeking immediate medical attention.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ripped the decision, calling it a “whitewash of justice.”

“Is there no decency in this man?” seethed Emanuel, flanked by Windy City cops at a press conference.  “Mr. Smollett is still saying that he is innocent. ...How dare he?”

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said he and his aides were given no forewarning by the prosecutor’s office that they were dropping charges against Smollett.

“We found out about it when you all did,” Johnson told reporters, adding that if he were Smollett, he would not be satisfied that his name had been cleared.

Smollett “chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal that circumvents the legal system,” Johnson said.

“If someone accused me of doing anything that would circumvent that, I would want my day in court, period, to clear my name,” the top cop fumed.  “Do I think justice was served?  No.”

Emanuel also scoffed at the $10,000 bail forfeiture that Smollett agreed to, saying, “$10,000 does not even come close to what the city spent on resources” investigating the case.

“The city saw its reputation dragged through the mud,” raged Emanuel.  “From top to bottom, this is not on the level.”

“This is without a doubt a whitewash of justice.”

Police and prosecutors say Smollett paid two brothers, Abel and Ola Osundairo, $3,500 to stage an attack on Smollett, in which he was made to look like the victim of a vicious hate crime.

Police initially identified Smollett as a victim for weeks while they investigated, but then the case began to break down, especially after the Osundairo brothers told investigators that they worked with Smollett to carry out the attack.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx defended her decision to drop the charges.  “I believe this is a just outcome based on the circumstances,” she said Wednesday.

But the state’s attorney’s office maintains Smollett has not been exonerated, while Smollett’s lawyers say his record has been wiped clean.

“We respectfully request all government agencies involved live up to the ethical tenants of their office, state and local law,” said Smollett attorney Patricia Brown Holmes.  “We will not try this case in a court of public opinion. There is no case to try. The case was dismissed.  We should all allow Mr. Smollett to move on with his life as a free citizen.”

Joseph Magats, the first assistant state’s attorney, asserts that Smollett was not exonerated and that the case was akin to alternative prosecution for an offender with a short criminal history.

“The bottom line is that we stand behind the investigation, we stand behind the decision to charge him,” Magats said. “The fact that (Smollett) feels that we have exonerated him, we have not.  I can’t make it any clearer than that.”

But Magats’ comments were far different than what Assistant State’s Attorney Risa Lanier told Judge Steven Watkins in a short hearing Tuesday where prosecutors formally dropped the charges.

“After reviewing the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett’s volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the city of Chicago, the State’s motion in regards to the indictment is nolle pros,” said Lanier, using the legal term for dropping charges.  “We believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “They (the State’s Attorney’s office) better get their stories straight because this is actually making a fool of all of us,” he told ABC News.

Emanuel pilloried Smollett, saying he “abused the city of Chicago.”

“You have the state’s attorney’s office saying he’s not exonerated, yet he actually did commit this hoax.  He’s saying he’s innocent and his words aren’t true.”

Emanuel says he wants the court records unsealed so that all the evidence gathered by Chicago Police could be seen, adding police had evidence Smollett made up claims that he was attacked by two masked men who he claimed shouted racist and homophobic slurs, poured bleach on him and put a rope around his neck.

The FBI launched a probe into the reasons why prosecutors decided to drop all criminal charges against the actor – despite the evidence he allegedly staged a hate crime against himself.

Kyle Smith / New York Post

“From the great Subway Sandwich Assault of Jan. 29 through to the Valentine’s Day fable Smollett told Robin Roberts on ‘Good Morning America,’ everything Smollett said was preposterous, and he couldn’t even stick to one fake account, he had to keep rewriting it.  Initially he didn’t tell police his attacker dudes yelled, ‘This is MAGA country.’  Then by the time he told the story to Roberts it was completely different; no longer did two guys come at him at once, but one snuck up behind him while he had his hands full with the first one. Oh, and this time he fought back valiantly, which he hadn’t told the police.

“In all versions of the story, the vicious thugs daintily draped a noose they just happened to have with them around his neck but just left it dangling there like a necktie.

“Never did Smollett explain how two guys who knew him from ‘Empire’ somehow knew where he  would be at 2 a.m. even though he himself had decided just moments earlier to go to the Subway shop outside of which they lurked, scheming with their bleach and rope.

“State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office didn’t say that new evidence had emerged that cleared Smollett of the charge of faking a hate crime.  It didn’t say it lacked the evidence to proceed.  It certainly didn’t say Smollett was innocent.  Much the opposite.  Her office hinted that he was guilty but considered him to already have been punished sufficiently, by forfeiting a $10,000 bond and performing some previously unreported community service.

“In other words, Smollett was granted a plea bargain without the most important part, which is the plea.  He accepted (some) punishment without admitting guilt.

“This kind of travesty is straight out of Al Capone’s Chicago.  ‘In our experience, innocent individuals don’t forgo bond & perform community service in exchange for dropped charges,’ Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi tweeted....

“The prosecutors destroyed three solid weeks of police work involving a squadron of detectives who knew the victim was full of barnyard epithet from day one but had to use considerable skill and ingenuity to prove it.  If I were a Chicago detective, I’d be thinking about calling in sick for about the next four months.

“Why protect and serve a city that disrespects and spurns?

“Entirely predictably, as the prosecutors were saying, ‘We’re gonna let this guy slide,’ Smollett was whooping it up, claiming he had never lied, that he had been completely vindicated and that he would join O.J. Simpson in dedicating the rest of his life to finding the real offenders. Smollett’s lawyers beamed but his doctors worried that he might sprain a wrist patting himself on the back.

“How did the prosecution not foresee this noxious state of affairs?  Let criminals boogie without wringing an admission of guilt out of them and of course they’re going to pop a Champagne cork in your face.

“Hate-crime hoaxes do immense damage to our social fabric and tie up police resources better spent on actual crimes, which kinda matters when your city has more than five times the murder rate of New York....

“Don’t blame Jussie, blame the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. Even by Chicago standards, this is pretty Chicago.  In the Windy City, if liars get rewarded, it’s now open season on the truth.”

Thursday, Chicago requested in a letter to Smollett and his representatives an “immediate payment” of about $130,000 from Smollett in order to pay for the cost of the police investigation.  The Chicago Police Department and the City of Chicago warned that he may be prosecuted again for “making a false statement to the City.”

--In another despicable situation, Rockland County, N.Y., officials were forced to declare a state of emergency Tuesday over its ongoing measles outbreak.  The order bars any unvaccinated person under 18 from public places until the declaration expires in 30 days or until they receive the MMR vaccination.

County Executive Ed Day said in a written declaration: “I find that I must take this step to protect the public safety of the residents and visitors to Rockland County (Ed. across from the New Jersey border).  I must take this step to protect the infants, infirm, and ill of this County who are unable to be vaccinated against the measles or who are immunocompromised.  I must make every effort to protect them.”

But it was clear authorities couldn’t enforce the ban.  The hope is it will at least reinforce the emergency.

Rockland County has had 151 confirmed cases of measles since October 2018, the state’s longest measles outbreak since the disease was officially eliminated throughout the United States in 2000.

It’s all about the freakin’ parents, primarily in the Orthodox Jewish community, who aren’t vaccinating their kids.

It was also reported at week’s end that New York City’s worst measles outbreak since 1991 continues to grow in the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, with 33 confirmed cases in the past week, bringing Gotham’s total to 214 since October, according to the city’s health department.

--And then we have attorney Michael Avenatti, who seized the spotlight last year as a lawyer for former adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.  Avenatti was arrested Monday on separate charges in New York and Los Angles.  Federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged him with extortion and conspiracy, alleging he told lawyers for Nike that he and an unnamed co-conspirator (who we found out was celebrity attorney Mark Geragos) would release damaging information about the company if Nike didn’t pay them to conduct an “internal investigation” and to settle a client’s claim, according to the unsealed complaint.

At the same time, in Los Angeles, the U.S. attorney’s office there alleged that Avenatti embezzled a client’s money to pay his own expenses and cover debts – including for his law firm and coffee business – and defrauded a bank using phony tax returns.

Avenatti said he would be “fully exonerated” when all the facts of the cases emerged.  But he does have some potential dirt on Nike...possibly evidence the company had authorized secret payments to high-school basketball players.

--Finally, for many of us, this is the time of year when the leaf blowers come out of hibernation.  It has started in my neighborhood.  Understand I look down on eight single-family homes, all but two with the same gardener (who does my complex), while one of the other two has his own gigantic hantavirus spreader and the other, god bless him, has a silent, good old-fashioned mower.

As you all know, leaf blowers do nothing more than throw rat, mouse, and bird crap up in the air, and god knows what else, while throwing off more pollution and greenhouse gases than you can even conceive.

In the April issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows weighs in on the technology of LBs:

“Their high volume, which I had long considered their most salient feature, is only their second-most-unusual aspect.  The real marvel is the living-fossil nature of their technology. And because the technology is so crude and old, the level of pollution is off the charts.

“When people encounter engines these days, they’re generally seeing the outcome of decades of intense work toward higher efficiency.  The latest models of jet-turbine engines are up to 80 percent more fuel-efficient than their 1950s counterparts.  While power plants burning natural gas obviously emit more carbon than wind or solar facilities, they emit about half as much as coal-fired plants. Today, the average car on America’s streets is almost 200 percent more efficient than in 1950, and smog-causing emissions from cars are about 99 percent lower.

“The great outlier here is a piece of obsolete machinery Americans encounter mainly in lawn-care equipment: the humble ‘two-stroke engine.’...

“(Vastly) dirtier and less fuel-efficient, because by design it sloshes together a mixture of gasoline and oil in the combustion chamber and then spews out as much as one-third of that fuel as an unburned aerosol.  If you’ve seen a tuk-tuk, one of the noisy tricycle-style taxis in places such as Bangkok and Jakarta, with purple smoke wafting out of its tailpipe, you’ve seen a two-stroke engine in action....

“In 2014 a study published in Nature Communications found that VOC emissions (a variety of carbon gases that can produce smog and harm human beings) were on average 124 times higher from an idling two-stroke scooter than from a truck or a car.  With respect to benzene, a carcinogenic pollutant, the group found that each cubic meter of exhaust from an idling two-stroke scooter contained 60,000 times the safe level of exposure.  Two-stroke engines have largely disappeared from the scooter, moped, and trail-bike markets in America.  Regulators around the world are pushing older two-stroke engines toward extinction.

“Yet they remain the propulsive force behind the 200-mph winds coming out of many backpack leaf blowers....the impact of these little machines is significant.  In 2017, the California Air Resources Board issued a warning that may seem incredible but has not been seriously challenged: By 2020, gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and similar equipment in the state could produce more ozone pollution than all the millions of cars in California combined.  Two –stroke engines are that dirty. Cars have become that clean.”

So there is a movement in various communities and cities to ban these tools of evil.  I fully support any efforts of this kind and will continue to use this space to weigh in on the topic.

---

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

God bless America.

---

Gold $1297
Oil $60.18

Returns for the week 3/25-3/29

Dow Jones  +1.7%  [25928]
S&P 500  +1.2%  [2834]
S&P MidCap  +2.2%
Russell 2000  +2.3%
Nasdaq  +1.1%  [7729]

Returns for the period 1/1/19-3/29/19

Dow Jones  +11.2%
S&P 500  +13.1%
S&P MidCap  +14.0%
Russell 2000  +14.2%
Nasdaq  +16.5%

Bulls 52.0
Bears 20.6 [Week before the ratio was 53.9 / 20.6]

Have a great week.

Brian Trumbore



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Week in Review

03/30/2019

For the week 3/25-3/29

[Posted 11:30 PM ET, Friday]

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

Edition 1,042

There is no other way to describe the 4-page summary of the Mueller Report that Attorney General William Barr sent to congressional leaders Sunday other than to say it was a major victory for President Donald Trump.  There was no collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, by any American, for that matter, and that’s a good thing.

For the president, it’s too bad the report wasn’t released in June 2018, or June 2020, because Americans have the attention span of gnats, and there is no way Trump can now keep up the anger for 19 months, at least in ways that remotely builds his base.  On this I agree with Karl Rove, who said at some point you have to move on, if you’re a Republican. 

Democrats do, too, and I’m just guessing when we receive the full details from AG Barr, there won’t be much there...though a ton that is redacted.

As for the other investigations, such as in the Southern District of New York, once again, I’m consistent.  I wait for the facts.  From day one I did not yell and scream about what might be in the Mueller Report.  I’ll instead remind you of what I wrote exactly three months ago, 12/29/18:

It was a Trump tweet:

“Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States.  See?  Isn’t it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbors rather than a Great Country, the U.S., that is 5000 miles away.  Thanks to Saudi A!”

I then wrote:

“I found no such news story, and does the average American understand what the cost to rebuild Syria (and Iraq, for that matter) is?  Try $388 billion for Syria alone...$388 billion...per a UN agency.  Syria’s government has asked for $48bn, short term, just for housing needs.  Saudi Arabia won’t end up kicking in more than $1 billion, over time, especially with oil at $45 a barrel.

“In fact, the Saudis committed just $100 million to a stabilization fund back in August, and the Saudi Embassy in Washington confirmed this week there were no new commitments.”

These are the kinds of things I worry about when it comes to President Trump.

But I also know 95% of Americans couldn’t give a damn.  Donald Trump Jr., on Hannity this week, stumbled into the truth.  Hannity interviewed him after the Grand Rapids rally, and Don Jr. said that when he’s out in America, away from the coasts, in other words, “How many people ask about Russia?”

No one, and that’s a problem of a different kind.  Of course Don Jr. was referring to Russia, as in the Russia ‘hoax,’ but Americans need to care about Russia and Vlad the Impaler, because he has successfully sown discord in not just America, but the West, through his election shenanigans, whether it is in Grand Rapids, Lyon, or Milan.

Three months ago, you may recall, President Trump was also railing about the reaction to the resignation of James Mattis.  The president was declaring victory over ISIS.

“If anybody but your favorite President, Donald J. Trump, announced that, after decimating ISIS in Syria, we were going to bring our troops back home (happy & healthy), that person would be the most popular hero in America.  With me, hit hard instead by the Fake News Media.  Crazy!”

But as I’ve noted the  past few weeks, including extensively down below, we better not leave Syria today, and our generals, who deserve major kudos for helping to wrap things up this week in terms of the caliphate’s territory, know this far better than the man in the White House. Syria is a seething cauldron of hate more than ever.  The ISIS ideology is far from dead.  There are millions of people that hate us more than you or I can imagine.

But we have a president that, spurred on by a coterie of television and radio personalities, will now focus on retribution.  Believe me, just as in the release of the Mueller Report, I’m just waiting to see what Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz reveals in his own report pertaining to possible abuses in the FBI.

I give you the facts as best I know them, and I rely in no small part on my life experiences, like seeing my relatives behind the Iron Curtain as a 15-year-old...and getting royally screwed by the Chinese.

I make no apologies that this is a record long column.  As with all major topics, I have a ton of outside opinion on the Mueller Report.  It’s part of building the archives...the history of our times.

For now, imagine President Trump’s approval ratings if he had simply said from day one, “I’m just going to wait, like all Americans, for Robert Mueller to finish his report.  In the meantime I have a job to do.”

He sure as hell wouldn’t have lost the House in 2018, if he had done so.  You aren’t being intellectually honest if you say otherwise.  And I apologize for repeating myself, but I literally straddle two congressional districts, the second beginning a block from where I live, and they were both Republican my entire life, and now they are Democrat.

And so we move on....

The Mueller Report / Summary...Trump World

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of potential obstruction charges against Trump included a “thorough factual investigation,” but Mueller opted against making “a traditional prosecutorial judgment” and he “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction,” Attorney General William Barr wrote in the summary he released Sunday.

Instead, Mueller “sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact.”

“The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,’” Barr writes.

In his letter, Barr says that Mueller “recognized that ‘the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,’” which “bears upon the President’s intent with regard to obstruction.”

“In cataloguing the President’s actions, many of which took place in public view, the report identifies no actions that, in our judgement, constitute obstructive conduct, had a nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding, and were done with corrupt intent,” Barr wrote.

Immediately after the report was released, President Trump told reporters:

“There was no collusion with Russia. There was no obstruction, and none whatsoever. It’s a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this.”

Trump tweeted:

“No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.

“KEEP AMERICA GREAT!”

But, Mueller didn’t absolve the president of obstructing justice.

Mueller’s full report is nearly 400 pages and will be released by mid-April, per a second letter from William Barr this afternoon, saying he would be able to release it to Congress (after proper redactions, including for all grand jury testimony and classified material).

“Everyone will soon be able to read it on their own,” wrote Barr to the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House Judiciary committees.  He said he is willing to appear before both committees to testify about Mueller’s report on May 1 and May 2.

Barr added today that certain information must be redacted before the report is released, including intelligence sources and methods and information that by law cannot be public or might infringe on privacy.  He said that while Trump has the right to assert executive privilege on some materials, “Trump has stated publicly that he intends to defer to me.”  Because of that, he said, there are no plans for the Justice Department to submit the report to the White House for a privilege review.

Of course Democrats have called into question Barr’s four-page summary.

“What Mueller has done stands on its own,” said Robert Ray, who served as an independent counsel in the investigation into Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful Arkansas land deal that expanded to include his extramarital relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“I think he has done as much as he could do and more than I expected,” Ray said of Mueller.  “He’s already shown that there was penetration into our election system by Russian operatives. That, alone, should be frightening.”

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Trump ally, said of the findings: “What they do is they clear the deck for there to be an evaluation based upon his record as president,” Christie calling it a “very good day” for the president.  “It lifts a cloud that was over the White House for the entire time he was there.”

Regarding the ongoing investigations, such as in the Southern District of New York, Christie said: “There is always peril there.  I’ve always thought that the SDNY investigation was much more dangerous than the Mueller investigation because it has no restriction on its scope.”

We also learned at week’s end that the grand jury that Mueller convened to examine the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election is still alive and well, a federal prosecutor said in court, but these wouldn’t involve the president directly.

Opinion...all sides....

Editorial / USA TODAY

“The finding that Donald Trump and his 2016 presidential campaign didn’t conspire with the Russian government is somewhat mystifying.

“Not because it cannot be accepted as true. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s reputation for excellence, diligence and thoroughness underscores how the finding is credible and ought to be welcomed.

“No, it mystified because Trump could have sat quietly waiting for the truth to emerge. The president’s underlings could have honestly answered questions by the FBI and lawmakers. But this didn’t happen.

“The president spent nearly two years trashing an inquiry that ultimately cleared him and his campaign of criminally conspiring with Russia, and several former aides are now convicted felons for lying under oath – apparently about something that didn’t warrant concealment.  Some evidently lied out of a misbegotten, twisted sense of loyalty that only made matters worse.

“Mueller’s conclusions, as characterized in a four-page summary released Sunday afternoon by Attorney General William Barr, are deeply disappointing to partisans who saw the inquiry as a prelude to impeachment.  But that was never the intent of Mueller’s investigation, which provides needed clarity after nearly two years of rumors and speculation that swirled about Russia’s interference in the 2016 president election.

“Trump quickly and inaccurately called the report a ‘complete and total exoneration.’  Actually, the special counsel stated that ‘while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him’ on obstruction of justice.

“So how do Mueller’s findings, as described by Barr, stack up against Trump’s repeated characterizations of the investigation?  Let’s take them one by one:

“ ‘There is no collusion.’  Trump, it appears, was right all along.  Clearly there were attempts at collusion, most notably the Trump Tower meeting in 2016 where aides and family members eagerly met with Russians dangling dirt on Hillary Clinton.  But Mueller reported that his ‘investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’

“ ‘There is no obstruction.’  Mueller’s investigation began after what looked like obstruction of justice in plain sight: Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to go easy on national security adviser Michael Flynn, fired Comey after he demurred, bragged about it to Russian officials in the Oval Office, and told NBC News’ Lester Holt that Russia was the reason he fired Comey.

“Mueller didn’t draw a legal conclusion about obstruction, but Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, after reviewing Mueller’s full report, said there was not enough evidence demonstrating the president was guilty of wrongdoing.  It would certainly be difficult to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt of a cover-up when no underlying offense – such as conspiracy – took place.  Even so, Barr needs to explain to Congress and the public how he reached his decision, and did it so quickly.

“ ‘This investigation is a witch hunt.’  Trump repeated this endlessly, and it was always a canard.  Mueller’s reputation was sterling. He’s a highly respected, by-the-book former FBI director and a lifelong Republican who served with valor in Vietnam.  In 22 months as special prosecutor, he won convictions of five Trump aides – in most cases, for lying.... In all, 34 people and three companies were indicted on scores of charges.

“The investigation included more than 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants and interviews with about 500 witnesses (but not Trump himself in person).  So now, the president is in the ironic position of hailing the accuracy of an inquiry he repeatedly tried to discredit.

“ ‘The Russia thing is a hoax.’  This depends on the definition of ‘thing.’  If it means criminal collusion, then Trump has a point.  But if it refers to Russian interference in the election, Mueller dispatched this assertion months ago when he indicted – with pages of extraordinary detail – dozens of Russian nationals on charges of hacking Democratic computers and waging a disinformation campaign aimed at sowing division and helping Trump.

“So now what?  Congress and the public deserve to see Mueller’s full, taxpayer-funded report, and that should happen, with redactions only to protect sources and methods.

“Nor is the end of Mueller’s efforts the end of Trump investigations. Lawmakers and other federal prosecutors are examining a host of issues: possible campaign violations involving payoffs to women who allegedly had affairs with Trump, inauguration funding, the Trump Foundation, Trump’s taxes, real estate deals and potential insurance fraud.

“Beyond Trump, the special counsel gave Congress plenty of homework that transcends partisanship.  Mueller unearthed a plot by a foreign adversary to undermine America’s democracy.  Even if the president didn’t collude – something for which the nation should be thankful – Mueller’s findings cry out for steps to prevent this from ever happening again.

“With the 2020 presidential campaign already underway, there is little time to lose.”

Edward Luce / Financial Times

“Mr. Mueller is indeed ‘America’s straightest arrow.’  The fact that he could not prove conspiracy with Russia does not mean it did not exist. Courtesy of the special counsel, there is more than enough prima facie evidence to pursue many investigations into the Trump Organization’s business dealings.

“Likewise, Mr. Mueller proved the Russians interfered in the 2016 election – as they have tried to do in other democracies.  That threat still exists. Mr. Trump publicly requested Russia’s help and Russia obliged.  It could happen again. Washington has done almost nothing to strengthen its electoral infrastructure since 2016.

“Yet Democrats are now saddled with two big problems. The first will be the backlash. Never mind that Mr. Mueller’s report did not ‘exonerate’ Mr. Trump.  That word will now go viral.    It is likely the full Mueller report will contain damaging revelations about Mr. Trump’s misconduct....

“But no amount of circumstantial evidence will overshadow the report’s key finding.  It was said that Mr. Mueller’s appointment was the worst day in Mr. Trump’s presidency.  Mr. Mueller’s report is arguably the best.  Mr. Trump will believe he now has full license to escalate his attacks on the ‘fake news media.’  In light of Mr. Mueller’s conclusions, Mr. Trump might be making fewer complaints about the ‘deep state,’ however.

“The second problem for Democrats is understanding what was behind Mr. Trump’s victory so they can stop it from happening again. The reasons are as complex as faith in a Mueller ‘hail Mary pass’ was simple.  They include the woodenness of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the FBI’s decision to reopen her email investigation 11 days before the election, disgust with run-of-the-mill politics, middle America’s economic gloom and Mr. Trump’s appeals to the so-called ‘deplorables.’  They also include help from Russia....

“But they would be wise to graduate from what conservatives call ‘Trump derangement syndrome.’ There is a dose of truth in that critique too.  If Mr. Trump is true to form, he will now stoke ‘TDS’ as much as he can.  It will help his re-election campaign.

“The question Democrats must answer is whether they can hold the Trump administration to account without being swallowed by their personal revulsion for the president. They must also brace for a sustained backlash.

“Mr. Trump has been chafing at the investigation since he took office.  As the saying goes, when you strike at the king make sure to kill him.  A wounded, vindicated, Mr. Trump is not a prospect to relish.”

Rich Lowry / New York Post

“The release of Robert Mueller’s finding that Donald Trump didn’t collude with Russia should settle a question his critics – and, quietly, some of his allies – have asked repeatedly over the last two years: Why was he acting so guilty?

“It turns out that he was acting innocent, only in a typically combative, over-the-top Trump fashion.

“The Left and the media were never willing to credit the idea that Trump sincerely believed that he was being treated unfairly – because he was.

“When Trump said in his infamous Lester Holt interview that he fired James Comey because the Trump-Russia thing ‘is a made-up story,’ he wasn’t confessing to obstruction of justice, he was stating a fact that the Mueller probe would establish 2,800 subpoenas and 500 search warrants later.

“The prudent thing for Trump to do once the Mueller probe got going would have been to cooperate without complaint and bide his time awaiting his eventual vindication. Instead, Trump fought like a caged animal (while actually cooperating with the probe).

“Trump is a creature of the media and cares a lot about what is said about him.  So imagine him sitting in the White House and watching the media constantly suggest that a smoking-gun Russia-collusion revelation is just over the over the horizon, that the walls are closing in, that he might be guilty of one of the worst political crimes committed in the history of the republic – and all the while knowing that it wasn’t true.

“It’s very easy to be relaxed about someone else’s reputation. We saw this during the Kavanaugh controversy when progressives were outraged that Brett Kavanaugh got emotional about being falsely accused of gang rape.  Trump, apparently, was supposed to be cool and nonplussed about being accused of treason.

“Of course, he wasn’t, and got caught in an endless feedback loop with the press.  He’d be presumed guilty in the coverage, he’d lash out and then commentators would take his reaction as further evidence he was guilty. For two long years.

“As recently as a couple of weekends ago, an epic Trump tweet-storm was taken as a sign that he was completely panicked over the impending Mueller report.

“It didn’t occur to anyone that he might be acting out of a sense of aggrieved, although often self-defeating, innocence.  This is what got the Mueller probe rolling in the first place.  Trump fired James Comey because the FBI director refused to state publicly what he told Trump privately – that the president himself wasn’t under investigation.

“Democrats’ fallback position now is that they can get Trump for obstruction for all his impure thoughts about a probe that reached its conclusion unimpeded, and that found no underlying Russian collusion to cover up....

“You don’t have to endorse Trump’s attacks on the integrity of Robert Mueller, his mockery of his former Attorney General Jeff Sessions or his distorted view of the Justice Department to find the dynamic here unsettling. Trump was basically told that he’d be investigated and smeared over years over Russia collusion that didn’t happen, and if he objected and wanted to make it stop, they’d investigate him for that, too.

“The ultimate weapon he had was, funnily enough, the truth. As he said again and again, there was no Russia collusion. Every time he repeated the phrase, the press rolled its eyes and opined about how it showed an untoward defensiveness. Then, they dug into another news cycle devoted to Trump’s impending doom.

“A news industry that should have a healthy skepticism could never apply any skepticism to its own narrative and assumptions. And so, on the question of Russia collusion that put a cloud over the White House and dominated the last two years of our public life, Donald Trump was a more reliable narrator than the media that so self-righteously scorns him.”

George F. Will / Washington Post

“Robert S. Mueller III’s report is a gift to the nation, which now knows what was already a reasonable surmise; that its chief executive’s unlovely admiration for a repulsive foreign regime, Vladimir Putin’s, is more a dereliction of taste and judgment than evidence that he is under that regime’s sway. The report is an even larger gift to the nation because it might help stabilize the Democratic Party – if the party reacts more reasonable to it than most of the party’s most conspicuous presidential candidates have been reacting to the political stimuli of 2019.  What Mueller’s report makes possible is something like a normal presidential election in 2020.

“After thousands of hours of cable television obsessing about Mueller’s report in advance of it, with most of the obsessives basing their speculations on less than the reading of tea leaves or of chicken entrails, and most of the obsessives grinding partisan axes, it is difficult, but important, to remember two things.  First, before Mueller was appointed special counsel, it was indisputable that Russia hacked American emails as part of its activities to work for Donald Trump’s election.  Second, while Mueller investigated these activities, the accusation of 2016 collusion between professional Russian operatives and the ramshackle Trump campaign apparatus was already implausible because Russia could pursue its ends without coordinating its activities with a campaign rife with lowlifes and bottom-of-the-barrel Republican operatives.

“The report comes to no conclusion about whether Trump intended to obstruct justice. This agnosticism is, however, a political nullity: Voters are unlikely to care what the president intended when he used a constitutional power (e.g., firing the FBI director) or indulged his incontinent anger (rhetorically and on Twitter) during an investigation into an alleged crime he did not commit....

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pitch-perfect, five-word suffocation of the impeachment agitation coming from the wilder shores of her party – ‘He’s just not worth it’ – was welcome.  But the world’s oldest and, by reasonable metrics, greatest political party, which led this nation through two world wars and its worst economic crisis, today seems unable to process the following:

“An embarrassed nation aches for a president who is one thing: normal.  Democrats, however, are looking weirder and weirder while cooking a bouillabaisse of indigestible ingredients: End meat, air travel, private health insurance, the distinction between late-term abortion and infanticide and perhaps Israel as a Jewish state; defend ‘constitutional norms’ by abolishing the electoral college, changing the nature of the Senate and enlarging the Supreme Court to make it more representative, i.e., to break it to the saddle of politics; give socialism one more chance; etc....

“Thanks to Mueller, the 2020 campaign will not be about the 2016 campaign.  It will be about a post-Trump future – if unhinged Democrats can stop auctioning themselves to their party’s most clamorous factions, thereby making Trump seem to be what Mueller’s report does not say that he is: acceptable.”

Editorial / New York Post

“Attorney General William Barr’s Sunday letter to Congress leaves no doubt: Three years of investigation, including two years under special counsel Robert Mueller, found no evidence of Team Trump ‘collusion’ with Russia.

“Yes, the news is a bit less definitive on the ‘obstruction’ front: Barr says Mueller’s findings were ‘not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense,’ but that basically boils down to the Washington establishment’s distaste for the way President Trump fired FBI chief Jim Comey, and raged against the Mueller probe as a ‘witch hunt.’

“Crucially, Barr says that the president’s questionable actions ‘were not done with corrupt intent.’  That is: Trump knew he hadn’t colluded, and acted accordingly toward those who seemed bent on suggesting otherwise to the American public.

“Three years of intensive work by the nation’s best prosecutors and investigators resulted only in convicting Paul Manafort on crimes that had nothing to do with Trump or the 2016 campaign (and for skullduggery that also involved top Democratic lobbyists), plus a host of ‘process’ charges (mostly lying to the FBI or Congress) against various peripheral Trump associates.

“Oh, and indictments against a host of Russians for meddling in the 2016 campaign – but not in cooperation with Team Trump.

“None of that – zero, zilch, nada – validates the years of breathless reporting about the investigations, nor (for example) the repeated claims of top House Intelligence Committee Democrat Adam Schiff that he had seen serious evidence of collusion.

“For more than two years, America has been assured time and again that Mueller was onto clear evidence of Trump treason, more or less – and now it all stands exposed as wishful fantasies and outright lies.

“Trump’s 2016 team did indeed sign up some pathetic third-raters, plus the sleazoid Manafort. The odious Roger Stone was a hanger-on, too.

“But cleaner and better talent (especially from the GOP foreign- and national-security establishments) wouldn’t touch the long-shot populist campaign.

“The Trump camp shouldn’t have hired Manafort or self-promoters like George Papadopolous. But none of them ever mattered.

“The whole sorry affair shows at its core that Democrats just couldn’t and still can’t come to grips with 2016.  They can’t believe Americans don’t think the way they do and so have to blame something, anything, for what went wrong....

“Attorney General Barr’s clear duty going forward (and that of FBI chief Christopher Wray) is to discover and expose every official in the Justice Department and the national-security and intelligence bureaucracies who put partisan politics ahead of justice and the national interest – abusing key security powers such as FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrants – to launch an investigation that now stands exposed as an obscene miscarriage of justice.”

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“Well, so much for the claim that Donald Trump or his campaign conspired with Russians to steal the American Presidency.  That conspiracy theory, which has distorted American politics for more than two years, expired in an instant Sunday when Attorney General William Barr delivered Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ‘principal conclusions’ to Congress.

“ ‘The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election,’ Mr. Barr wrote in a four-page letter to the Judiciary Committees of he House and Senate.

“Mr. Barr’s letter also said that Mr. Mueller investigated the evidence of whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice but made no ‘prosecutorial judgment.’  Mr. Barr said that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein examined that evidence and concluded there is nothing sufficient to prove that the President ‘engaged in obstructive conduct.’  Mr. Trump called all this an ‘exoneration,’ and it certainly looks to be, but it’s worth stepping back from the partisan claims for some larger political context.

“The Russia conclusion in particular ought to be good news to all Americans.  Mr. Mueller spent two years and the vast resources of the FBI and Justice Department to search for ‘collusion.’  He found ample evidence that Russia did try to influence the election.  But he found that no one in the Trump campaign ‘coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,’ Mr. Barr wrote.

“This lifts the cloud over the 2016 election that authoritarians like Vladimir Putin hope to promote with their meddling in democracies.  It means no Trump officials abetted the hack into Democratic emails, and no Trump officials conspired with WikiLeaks (Roger Stone’s fantasies aside).  The conclusion should restore a measure of public confidence in our political system and the integrity of U.S. elections.  Imagine the political crisis had Mr. Mueller found the opposite?

“The end of the collusion illusion should also cause the media to do some soul-searching about rushes to judgment.  For two years, with the help of ex-Obama officials, they spun anecdotes of contacts between Russians and Trump campaign advisers into a conspiracy.  With few exceptions they went well beyond First Amendment oversight into anti-Trump advocacy.  But it was always odd that those individual Russia-Trump contacts never added up to anything or went anywhere, which is why we warned about waiting for the facts.

“Many in the press also took Mr. Trump’s denunciations against the investigation and his odd solicitousness for Mr. Putin as an admission of guilt.  But Mr. Trump is often his own worst enemy, and bursts of ego and anger aren’t evidence of anything but predictable Trump behavior.

“The question has always been whether Mr. Mueller would be able to connect those anecdotes into a larger conspiracy, but now we know he could not.  By the way, Mr. Mueller’s probe is the third to find no Russia-Trump collusion, following the House and Senate Intelligence Committee findings.  Perhaps the press corps will finally take no conspiracy for an answer.

“As for obstruction of justice, some Democrats will assert that Mr. Mueller’s failure to reach a conclusion justifies more investigation.  They will demand to see the evidence Mr. Mueller compiled, though most of this is already in the public domain since it concerned the firing of James Comey as FBI director.  And they will claim that Messrs. Barr and Rosenstein are politically conflicted.

“But note that Mr. Barr says that he and Mr. Rosenstein took into account that Mr. Mueller found that ‘the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,’ which bears on motive.  Without an underlying crime, what was Mr. Trump trying to cover up?

“Mr. Barr says he and Mr. Rosenstein reached their judgment about obstruction without getting to the constitutional issue of whether a sitting President can be indicted.  But in our view Mr. Trump had every right as President to fire Mr. Comey for whatever reason he saw fit.  The Constitution gives the President the power to hire and fire at will, and it cannot be illegal to perform an act that the Constitution says is legal, no matter the motive.

“House Democrats will have to decide what to do with all this, and their first resort will be a demand to see the entire report.  Mr. Barr in his letter again promised to disclose as much as he can subject to grand-jury secrecy and other Justice rules.  But we also hope he includes in his disclosures the documents that explain how this entire Russia conspiracy story began at the FBI and inside the Obama Administration.  With Mr. Mueller’s conclusions, we now know that someone may have conned the FBI into one of the great dirty tricks in American political history.

“The Mueller report won’t end this rancorous period in American politics, but at least it should put the Russia conspiracy file to bed.  And for that we can all be grateful.”

Kimberley A. Strassel / Wall Street Journal

“The FBI unleashed its powers on a candidate for the office of the U.S. presidency, an astonishing first. It did so on the incredible grounds that the campaign had conspired to aid a foreign government.  And it used the most aggressive tools in its arsenal – surveillance of U.S. citizens, secret subpoenas of phone records and documents, even human informants.

“The wreckage is everywhere.  The nation has been engulfed in conspiracy theories for years.  A presidency was hemmed in by the threat of a special counsel.  Citizens have gone to jail not for conspiracy, but for after-the-fact interactions with Mr. Mueller’s team.  Dozens more have spent enormous amounts of money and time defending their reputations.

“None of this should ever have happened absent highly compelling evidence – from the start – of wrongdoing.  Yet from what we know, the FBI operated on the basis of an overheard conversation of third-tier campaign aide George Papadopoulos, as well as a wild ‘dossier’ financed by the rival presidential campaign.  Mr. Mueller’s no-collusion finding amounts to a judgment that there never was any evidence.  The Papadopoulos claim was thin, the dossier a fabrication.

“Which is all the more reason Americans now deserve a full accounting of the missteps of former FBI Director James Comey and his team – in part so that this never happens again.  That includes the following: What ‘evidence’ did the FBI have in totality?  What efforts did the bureau take to verify it?  Did it corroborate anything before launching its probe?  What role did political players play?  How aware was the FBI that it was being gulled into a dirty-trick operation, and if so, how did it justify proceeding?  How intrusive were the FBI methods?  And who was harmed?

“If Mr. Mueller has done his job properly, his report will address some of this.  His team would have had to look into the sources of the allegation as part of determining the documents’ (lack of) veracity.  A Mueller report that doesn’t mention the dossier and its political provenance, or questionable news stories used to justify surveillance warrants, for instance, is a report that is playing politics.

“The fuller accounting will come only through total disclosure of FBI and Justice Department probe documents.  Mr. Trump promised that disclosure in September but has yet to follow through.  That transparency is now a necessity. The Mueller report is only half the story.  With the special-counsel probe at an end, it’s time to go back to the beginning – to the documents that explain its origin.  Only then will Americans have the full story of the Russia-collusion narrative.”

---

In a Quinnipiac University National Poll released Tuesday, American voters say 84-9 percent that Mueller’s report should be made public.  Republicans by 75-17 agree, and every other listed party, gender, education, age and racial group supports making the report public by even wider margins.

55 percent said Mueller conducted a “fair” investigation, 26 percent say it was not fair.  But 49 percent said the investigation was “legitimate” and 43 percent say it was a “witch hunt.”

At his first rally since the Mueller report was submitted, President Trump railed against his political opponents in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“After three years of lies and smears and slander, the Russia hoax is finally dead.  The collusion delusion is over,” Trump told the cheering throng.

Trump called the investigation “a plan by those who lost the election to try and illegally regain power by framing innocent Americans – many of them, they suffered – with an elaborate hoax.”

The president called the investigation “ridiculous bullshit.”

Trumpets

--Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Trump administration took aim at striking down the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday, handing Democrats a potential political gift on an issue that damaged Republicans badly in last year’s midterm elections.

Trump told reporters later: “Let me tell you exactly what my message is: The Republican Party will soon be known as the party of health care.  You watch.”

Thursday, Trump continued to reach out to Republican lawmakers to take the lead on crafting a health plan to replace ObamaCare.

But Senate Republicans want the administration to take the lead while they remain on politically safer ground, working on popular voter issues such as lowering drug prices and ending surprise medical bills.

The standoff means there is no clear path to a GOP health plan, or certainty that a replacement to the ACA will be crafted, Republicans still stinging over voter backlash against their attempt to repeal the health law, the GOP losing the House as a result...or at least to a certain extent.

In the Quinnipiac survey, by a 55-32 margin, American voters say they would prefer to improve rather than replace the health care system in the U.S.

43 percent say it’s a “good idea” to remove the current system and replace it with a single payer program in which Medicare is expanded to cover all medical expenses, while 45 percent say “Medicare for all” is a “bad idea.”

Support is 51 – 30 percent for keeping the current health care system while allowing all adults the option of buying into Medicare.  Among Republicans, 43 percent support this Medicare buy-in option, with 39 percent opposed.

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“An abiding mystery of the Trump Presidency is why it can’t stand prosperity. And right on time, after its victory on Russian collusion, the Administration decided this week to elevate a legal fight over health care that it is almost sure to lose.

“The Justice Department this week reversed itself to support a decision by a federal judge in Texas invalidating the Affordable Care Act. The lawsuit Texas v. Azar is brought by roughly 20 GOP state attorneys general and led by Ken Paxton of Texas....

“Recall that Chief Justice John Roberts upheld ObamaCare’s individual mandate as a tax in 2012 in NFIB v. Sebelius.  But Congress zeroed out the penalty as part of tax reform in 2017.  The lawsuit argues that therefore the mandate is no longer a tax and is thus unconstitutional, and the rest of the law must fall with it.  Voila, no more ObamaCare....

“Unlike in 2012, millions of people now rely on the law for health insurance. It’s often bad insurance but it is coverage....

“As for the politics, the White House calculation seems to be that a legal decision striking down the law would force Congress to act.  President Trump said on Wednesday that ‘if the Supreme Court rules that ObamaCare is out, we will have a plan that is far better than ObamaCare.’  The GOP and Democrats can then offer Americans their competing healthcare visions in 2020, and may the best plan win.

“But the White House had better hope it doesn’t have that debate after millions have lost their insurance in an election year due to a court case.  The GOP couldn’t agree on a plan to replace ObamaCare when it ran all of Congress, and many of the GOP Members most knowledgeable about health care have retired.  If there’s some new emerging GOP consensus, we haven’t heard it....

“(Going) on offense will require more than a vague promise of something good or running against Medicare for All.  Democrats might even unite around something less radioactive than single-payer.  The GOP will need ideas that can persuade Americans that choice and competition will provide better plans at more affordable rates than ObamaCare....

“The Administration has written new rules that allow highly affordable short-term health insurance, as well as association health plans that offer group insurance across different risk pools than a single employer or the ObamaCare exchanges.  The GOP can build on that base to offer a new campaign vision to take to voters.  But better to do it without pursuing a legal strategy that is likely to fail and could blow up politically.”

--President Trump tweeted a threat, re Mexico, today:

“The DEMOCRATS have given us the weakest immigration laws anywhere in the World.  Mexico has the strongest, & they make more than $100 Billion a year on the U.S.  Therefore, CONGRESS MUST CHANGE OUR WEAK IMMIGRATION LAWS NOW, & Mexico must stop illegals from entering the U.S.....

“....through their country and our Southern Border.  Mexico has for many years made a fortune off of the U.S., far greater than Border Costs.  If Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through our Southern Border, I will be CLOSING....

“....the Border, or large sections of the Border, next week.  This would be so easy for Mexico to do, but they just take our money and ‘talk.’  Besides, we lose so much money with them, especially when you add in drug trafficking etc.), that the Border closing would be a good thing!”

--From Defense News: “The U.S. Air Force says it needs nearly $5 billion over the next three years to rebuild bases in Florida and Nebraska severely damaged by weather in the past six months.

“If it does not receive $1.2 billion of those funds by June for repairs at Tyndall Air Force Base and Offutt Air Force Base, service officials warned they would be forced to cut projects at bases in 18 states and cancel 18,000 pilot training hours.

“ ‘We desperately need the supplemental funding to recover from the natural disasters that hammered Tyndall and Offutt,’ Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Wednesday at a Heritage Foundation event in Washington.”

Tyndall was leveled by Hurricane Michael in October.  Offutt was under seven feet of water as a result of the current flooding in Nebraska.

But President Trump, through his controversial emergency declaration, is preparing to raid $3.6 billion from the Pentagon’s military construction budget to extend barriers along the U.S. border with Mexico.

--Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, after months of soft-pedaling his criticism of President Trump as Puerto Rico struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria in 2017, voiced his frustration with the White House in an interview with CNN.

“If the bully gets close, I’ll punch the bully in the mouth,” Rossello said when asked about a tense meeting between members of the Trump administration and Puerto Rican officials.  “It would be a mistake to confuse courtesy with [lack of] courage.”

The meeting was requested after reports Trump was considering halting further disaster relief to the beleaguered U.S. territory.

In a Wednesday meeting with Senate Republicans, Trump said the amount of aid Puerto Rico had so far received “is way out of proportion to what Texas and Florida and others have gotten,” according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who attended the meeting.

Thursday, en route to the rally in Grand Rapids, Trump told reporters he’s given millions to Puerto Rico and claimed elected leaders were mismanaging the funds.

“Puerto Rico has been taken care of better by Donald Trump than by any living human being and I think the people of Puerto Rico understand it,” he said.  “You have the mayor of San Juan that, frankly, doesn’t know what she’s doing and the governor, they have to spend the money wisely. They don’t know how to spend the money and they’re not spending it wisely.”

--President Trump said Thursday he wants the federal government to continue funding the Special Olympics, an abrupt reversal from his own budget proposal that eliminated federal money for the charity and sparked bipartisan condemnation.

His statement on the South Lawn of the White House came after his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, spent three days defending the proposal, most recently at a contentious Senate hearing Thursday morning.

“The Special Olympics will be funded, I just told my people,” Trump told reporters.

The funding was never really in jeopardy, as key Republicans were going to insist it be maintained, but the issue became a real political problem with the hearings.

Comedian Conan O’Brien wrote on Twitter: “Look, I’m not perfect but at least my obituary won’t say, ‘and in 2019, he defunded the Special Olympics.’”

--Former Trump campaign adviser Stephen Moore, a familiar face for cable television viewers, is President Trump’s latest pick for a Federal Reserve Board seat.  Moore said the central bank’s recent policy pivot shows that he was right to criticize its December interest-rate increase.

Back in a December interview with the Wall Street Journal, Moore called Chairman Jerome Powell “totally incompetent” and said he should resign.

Moore told the Journal on Monday that the Fed’s rate increase was a mistake but that he could have chosen his words about Powell more carefully.

Moore’s selection is being harshly criticized in some circles because he hardly seems like the classic ‘independent’ Board member, but it’s obvious to see why the president selected him, which is a blatant attempt to influence Fed policy following his monthslong criticism of its rate increases, four last year.

For his part Moore said Monday, “I’m a big fan of the president, and I’m a big fan of what he’s done for the economy.”  But he pointed to his opposition to Trump’s steel tariffs as counterproductive as an example of his independent thinking.  “I’m not a sycophant for Trump,” he said.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that Moore owes the IRS $75,000 for taking improper deductions on his income taxes.

--Trump tweets:

“The Mainstream Media is under fire and being scorned all over the World as being corrupt and FAKE.  For two years they pushed the Russian Collusion Delusion when they always knew there was NO Collusion. They truly are the Enemy of the People and the Real Opposition Party!”

“Wow, ratings for ‘Morning Joe,’ which were really bad in the first place, just ‘tanked’ with the release of the Mueller Report.  Likewise, other shows on MSNBC and CNN have gone down by as much as 50%.  Just shows, Fake News never wins!”

“Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking, should be forced to resign from Congress.”

“FBI & DOJ to review the outrageous Jussie Smollett case in Chicago. It is an embarrassment to our Nation!”

[Much more on this one below.]

Wall Street and the Trade War

As we closed out a highly successful quarter in terms of equity market returns, with the major indices having their best 3-month performance in years (details below), the economic data was mixed.

The final reading on fourth-quarter GDP did come in below the first reading of 2.6%, growth reduced to 2.2%, though for the year the official reading is 2.9%, and 3.0% Q4 over Q4 (down from an initial 3.1%), which economists prefer. Regardless, call it 3%, and the Trump campaign is pleased.

2018

Q1... 2.2%
Q2... 4.2%
Q3... 3.4%
Q4... 2.2%

The revisions to the quarter reflected markdowns to consumer and business spending.  After tax corporate profits were unchanged for the first time since the third quarter of 2016, after growing at a 3.5% rate in the third quarter.  Growth for all of 2018 was the strongest since 2015 and an acceleration from 2.2% in 2017.  By July, the expansion will be the longest on record.

In other economic news, February housing starts were less than forecast at 1.162 million, annualized, with single-family starts down 17% year-over-year.

February new-home sales, on the other hand, were robust at 667,000, the best pace since March 2018, with the median price up 3.8% over a year ago.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller barometer for January, however, was just 3.6%, year-over-year, the lowest rate of growth in prices since Sept. 2012 for the 20-city index, with Las Vegas leading the way, up 10.5%, followed by Phoenix, 7.5%.  San Diego, 1.3%, and San Francisco, 1.7%, brought up the rear.

One thing in housing’s favor in the near term is the fact mortgage rates are falling, down to 4.06% on a 30-year fixed, the lowest since Jan. 2018.

The Chicago PMI on manufacturing for March was 58.7 (50 being the dividing line between growth and contraction), which while robust was down sharply from the prior month’s 64.7.

Meanwhile, the government folks are still trying to catch up after the shutdown, so we had February personal income, a less than expected 0.2%, and January consumption, just 0.1%.  The core personal consumption expenditures index, the Fed’s preferred inflation barometer, came in at 1.8% for January, so still no issue there for Chairman Powell and friends.

The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow barometer for first quarter activity has moved up from 0.4% on March 14 to 1.7% today.  If we come in at 2%, that will probably bode well for the balance of the year.  Consensus GDP for 2019 is still around 2.5%, or slightly less, while the Federal Reserve is pegging it at 2.1%.

Finally, we had the White House and the Fed today. National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow was telling media outlets that the Fed should cut rates 50 basis points “immediately,” although there is no economic duress.  He later tempered his call for cuts, framing it as a “protective measure.”

President Trump then tweeted from Mar-a-Lago:

“Had the Fed not mistakenly raised interest rates, especially since there is very little inflation, and had they not done the ridiculously timed quantitative tightening, the 3.0% GDP, & Stock Market, would have both been much higher & World Markets would be in a better place!”

Kudlow knows what the Fed has done...buy insurance for the inevitable downturn.  With a funds rate of 2.25%-2.50% currently, they have some ammunition.  That’s important. 

As for the trade negotiations with China, talks resumed in Beijing this week; U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arriving in Beijing on Thursday for discussions with their Chinese counterparts and the talks apparently went well, with more talks slated for Washington next week.

According to various reports over the course of the week, China was ready to sharply expand market access for foreign banks and securities and insurance companies, especially in its financial services sector, Premier Li Keqiang said on Thursday.  Foreign businesses have long complained that liberalization has been too narrow and implementation spotty.

China is also offering foreign technology companies better access to the country’s cloud-computing market, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

Sources told Reuters on Wednesday the two countries have made progress in all areas under discussions with unprecedented movement on the touchy issue of forced technology transfers, but there still are differences on protections for intellectual property and how to enforce any deal.

Larry Kudlow said the U.S. may drop some tariffs if a trade deal is reached while keeping others in place to ensure Beijing’s compliance. 

“We’re not going to give up our leverage,” Kudlow told reporters on the sidelines of a trade conference in Washington.

Kudlow also said he expected negotiations to continue “for a few more weeks, if not months, to strike a deal.”

“This is not time-dependent.  This is policy- and enforcement-dependent.”

In a meeting with foreign and Chinese business executives on Thursday, Premier Li said he sees no deficit of trust between China and the United States.  “We need to prevent a trust deficit from occurring – otherwise the damage it could do to U.S.-China relations is incalculable,” he said.

But Li added, China must protect intellectual property; otherwise there is no hope for the nation’s transformation.

The two sides are reportedly working on written agreements in six areas: forced technology transfer and cyber theft, intellectual property rights, services, currency, agriculture and non-tariff barriers to trade.

Late today, the White House said in a statement: “The two parties continued to make progress during candid and constructive discussions on the negotiations and the important next steps,” but there were no other details.

President Trump said today trade talks were going very well, but cautioned that he would not accept anything less than a “great deal.”  “If it’s not a great deal, we can’t do it.”

China’s state news agency Xinhua said the two sides discussed “relevant agreement documents” and made new progress in their talks, but did not elaborate in a brief report.

As long as there is progress, the two will keep talking. But China wants the tariffs lifted as part of any deal and that is highly unlikely, given it is Washington’s leverage to ensure Beijing complies.

Europe and Asia

With the quarter ending, there will be a slew of economic data for both Europe and Asia next week, with the only news of import this week, aside from Brexit, in China, where industrial companies posted their worst slump in profits since late 2011 in the first two months of this year, down 14%, amid slowing demand at home and abroad.  Premier Li said earlier policy steps to stabilize the economy were gaining traction.

But Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Europe this week, and last weekend Italy endorsed his “Belt and Road” infrastructure project on Saturday, the first Group of Seven industrialized power to do so, as Rome brushed off worries among its Western allies in a bid to revive the moribund Italian economy.

The signing ceremony capped off a three-day trip to Italy by Xi, boosting trade ties between the two at a time of trade tensions with the United States, with the U.S. trying to rally allies against China (see Huawei).

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is aimed at bolstering China’s economic and political reach, but critics say it’s a Trojan Horse that will let China take control of sensitive technologies and critical infrastructure.

Italy’s populist government is anxious to encourage exports and investment, the economy in its third recession in a decade.  Chinese and Italian firms signed 10 additional deals that could be worth as much as $22 billion over time, $2.8 billion initially.

Later, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Tuesday reiterated a call for the region’s businesses to have more access to China’s domestic market, Juncker saying he wanted clearer reciprocity between the EU and China so that “European businesses could have the same degree of access to the Chinese market as Chinese businesses have in Europe.”

Chinese state media gushed over the diplomatic stagecraft accorded Xi, including a reception at the Arc de Triomphe, and a fighter jet escort for his presidential plane.

Separately, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi suggested he could consider further delaying plans to raise interest rates.

“Just as we did at our March meeting, we would ensure that monetary policy continues to accompany the economy by adjusting our rate forward guidance to reflect the new inflation outlook,” Draghi said in remarks at a conference in Frankfurt.

The yield on the German 10-year finished the week at -0.07%.  Netherland’s 10-year now has a yield of 0.02%.

So on to the ongoing saga of....

Brexit: Today, March 29, was supposed to be the day Britain exited the European Union, which was postponed to April 12 and maybe later, with recent negotiations between British Prime Minister Theresa May and the EU.

But this afternoon, Mrs. May lost a vote on her proposal to exit the trade bloc for a third time, 344-286 in the House of Commons.  May had promised Conservative lawmakers this week that she would step down as prime minister if the deal was approved.

May said she will press on with talks to secure support, but Britain is now due to leave on April 12, though her political spokesman said the smaller margin of defeat from the prior two votes showed that things were moving in the right direction and that a number of senior Conservatives had voted with the government.

Britain finds itself in a profound political crisis this weekend.  The government has no idea what it will do next.

Prime Minister May said of the lawmakers’ third rejection:

“The implications of the House’s decision are grave.  I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.  This House has rejected no deal.  It has rejected no Brexit.  On Wednesday it rejected all the variations of the deal on the table. And today it has rejected approving the Withdrawal Agreement alone and continuing a process on the future.”

Influential Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday that Britain could now leave the European Union without a deal.  “The risk of a no-deal Brexit is very real,” Rutte told reporters minutes after the vote in the British parliament.  “One of the two routes to an orderly Brexit seems now to be closed.  This leaves only the other route, which is for the British to make clear what they want before April 12.”

A further extension of the Brexit process beyond that date can only be granted if the purpose is clear, Rutte said, calling upon lawmakers to take a broader look at the available options.

So next week, parliament and Mrs. May will vote again, on just what is unclear.  The European Union (European Commission) has called for an emergency summit on April 10, at which point Britain has to tell it what it wants to do.  If out of nowhere a vote was held in the interim that finally ratified the proposal on the table, Britain would have until May 22 to put it to legislation to formalize the process.  May 22 is a key date because the European Parliament elections are May 23-26.

If the UK were to ask for a long extension, then it would have to participate in the Euro parliament vote.

Among the options on the table next week in negotiations between Mrs. May and the House of Commons would be holding new elections, which would require a long extension.  Ditto if the parties agree on a new referendum, which the prime minister has wanted to avoid at all costs.  Seriously, you could have civil war in Britain if there was a second referendum.  You’d be telling the 52% who voted for Brexit back in June 2016... ‘never mind.’  [Even if the people then had no freakin’ clue what they were really voting for because they were lied to by the leaders of the ‘Leave’ movement...fed totally false information.]

Or Britain could just go ahead and crash out April 12, without an agreement, no trade deal, no nothing.  The chaos would likely lead to shortages of food and medicine, for starters.

Every week you hope the situation will become clearer, and each week the picture becomes murkier.

Anne Applebaum / Washington Post

“ ‘She was dealt a bad hand.’  ‘She took a poisoned chalice.’  From a great distance, it is possible to feel sorry for British Prime Minister Theresa May. She seems so dignified. She seems to be trying so hard. The circles beneath her eyes have grown so much deeper since she became prime minister back in 2016, following the surprise result of the Brexit referendum, the resignation of her hapless predecessor, David Cameron, and an ugly leadership squabble, during which several of her male colleagues metaphorically stabbed one another in the back.  Since then, she has always seemed to outsiders the sensible person in the room, the adult who knows what she is doing, the sane person in a madhouse.

“Alas, she is not any of those things.  She is not sensible, she does not know what she is doing, and, increasingly, she doesn’t seem to be entirely sane either.  Outside of Westminster, the extent of May’s responsibility for this crisis might not be fully appreciated.  But in truth, almost everything about Brexit – from the nature of the deal she negotiated to the divisions in her party and her country – is very much her fault....

“The list of her mistakes is not short. She did not have to trigger Article 50, the legal mechanism for leaving the European Union, before making a plan on how to do so: That decision set a two-year clock ticking and has resulted in the cliff edge the country would have reached on the 29th of this month if an extension had not been granted. She did not have to call an unnecessary parliamentary election in 2017, one which resulted in the loss of her majority and forced her to rely on  a small, radical, Protestant Northern Irish political party, as well as the extreme anti-European faction within her own party, in order to stay in power.

“But her errors go even deeper.  In fact, all of the events of the past two years have been shaped by a decision she made, by herself, following bad advice, at the very beginning of this process.  Remember that the British did not vote for any particular form of Brexit: Thanks to Cameron’s simplistic, open-ended referendum question, they chose to ‘Leave’ the European Union but did not express any view on what should happen next.  When she took office, May could have observed that the vote was very close, that Britain’s commercial and political ties to Europe were strong, and that it would make sense for the United Kingdom to stay within the single market, the pan-European free-trade zone that Britain itself did so much to create – or at the very least within a customs union.

“Instead, she chose to leave both of those institutions, a decision that immediately triggered the problem of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which was eliminated thanks to EU trade treaties but will, if customs barriers are put in place, need to be built back.  Her decision also created potential problems for anyone who trades with Britain or works with Britain... But she was not sorry: She accompanied her decision with a speech that called ‘a citizen of the world’ nothing more than ‘a citizen of nowhere’ and immediately alienated a large part of the country.

“She went on to alienate almost everyone else.  Until this week, nearly three years after the referendum, she made no effort to reach across the aisle and include opposition parties in the planning for this monumental change....She does not respond to pleas, advice, suggestions. Columnist Matthew Parris has described her as ‘the Death Star of modern British politics,’ a black void that sucks in people and ideas and never provides a response....

“The slogan of the ‘Leave’ campaign, back in 2016, was ‘Take Back Control.’  But Europe has now taken back control of May’s botched Brexit.  And however it ends, it won’t be a success.”

Street Bytes

--Stocks closed out one of the better quarters in years, with the Dow Jones gaining 1.7% to 25928, the S&P 500 1.2%, and Nasdaq 1.1%.

For the three months, the S&P registered its best quarter since the third quarter of 2009, +13.1%, its best first quarter since 1998!

The Dow, +11.2%, had its best quarter since 2013, and the Nasdaq, +16.5%, its best since 2012.

The earnings season starts in earnest in two weeks and it is expected to be negative, but that’s seemingly baked in.  This is a mercurial market and for today, any global slowdown fears are also being ignored.

But the fact is there is still no trade deal, after all this time, and who knows what is going to happen on the Brexit front.  We’ve hit my targets for 2019 already. [I forecast S&P and Dow +12%, Nasdaq +13%.]  At this point, keep your powder dry.

--U.S. Treasury Yields

6-mo. 2.42%  2-yr. 2.26% 10-yr. 2.41%  30-yr. 2.81%

The yield on the 10-year hit 2.37% early in the week, the lowest level since December 2017, as government bonds around the world tumbled, with the above-noted signs the European Central Bank would consider delaying rate increases through at least December – months longer than expected.

--Oil prices fell Wednesday because of an unanticipated increase in U.S. inventories, a 2.8-million-barrel jump per the Energy Information Administration’s weekly report.

Then Thursday, President Trump tweeted: “Very important that OPEC increase the flow of Oil. World Markets are fragile, price of Oil getting too high. Thank you!”

But crude rose Friday to close above $60, $60.18, the highest since last November.

Separately, two refiners in South Korea – the top buyer of U.S. crude – have rejected cargoes in recent months due to contamination that makes processing difficult, as reported by Bloomberg.

The issue is that various types of crude pass through the supply chain from inland shale fields spanning Texas to North Dakota, which risks picking up impurities before reaching Asia.  Refiners are worried about the presence of problematic metals as well as a class of chemical compounds known as oxygenates, which can affect the quality and type of fuel they produce.

The two South Korean cargoes that were rejected were sold by BP, with at least one of the ships rerouted to an independent refiner in China with different quality requirements and plant configurations.  Neither the refiners nor BP commented.

But as Bloomberg noted:  “In the U.S., infrastructure needed to link production fields to deepwater ports lags behind the surge in exports as seaborne sales have been restricted until late-2015.  Refiners along the Gulf Coast – where most of American oil was refined before exports were permitted – are used to handling quality issues because their plants are more sophisticated.”

But South Korea cannot completely turn away U.S. crude with uncertain supplies from the Middle East, especially Iran.

--Wells Fargo & Co.’s embattled chief executive, Tim Sloan, who has struggled to get the banking giant out from under a seemingly endless series of customer abuse scandals, suddenly announced he was retiring, stepping down, effective immediately, with the retirement effective June 30, Wells announced Thursday.

Sloan, a veteran of the bank for 31 years, took over the top job in 2016 amid the fallout over the bank’s acknowledgement that employees had opened millions of checking, savings and credit card accounts that customers never authorized.

Sloan replaced John Stumpf, who resigned as the bank’s longtime CEO and board chairman in October 2016 just weeks after he was unable to defuse the anger of lawmakers at incendiary House and Senate hearings examining the fake-accounts scandal.

This past March 10, at a contentious House Financial Services Committee hearing, Democrats and Republicans angrily rejected Sloan’s message of contrition for the bank’s troubles and commitment to treating employees and customers right.

And then in a rare move, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency joined in the criticism, with a spokesman saying it was “disappointed with [Wells Fargo’s] performance under our consent orders and its inability to execute effective corporate governance and a successful risk management program.”

C. Allen Parker, Wells’ general counsel, has been named interim CEO.

--Boeing unveiled details of its planned fix to software implicated in the Lion Air 737 MAX crash last October, which is also being examined by investigators probing the Ethiopian Airlines accident, though it isn’t clear when regulators will clear the planes to fly again.

A Boeing official in Seattle said on Wednesday the timing of the software upgrade was “100 percent independent of the timing of the Ethiopian accident,” and the company was taking steps to make the anti-stall system (MCAS) “more robust.”  The official also said there was no need to overhaul Boeing’s regulatory relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We are going to do everything that we can do to ensure that accidents like these never happen again.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and some lawmakers on Wednesday questioned why Boeing did not require safety features on its top-selling plane that might have prevented the crashes.

“It is very questionable if these were safety-oriented additions, why they were not part of the required template of measures that should go into an airplane,” she said, adding she was not ready to require that all safety options be retrofitted on existing aircraft.

Boeing said it would change the design of the system so that it no longer relied on a single sensor.  The changes also would make standard visual warning messages to the pilots if the system had stopped working.  Previously, those warning messages and displays had been optional.

A spokesman for the FAA said the agency had not reviewed or certified the software upgrade yet.  There was no timetable for when the 737 MAX jets would return to service.

Seven days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the Ethiopian ambassador to China paid a visit to China’s state-owned airplane manufacturer in Shanghai, tweeting a photo of himself sitting in the cockpit of the Comac C919, a new Chinese-built plane aimed to compete with the 737 MAX 8 and  Airbus’ 320neo.

Ethiopian Airlines didn’t announce any airplane orders from the visit, and it could still be years and years before China’s state-manufactured planes are in the air, but that day is coming, to the detriment of both Boeing and Airbus.

EA’s CEO Tewolde GebreMariam, however, it needs to be noted, wrote in a statement earlier in the week:

“Let me be clear: Ethiopian Airlines believes in Boeing. They have been a partner of ours for many years.”

I have been impressed with Mr. GebreMariam, who has been very transparent while facing criticism for the airline’s training, insisting that the crew of Flight 302 had been “fully trained” on the details in the service bulletins issued by Boeing and the FAA.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported that officials investigating the EA flight’s black boxes have reached a preliminary conclusion that the anti-stall system, MCAS, automatically activated before the plane nose-dived into the ground.  A preliminary report from Ethiopian authorities is expected within days.

--Related to the above, Southwest Airlines Co., with the biggest fleet of MAX jets, cut its revenue and capacity guidance for the first quarter, as expected, after grounding the 34 planes on March 13.

But the airline said in a regular investor update that last-minute bookings – usually high-paying business passengers – remain strong.

Southwest is due to receive another 41 MAX jets this year.  The company explained that it was implementing an “enhanced” storage program at its parking facility in California, which analysts say points to an expected return to flight in June.

One of the planes being flown to California, without passengers, made an emergency landing Tuesday at Orlando International Airport because of engine problems.

--Airbus shares rose on Tuesday after the European planemaker won a deal worth tens of billions of dollars to sell 300 aircraft to China.  French officials said it was worth $34 billion at catalogue prices, from which you can receive significant discounts.

The Chinese order coincided with the aforementioned visit to Europe by Chinese President Xi and matched a record held by rival Boeing, which came in 2017, following a visit to Beijing by Donald Trump.

The Airbus order follows a year in which China failed to place a significant order amid global trade tensions.

--A British review of Huawei found “significant” security problems with the company’s telecommunications equipment, which supports the United States’ efforts to ban it from 5G wireless networks.

The British report, released Thursday, said there were “underlying defects” in Huawei’s software engineering and security processes that governments or independent hackers could exploit, posing risks to national security.

So this backs up the Trump administration’s push to convince its allies that Huawei poses a real threat, the company accused of being an arm of the Chinese government, which Huawei has vehemently denied.

But many countries, including Britain, have resisted the effort to ban Huawei, arguing the risk can be mitigated.  Germany, India and the UAE are among those signaling they are unlikely to follow the Americans’ lead on a ban of Huawei’s 5G equipment.

Huawei said in a statement, responding to the British report that it understands the concerns and takes them seriously.

This week, the European Union issued recommendations on securing 5G networks that didn’t call for a Huawei ban.

Separately, Huawei reported it earned more than $105 billion in revenue in 2018, up nearly a fifth from the year before, according to the company’s deputy chairman, Guo Ping, on Friday.  Profit grew by a quarter, to more than $8 billion.  Though Huawei has not sold shares to the public, it publishes audited yearly financial results in a gesture to transparency.

--Bankrupt California utility PG&E Corp. won court approval on Wednesday for a $5.5 billion loan to help maintain electricity and natural gas delivery and for investments to reduce the risk of wildfires as it reorganizes.  PG&E filed for Chapter 11 protection in January in the aftermath of the devastating wildfires that struck California the past two years.

At the same time, PIMCO is among those proposing a $35-billion plan that would allow PG&E to emerge from bankruptcy within a year, which includes a $14-billion cash trust to pay claims tied to the deadly wildfires.  A separate statewide wildfire fund of at least $13 billion would be financed by PG&E, and other California utilities.  And $8bn would be used to recapitalize PG&E.

The utility faces liabilities exceeding $30 billion from wildfires its equipment may have caused.

--A San Francisco jury awarded $80.3 million in damages to a resident the jurors found contracted cancer from exposure to Bayer AG’s Roundup weedkillers.  Of the total damages awarded by the jury, $75 million were punitive. 

In a state-court trial also in San Francisco back in August, a jury awarded $289.2 million to a former groundskeeper, who blamed regular Roundup use for his non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  A judge later reduced the award to $78.5 million, which Bayer is appealing.

--Ride-hailing company Lyft priced its IPO at $72 per share, after raising its price range amid significant demand from prospective shareholders, putting its value at more than $24 billion as it began trading on Nasdaq Friday, under the ticker symbol LYFT.

In total, the company raised about $2.3 billion.  And how did it do?  It closed at $77.60 in the aftermarket, after hitting $88.60.

--Apple Inc. unveiled its Apple News+ service, which will offer content from 300 popular magazines and newspapers for just $10 a month.  Details were lacking, and it’s not immediately clear what is on offer across all publications, Apple leaving it up to the publishers themselves to explain their role in the service.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, said it will provide a selection of general interest news, but only Journal subscribers will continue to have exclusive access to its business reporting and analysis.  The Los Angeles Times said essentially the same thing. 

But the New York Times is unlikely to be part of Apple’s news service, CEO Mark Thompson having previously told Reuters that the company was “leery” about consumers reading its journalism on other platforms and warned publishers of how Netflix disrupted the movie studio business and gained leverage by taking control of distribution.

--Facebook Inc. said it would begin banning content that praises or represents white nationalism and white separatism on its Facebook and Instagram platforms next week.  The move is clearly a reaction to mounting pressure on the company following a live stream of the New Zealand mosque massacre, Facebook blamed for failing to take sufficient action against hate speech and misinformation.

But Facebook risks stoking criticism that it is more aggressive against misbehavior related to far-right politics as opposed to the extreme left.

And then Thursday, federal officials accused the company of unlawful discrimination by allowing real-estate companies to target potential customers by race, religion and other factors, and signaled that other online advertising platforms are in its crosshairs.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development said Facebook violated the Fair Housing Act “by restricting who can view housing-related ads.”

HUD has also sent letters to Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit, as well as Twitter Inc., asking for more information about their sophisticated advertising systems, an agency official said.

A spokesman for Facebook said the company was surprised by HUD’s action, saying it had been working with the department to address its concerns.

--Lululemon Athletica Inc. reported fiscal fourth-quarter net income of $218.5 million, beating the Street’s forecasts, while slightly exceeding expectations on revenue, $1.17 billion in the period, up 26% over year-ago levels.

For the year, the company reported profit of $483.8 million, on revenue of $3.29 billion.  The company also issued guidance for fiscal 2019 in line with the Street.

LULU shares surged 15% on the news.

--OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and members of the wealthy Sackler family that owns the company reached a $270 million settlement to resolve a lawsuit brought by the state of Oklahoma accusing the drugmaker of fueling an opioid abuse epidemic. 

The settlement unveiled by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter on Tuesday was the first to result from a wave of lawsuits accusing Purdue of deceptively marketing painkillers, helping create a deadly crisis across the U.S.

Hunter’s 2017 lawsuit was set to go to a jury on May 28 in what would have been the first trial from roughly 2,000 lawsuits filed in federal and state courts against Purdue and other drugmakers.

Hunter alleged Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. engaged in deceptive marketing that downplayed the addiction risk from opioids, while overstating their benefits, contributing to the epidemic.

Opiods, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, were involved in a record 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017, the latest official data, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hunter said that of the more than 3,000 Oklahomans admitted to hospitals last year for drug overdoses that they survived, 80 percent involved prescription opioids.

As part of the settlement with Purdue, nearly $200 million goes towards establishing a center at Oklahoma State University that would take a national approach toward treating addiction.

--Bed Bath & Beyond laid off almost 150 workers as part of its turnaround strategy.  The move came before activists slammed the company for not adapting to online shopping trends sooner.

--European Union lawmakers approved a directive Tuesday to give writers and artists more protection of their creative rights and incomes, an intensely contentious measure that could have major transatlantic implications for American technology companies.

The EU Parliament voted 348 to 274 to pass the online copyright bill.  If the directive is enacted, companies such as Apple Inc. and Facebook would likely have to pay European artists more and do more to prevent work that appears online from being used without permission.

Lobbying against the bill was intense, with Google saying in a statement that the bill “will still lead to legal uncertainty and will hurt Europe’s creative and digital economies.”

Tens of thousands marched in cities across Germany over the weekend to protest what the EU sees as reforms and what critics see as restrictions that could lead to online censorship.

Artists, on the other hand, argue the tech giants are having a free lunch at their expense.

--The severe flooding in the Midwest, particularly Iowa and Nebraska, is dealing a costly blow to growers and agribusinesses amid a downturn in the farm economy now in its sixth year.  Aside from the inability to plant this year’s crops, the deluge has impeded crop shipments and inundated roads and rail lines that companies such as Hormel Foods Corp. and Tyson Foods Inc. use to move meat.

Cargill Inc. and ADM have suffered closures in some of their grain-milling operations.

--Wall Street bonuses fell last year, though the average check was $153,700, according to data Tuesday from the state comptroller’s office.

The 14% decline in the bonus pool was in an environment where New York’s banks, brokerages and asset managers posted industrywide profits that rose 11%, to $27.5 billion – the most since 2010 – while revenue rose by 6%, to $163 billion.  Elevated bonus figures in 2017 were driven in part by changes to the federal tax code that encouraged firms to accelerate payments.

While Wall Street accounts for only 5% of the city’s workforce, the business and personal tax revenues generated by it accounts for 18% of the state’s tax collections.  [Crain’s New York Business]

Wall Street employment rose 4,700 to 181,300 last year.

--The luxury cruise ship, Viking Sky, with almost 1,400 passengers and crew aboard, sent out a mayday signal on Saturday as it drifted in rough waters in the Norwegian Sea, within 100 meters of land.  All four engines had failed, but crew managed to restart one of them just in time with the ship drifting toward the rocky coast.  Many shipwrecks have occurred in the area through the years.

The ship was on a 12-day cruise along Norway’s coast before its scheduled arrival at the British port of Tillbury.

Rescue services airlifted 479 people in a painstaking mission, hoisting them one-by-one onto helicopters, before the weather subsided and the ship could be towed to port.  Scores were injured, some seriously amid sliding furniture and falling ceiling tiles in the rough seas.

Norwegian officials opened an investigation into why the cruise ship would set sail despite storm warnings.

But it turns out the engines of the cruise ship failed because of relatively low levels of lubricating oil in the engines, the Norwegian Maritime Authority said on Wednesday.  Officials said the heavy seas probably caused movements in the tanks so large that the supply to the lubricating oil pumps stopped, the regulator said. 

--Icelandic discount carrier WOW Air collapsed Thursday, stranding thousands of passengers without compensation.

WOW, founded in 2011, had been trying to steal business from established airlines such as American and Delta, targeting the trans-Atlantic market by offering cheap fares while funneling passengers via its Icelandic hub.

--British Airways passengers were mistakenly flown to Edinburgh rather than Dusseldorf due to a paperwork error.

The pilot of Flight BA3271 took off from London City shortly after 7:30 a.m. on Monday and followed instructions to fly to the Scottish capital instead of the German city.

After the flight crew was alerted to the mistake, the aircraft was refueled and then flown to Dusseldorf, where it touched down more than 3 ½ hours behind schedule.

Many of the passengers knew something was wrong because they weren’t going over water!

--Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” has sold nearly 10 million copies globally since its release in November, publisher Penguin Random House said Tuesday, adding the former first lady’s tome could set a sales record in its genre.

The memoir is the first in a two-book deal struck by Penguin Random House with Mrs. Obama and former President Barack Obama, after they departed the White House in 2017, for a reported $60 million.  The president’s memoir is slated for release sometime this year.

The 10 million for the first lady’s book includes print, digital and audiobook copies.

Foreign Affairs

Syria: Iran is parlaying its military and economic might into a lasting foothold in ISIS’ former eastern Syrian stronghold, by cultivating goodwill and winning converts to the Shiite Muslim sect, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“To Syrians battered by war, Iran is offering cash, food, Iranian ID cards, public services and free education....

“Iran’s hearts-and-minds campaign undermines efforts by the U.S., Israel and Arab states to roll back Tehran’s influence and force it out of Syria.  It also comes as President Trump plans to shrink the U.S. military footprint in the country – currently more than 2,000 troops – after the battle to eliminate Islamic State-held territory was declared over on Saturday.”

The U.S. claims it isn’t abandoning its efforts to check Iran in Syria.

But as I’ve been writing for weeks now, separately the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria is overwhelmed by having to secure thousands of suspected members of ISIS that have been captured or surrendered in the final months of the battle for the last IS enclave of Baghuz, in the east.

While it no longer holds this territory, U.S. officials believe IS may have 15,000 to 20,000 armed adherents active in the region, many of them in sleeper cells, and that it will return to its insurgent roots while attempting to rebuild.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have reportedly captured more than 5,000 militants – from Syria and abroad – since January and put them in detention centers, while women and children are kept in camps for the displaced.  But the camp at al-Hol, run by the Kurds, was designed to accommodate 20,000 and now has 70,000. This is a nightmare, and in such an environment, the ISIS ideology will more than survive.

At the same time we note the 11,000 SDF soldiers who were killed in years of fighting against Islamic State.

As the Kurdish administration’s top foreign affairs official Abdel-Karim Omar warned this week, when addressing the topic of the foreign captives and the threat they pose.

“There are thousands of children who have been raised according to Islamic State ideology.  If these children are not reeducated and reintegrated in their societies of origin, they are potential future terrorists.”

Weeks ago, I told you of the NBC report from Richard Engel I had seen, where he attempted to interview the women of ISIS being taken to the refugee camp at al-Hol.  Their hatred towards Engel and all he represented was terrifying.

Meanwhile, Wednesday, Syria said Israel had attacked targets just north of second city Aleppo and that its air defenses had intercepted several missiles.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, the strike hit an arms depot used by Iranian forces and killed seven people.

It was the first attack in Syria since President Trump recognized the Golan Heights – seized from Syria in the 1967 Mideast War – as Israeli territory, a move which broke with decades of international consensus.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria in the past few years targeting positions held by Iran and Hezbollah, with the goal of preventing Iran from entrenching itself militarily in the war-torn country.

Israel: With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing at his side, President Trump on Monday signed an official presidential proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, formally giving Netanyahu a pre-election gift just two weeks before his countrymen go to the polls.

“Today, I am taking historic action to promote Israel’s ability to defend itself – and really to have very powerful and very strong national security, which they are entitled to have,” Trump said at the White House.

The United States said Wednesday the UN peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights has “a vital role to play in preserving stability between Israel and Syria,” an assurance that the Trump administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the strategic plateau won’t affect its operation.

Acting U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen told an emergency meeting of the Security Council the force’s mandate to ensure that the area of separation between Syria and Israel “is a buffer zone free from any military presence or activities” is of “critical strategic and security importance” to Israel and “can contribute to the stability of the entire Middle East.”

But at the Security Council late Wednesday, speaker after speaker opposed Trump’s recognition of the Golan, many citing a December 1981 Security Council resolution that called Israel’s annexation “null and void and without international legal effect.”

Cohen, however, criticized “the daily presence of the Syrian armed forces” in the area of separation where the peacekeeping force (UNDOF) is the only military force allowed, calling their presence a violation of the 1974 cease-fire agreement.

Cohen said the U.S. is also “alarmed” at reports of Hezbollah fighters in the area, “which further heightens the potential for hostilities.”

“There is no chance for peace between Syria and Israel if Hezbollah is present in the area of separation,” he said.

The European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini released a statement Wednesday on behalf of all 28 union states saying the EU “does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.”

Arab Gulf states – including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait – denounced the decision as well.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who chairs the Palestine Liberation Organization, blasted Trump’s announcement, which he said will further destabilize the Middle East.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “The Golan Heights is an occupied Arab territory, according to the international community and UN resolution 497, which was adopted by the Security Council. The international community should honor its stance, preventing Israeli sovereignty over the area.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said of the Golan decision: “No one could imagine that a person in America comes and gives land of a nation to another occupying country, against international laws and conventions... Such action is unprecedented in the current century,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Editorial / Washington Post

“Mr. Trump’s decision (to recognize Israel’s annexation of Golan) might be more defensible if it were part of a new and innovative U.S. policy in the region. But, like the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, it appears unattached to any strategy other than rewarding Mr. Netanyahu, who has become one of Mr. Trump’s most conspicuous international supporters.  The president’s tweet came as his ally struggles to fend off pending corruption charges and a stiff challenge in an election due April 9.  No one will be surprised if more favors are dispensed when the Israeli leader visits the White House...

“The Israeli leader is, of course, doing his best to exploit his bond with Mr. Trump, including plastering the country with billboards showing the two of them together.  Abandoning what was once a standard Israeli practice of cultivating bipartisan support in Washington, Mr. Netanyahu has bonded himself to the Republican Party and its polarizing leader.  Perhaps that will help him win an unprecedented fifth term as prime minister. The likely damage to long-term Israeli-U.S. relations is a price he and Mr. Trump appear happy to accept.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham / Wall Street Journal

“Mr. Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan (sends) an unequivocal message of condemnation of the Assad regime, which since 2011 has conducted a horrific campaign against Syrian citizens, raining bombs and chemical weapons down on unarmed civilians.  For Mr. Assad and his henchmen not to pay a price for a conflict in which around 500,000 people have been killed and countless atrocities have been committed would again be immoral and dangerous. It sends a message to every dictator around the world that there is no penalty for murdering your own citizens en masse.

“Another negative consequence of the Syrian civil war is the foothold Iran has gained in the country.  Tehran and its proxies, especially the terror group Hezbollah, played a major role saving the Assad regime.  Their presence in Syria opens a new front in their war against Israel.  As the U.S. redeploys forces to Syria, it is important to demonstrate America’s determination to confront Iran, which seeks hegemony in the region.  Recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan helps convey that the U.S. stands with Israel and won’t pressure Jerusalem to take steps that would undermine its own security.

“Mr. Trump has been one of the most effective American leaders in strengthening the country’s relationship with Israel.  His decision to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel should prove yet another major, lasting achievement for his administration.

“Unfortunately, there exists the possibility that Mr. Trump’s decision could be undone by a future president who is a friend to Syria or a foe to Israel.  To guard against that possibility, Congress should immediately vote on the legislation proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Mike Gallagher, putting both chambers on record in support of the Trump policy on the Golan.”

Separately, factions in the Gaza Strip are urging Palestinians to participate in Saturday’s mass protests near the border with Israel.  But the factions urged Palestinians to “maintain the peaceful and popular nature” of the protests, and said they don’t want to give Israel an excuse to use force against the demonstrators.  Close to 200 Gazans have been killed in weekly protests in the past year.

Monday, Hamas launched a rocket from Gaza that landed on a home north of Tel Aviv, injuring seven people.  The Israeli army retaliated with an aerial offensive against Hamas targets – including a military compound and a weapons warehouse – as militias in Gaza fired about 80 missiles toward Israel, according to an Israeli police spokesman.

Editorial / The Economist

“His devotees call him ‘The Magician,’ ‘The Winner’ and – the ultimate accolade – melekh yisrael, ‘King of Israel.’  Binyamin Netanyahu is Israel’s most gifted politician in a generation.  He is his country’s second-longest-serving prime minister and, if he wins his fifth election on April 9th, may beat the record of the country’s founding father, David Ben Gurion.

“ ‘Bibi,’ as he is known by all, is important beyond Israel, too, and not only because he speaks in perfect soundbites in both Hebrew and English and stands tall in today’s chaotic Middle East.  He matters because he embodied the politics of muscular nationalism, chauvinism and the resentment of elites long before such populism became a global force.  Mr. Netanyahu counts among his friends and allies such nationalists as Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, not to mention European ones from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Matteo Salvini in Italy.

“The reign of King Bibi is thus a parable of modern politics: the rise of a talented politician and a long success based on a perplexing mixture of carrying out sound policy and cynically sowing division. As his power is threatened, he has turned to railing more loudly against the free press, the judiciary and shadowy forces.  Now Bibi faces his greatest danger, in the form of criminal charges for corruption. In a different age he would have had to resign, and would now be defending himself as an ordinary citizen. But he is intent on remaining in office, and hopes that voters will yet save him from the policemen, prosecutors and judges.  Israeli politics is turning into a contest between genuine achievement and demagoguery on one side and the rule of law on the other.  All who care about democracy should watch closely.

“Little Israel commands attention because it has a big history: biblical romance and technological talent; the slaughter of the Holocaust and military prowess; energetic democracy and the long occupation of land claimed and inhabited by Palestinians. That said, Mr. Netanyahu is a big figure in his own right. He is more intelligent and capable than many populists, and can claim plenty of successes. By shrinking the bloated state he has helped Israel’s economy flourish, particularly its tech startups. With deft use of diplomacy and the mostly cautious use of military force, he has boosted security without being sucked into disastrous wars. Thanks to that and a shared hostility to Iran, relations with many Arab rulers are better than at any time in Israel’s history.

“Yet Mr. Netanyahu is also worryingly dogmatic. He has paid lip service to peace with Palestinians but has taken no meaningful steps towards it.  He has denounced any Western cooperation with Iran, even if it served to limit Iran’s nuclear program.  In Bibi’s pessimistic view, Israel is surrounded by wolves in sheep’s clothing and wolves in wolves’ clothing. Israel can only manage conflicts, not solve them, he believes, so it must rely on an iron wall and the passage of time....

“But the greatest threat from Bibi’s reign has been at home. He has kept power not just on the strength of his record but also by seeking political advantage at the cost of eroding Israel’s democratic norms....He has played us-and-them politics for so long that he has exacerbated the country’s many schisms – between Jews and Arabs, diaspora Jews and Israelis, western Ashkenazi and eastern Mizrahi Jews, and secular and religious ones.  By casting himself as uniquely able to protect Israel against its enemies, he often treats those who say otherwise as wimps or traitors....

“The corruption charges against him, says Mr. Netanyahu, amount to a ‘blood libel’ a vile medieval canard that accused Jews of mixing the blood of murdered Christian children in their Passover bread.  Yet the police chief who investigated the charges, and the attorney-general who ordered his indictment, were both hand-picked by Mr. Netanyahu. His allies want a law that would grant a prime minister immunity from prosecution....

“On April 9th Israeli voters face a fateful choice.  Re-elect Mr. Netanyahu and reward him for subverting the independence of Israel’s institutions.  Or turn him out in the hope of rebuilding trust in democracy – and aspiring to be ‘a light unto the nations.’”

North Korea: Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, testified to the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, saying North Korea’s activity on nuclear weapons and missiles “is inconsistent with denuclearization.”

Abrams also said that despite a reduction in tensions with North Korea, there had been little to no verifiable changes in its military capabilities.  “North Korea’s conventional and asymmetric military capabilities along with their continued development of advanced conventional munitions and systems all remains unchecked.”

Abrams also warned the United States is not as prepared as it needs to be to detect a sudden North Korean attack on the South, and thus U.S. forces stationed there.

China: The United States sent a guided-missile destroyer and a coastguard vessel through the Taiwan Strait last weekend, the U.S. Seventh Fleet said, part of an ongoing “freedom of navigation operation” in the Pacific Ocean and the congested waterways of the South China Sea, sending warships including aircraft carriers and destroyers to sail in the region.  Beijing is furious in particular over the missions that send warships through the Strait, calling them provocations.

The use of a coastguard vessel for the first time also irked the Chinese, who say the coastguard is responsible for the defense of the U.S. coast, not another country’s shoreline.

As for the massive chemical plant explosion in eastern China last week, the death toll has risen to 78, last I saw.  More than 600 were injured, and lord knows how contaminated the area is.

Russia / Venezuela: In a move hearkening back to the Cold War, Russia flew two planeloads of military personnel into Venezuela over the weekend. 

Russian military advisers will stay in Venezuela as long as needed, the Russian Foreign Ministry has said, a day after President Trump called on Moscow to “get out,” saying “all options” were open to forcing Russia to withdraw.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied reports that Moscow was considering a long-term military base there, but the Russians are world-class liars.

Earlier, the head of the Federation Council’s defense and security committee, told media that Russia should consider a base if Caracas extended the offer.

“Just like the United States of America, Russia has the ability and the right to open military bases anywhere in the world,” said Viktor Bondarev.

Turkey is another failing to heed U.S. requests to halt its support for President Nicolas Maduro, Elliott Abrams warned; Abrams the U.S. special envoy to Venezuela.  Turkish President Erdogan has emerged along with Russia and China as an important ally for Maduro, describing the efforts to force him from power as a “coup attempt.”

Turkey has been accused by Washington of importing Venezuelan gold, an estimated $1 billion worth.

So here we are...again, another week and nothing has changed in terms of the country’s leadership, despite further power failures in Caracas and elsewhere.  Opposition leader Juan Guaido has been totally ineffective in marshaling the overwhelming support he needs to convince the military to turn on Maduro.  He is attempting to gain support for massive demonstrations this weekend to protest the power outages, which are further exacerbating the search for simple basics.

For example, in the western agriculture-heavy state of Tachira, I saw a report that more than 100,000 liters (26,000 gallons) of milk spoiled after 40 hours without electricity for refrigeration, according to the ranchers’ association.

In the third-largest city of Valencia, residents without electricity were forced to cut wood off trees to cook food before it rotted.  [There was no gas in this oil-producing country.]

One 81-year-old woman needing medical treatment died in an elevator at the hospital when the power went out.

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“The stakes for American interests keep rising in Venezuela, as Vladimir Putin is now moving his little green men to keep dictator Nicolas Maduro in power.  U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called his Russian counterpart Monday after Russian air force planes carrying about 100 troops arrived in Caracas Saturday....

“This isn’t Ukraine next to Russia, or Syria in the Middle East.  This Russian military provocation is in America’s backyard, and the Trump Administration will have to do more in response than issue statements or phone calls of disapproval.  The Maduro regime’s fortress socialism is spreading millions of refugees and havoc throughout the region.  President Trump needs to decide if he is going to let Mr. Putin get away with it.”

Late today, the International Federation of the Red Cross said it had received permission from the Maduro government to begin delivering aid in Venezuela, the first acknowledgement by the president that Venezuelans are suffering immense hardship.

The first priority will be medical supplies.  To maintain its impartiality, Red Cross said supplies will be delivered directly to the eight hospitals the organization owns in Venezuela, bypassing the government’s distribution networks.

Ukraine: This nation holds a presidential election on March 31, Sunday.  If no candidate wins more than half the votes, there will be a runoff between the top two on April 21.

The election has boiled down to a three-horse race between President Petro Poroshenko, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.  Zelensky, who plays a fictional president in a popular TV series, is on course to win the first round. Needless to say, some of Ukraine’s friends are concerned.

Mozambique: The last official death toll from Cyclone Idai in the country was 900, but this will rise far higher, though an exact count will never be known as many bodies were washed out to sea.

But due to the slow response of governments in the region, the aftermath could prove even more deadly.

As The Economist points out, contrary to a robust response from South Africa when Mozambique had catastrophic flooding in 2000, this time the government could muster only three helicopters.

Mozambique’s own government has also been pathetic, though a main supply road into the port city of Beira, which has a population of 500,000, has been reopened and some aid is getting in by ship.

1.8m Mozambicans have been impacted and now cases of cholera and malaria are proliferating.

India: The United States is not happy with India’s anti-satellite weapons test carried out on Wednesday, with acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan saying they risk making a “mess” in space because of debris fields they can leave behind.

Shanahan said in a visit to Southern Command: “My message would be: We all live in space, let’s not make it a mess. Space should be a place where we can conduct business. Space is a place where people should have the freedom to operate.”

India’s foreign ministry played down any risk of debris from its missile test, saying the impact occurred in low-Earth orbit and that the remnants would “decay and fall back on to the Earth within weeks.”

But a senior U.S. military official told lawmakers the United States was tracking about 270 objects from the test, a number that would likely grow as the fragments spread out.  The International Space Station is not at risk at this point.

India would be only the fourth country to have used such an anti-satellite weapon after the United States, Russia and China.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi did this as a stunt prior to the elections in India, which go off in phases in two weeks, the biggest election in history with 900 million registered voters.

But it also has ominous repercussions, accelerating a space race with China and destabilizing the balance of power between India and Pakistan.  It could allow India essentially to blind an enemy by taking out its space-based communication and surveillance satellites.

Algeria: 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s days are numbered, as the country’s biggest union and an affiliated political party backed an army call for him to quit in a managed exit, though this was quickly rejected by protesters demanding the overthrow of the entire political elite.

Bouteflika has been rarely seen in public since he suffered a stroke in 2013.  The army has been patiently waiting for the right moment to intervene, winning over the president’s allies.  But the leaders of the massive protest movement want action now.

Both sides, though, want to avoid a repeat of the dark days of the 1990s, when the army’s cancellation of elections that Islamists were poised to win triggered a civil war that killed 200,000 people.

The protests of the past few weeks have thus far been largely peaceful; the army restrained.  The fear is for a radicalization of the country.

Algeria is a leading member of OPEC and a top gas supplier to Europe, though output thus far hasn’t been impacted.  Algeria is also seen by Western states as a partner in counter-terrorism and a leading diplomatic player to resolve crises in neighboring Mali and Libya.

Random Musings

--Presidential tracking polls

Gallup: 39% approval of Trump’s job performance, 57% disapproval; 90% Republicans, 33% Independents (Mar. 15).
Rasmussen: 49% approve, 50% disapprove (Mar. 29...hit 50% approval Mar. 28, which Trump immediately tweeted).

In the above noted Quinnipiac University National Poll, President Trump received a 39% approval rating, 55% disapproved.  89% of Republicans approve, 35% of Independents.

Women disapprove of Trump’s job performance 63-33.  In the 18-34 age group, 22% approve, 71% disapprove.  That should be worrisome for Republicans if that age group shows up in numbers in 2020.

Quinnipiac asked the question: Do you think that President Trump is a good role model for children, or not?

Yes...21%.  No...72%.  [Republicans 50-37, yes.  Democrats 97-2, no.  Independents 78-14, no.]

--In a separate Quinnipiac survey on Thursday, in an early look at the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Joe Biden is the choice of 29% of Democrats and voters leaning Democratic, with 19% for Sen. Bernie Sanders and 12% for Beto O’Rourke.

Sen. Kamala Harris is at 8%, with no other contender getting more than 4%.

But it’s significant that one of those at 4% (the other Sen. Elizabeth Warren) is South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has broken through it would seem.  He’s fresh, super smart, highly likable, a war veteran, and not tainted by Washington. And he’s qualified for the early debates, which start up in June, last I saw.

--In the same Quinnipiac University survey, 36% said they had a negative opinion of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with only 23% giving her a favorable rating, but 38% said they didn’t know enough about the progressive politician to form an opinion of her.

But among millennials, she is viewed favorably by 35%, negatively by 23%.

--According to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), income inequality is worse than most realize. The study looked at hourly wages for all workers 16 years of age and older.

Between 1979 and 2017, the annual wages of the top 1% shot up 157.3%, which was almost four times faster than average wage growth of 40.1%.  And, according to EPI, “over the same period, top 0.1% earnings grew 343.2%, with the latest spike reflecting the sharp increase in executive compensation.”

Let’s face it, sports fans; this is big stuff come 2020.

--The case of Jussie Smollett took a shocking turn on Tuesday.  Chicago prosecutors suddenly abandoned the 16-count indictment of the “Empire” star.  Aside from having to forfeit his $10,000 bond to the city, Smollett skated.

Then the creep had the gall to maintain his innocence.  Watching it live, I was floored.

“I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I’ve been accused of,” said the guy who walked into his apartment building after the supposed attack, carrying his Subway sandwich, and not seeking immediate medical attention.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ripped the decision, calling it a “whitewash of justice.”

“Is there no decency in this man?” seethed Emanuel, flanked by Windy City cops at a press conference.  “Mr. Smollett is still saying that he is innocent. ...How dare he?”

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said he and his aides were given no forewarning by the prosecutor’s office that they were dropping charges against Smollett.

“We found out about it when you all did,” Johnson told reporters, adding that if he were Smollett, he would not be satisfied that his name had been cleared.

Smollett “chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal that circumvents the legal system,” Johnson said.

“If someone accused me of doing anything that would circumvent that, I would want my day in court, period, to clear my name,” the top cop fumed.  “Do I think justice was served?  No.”

Emanuel also scoffed at the $10,000 bail forfeiture that Smollett agreed to, saying, “$10,000 does not even come close to what the city spent on resources” investigating the case.

“The city saw its reputation dragged through the mud,” raged Emanuel.  “From top to bottom, this is not on the level.”

“This is without a doubt a whitewash of justice.”

Police and prosecutors say Smollett paid two brothers, Abel and Ola Osundairo, $3,500 to stage an attack on Smollett, in which he was made to look like the victim of a vicious hate crime.

Police initially identified Smollett as a victim for weeks while they investigated, but then the case began to break down, especially after the Osundairo brothers told investigators that they worked with Smollett to carry out the attack.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx defended her decision to drop the charges.  “I believe this is a just outcome based on the circumstances,” she said Wednesday.

But the state’s attorney’s office maintains Smollett has not been exonerated, while Smollett’s lawyers say his record has been wiped clean.

“We respectfully request all government agencies involved live up to the ethical tenants of their office, state and local law,” said Smollett attorney Patricia Brown Holmes.  “We will not try this case in a court of public opinion. There is no case to try. The case was dismissed.  We should all allow Mr. Smollett to move on with his life as a free citizen.”

Joseph Magats, the first assistant state’s attorney, asserts that Smollett was not exonerated and that the case was akin to alternative prosecution for an offender with a short criminal history.

“The bottom line is that we stand behind the investigation, we stand behind the decision to charge him,” Magats said. “The fact that (Smollett) feels that we have exonerated him, we have not.  I can’t make it any clearer than that.”

But Magats’ comments were far different than what Assistant State’s Attorney Risa Lanier told Judge Steven Watkins in a short hearing Tuesday where prosecutors formally dropped the charges.

“After reviewing the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett’s volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the city of Chicago, the State’s motion in regards to the indictment is nolle pros,” said Lanier, using the legal term for dropping charges.  “We believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “They (the State’s Attorney’s office) better get their stories straight because this is actually making a fool of all of us,” he told ABC News.

Emanuel pilloried Smollett, saying he “abused the city of Chicago.”

“You have the state’s attorney’s office saying he’s not exonerated, yet he actually did commit this hoax.  He’s saying he’s innocent and his words aren’t true.”

Emanuel says he wants the court records unsealed so that all the evidence gathered by Chicago Police could be seen, adding police had evidence Smollett made up claims that he was attacked by two masked men who he claimed shouted racist and homophobic slurs, poured bleach on him and put a rope around his neck.

The FBI launched a probe into the reasons why prosecutors decided to drop all criminal charges against the actor – despite the evidence he allegedly staged a hate crime against himself.

Kyle Smith / New York Post

“From the great Subway Sandwich Assault of Jan. 29 through to the Valentine’s Day fable Smollett told Robin Roberts on ‘Good Morning America,’ everything Smollett said was preposterous, and he couldn’t even stick to one fake account, he had to keep rewriting it.  Initially he didn’t tell police his attacker dudes yelled, ‘This is MAGA country.’  Then by the time he told the story to Roberts it was completely different; no longer did two guys come at him at once, but one snuck up behind him while he had his hands full with the first one. Oh, and this time he fought back valiantly, which he hadn’t told the police.

“In all versions of the story, the vicious thugs daintily draped a noose they just happened to have with them around his neck but just left it dangling there like a necktie.

“Never did Smollett explain how two guys who knew him from ‘Empire’ somehow knew where he  would be at 2 a.m. even though he himself had decided just moments earlier to go to the Subway shop outside of which they lurked, scheming with their bleach and rope.

“State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office didn’t say that new evidence had emerged that cleared Smollett of the charge of faking a hate crime.  It didn’t say it lacked the evidence to proceed.  It certainly didn’t say Smollett was innocent.  Much the opposite.  Her office hinted that he was guilty but considered him to already have been punished sufficiently, by forfeiting a $10,000 bond and performing some previously unreported community service.

“In other words, Smollett was granted a plea bargain without the most important part, which is the plea.  He accepted (some) punishment without admitting guilt.

“This kind of travesty is straight out of Al Capone’s Chicago.  ‘In our experience, innocent individuals don’t forgo bond & perform community service in exchange for dropped charges,’ Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi tweeted....

“The prosecutors destroyed three solid weeks of police work involving a squadron of detectives who knew the victim was full of barnyard epithet from day one but had to use considerable skill and ingenuity to prove it.  If I were a Chicago detective, I’d be thinking about calling in sick for about the next four months.

“Why protect and serve a city that disrespects and spurns?

“Entirely predictably, as the prosecutors were saying, ‘We’re gonna let this guy slide,’ Smollett was whooping it up, claiming he had never lied, that he had been completely vindicated and that he would join O.J. Simpson in dedicating the rest of his life to finding the real offenders. Smollett’s lawyers beamed but his doctors worried that he might sprain a wrist patting himself on the back.

“How did the prosecution not foresee this noxious state of affairs?  Let criminals boogie without wringing an admission of guilt out of them and of course they’re going to pop a Champagne cork in your face.

“Hate-crime hoaxes do immense damage to our social fabric and tie up police resources better spent on actual crimes, which kinda matters when your city has more than five times the murder rate of New York....

“Don’t blame Jussie, blame the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. Even by Chicago standards, this is pretty Chicago.  In the Windy City, if liars get rewarded, it’s now open season on the truth.”

Thursday, Chicago requested in a letter to Smollett and his representatives an “immediate payment” of about $130,000 from Smollett in order to pay for the cost of the police investigation.  The Chicago Police Department and the City of Chicago warned that he may be prosecuted again for “making a false statement to the City.”

--In another despicable situation, Rockland County, N.Y., officials were forced to declare a state of emergency Tuesday over its ongoing measles outbreak.  The order bars any unvaccinated person under 18 from public places until the declaration expires in 30 days or until they receive the MMR vaccination.

County Executive Ed Day said in a written declaration: “I find that I must take this step to protect the public safety of the residents and visitors to Rockland County (Ed. across from the New Jersey border).  I must take this step to protect the infants, infirm, and ill of this County who are unable to be vaccinated against the measles or who are immunocompromised.  I must make every effort to protect them.”

But it was clear authorities couldn’t enforce the ban.  The hope is it will at least reinforce the emergency.

Rockland County has had 151 confirmed cases of measles since October 2018, the state’s longest measles outbreak since the disease was officially eliminated throughout the United States in 2000.

It’s all about the freakin’ parents, primarily in the Orthodox Jewish community, who aren’t vaccinating their kids.

It was also reported at week’s end that New York City’s worst measles outbreak since 1991 continues to grow in the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, with 33 confirmed cases in the past week, bringing Gotham’s total to 214 since October, according to the city’s health department.

--And then we have attorney Michael Avenatti, who seized the spotlight last year as a lawyer for former adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.  Avenatti was arrested Monday on separate charges in New York and Los Angles.  Federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged him with extortion and conspiracy, alleging he told lawyers for Nike that he and an unnamed co-conspirator (who we found out was celebrity attorney Mark Geragos) would release damaging information about the company if Nike didn’t pay them to conduct an “internal investigation” and to settle a client’s claim, according to the unsealed complaint.

At the same time, in Los Angeles, the U.S. attorney’s office there alleged that Avenatti embezzled a client’s money to pay his own expenses and cover debts – including for his law firm and coffee business – and defrauded a bank using phony tax returns.

Avenatti said he would be “fully exonerated” when all the facts of the cases emerged.  But he does have some potential dirt on Nike...possibly evidence the company had authorized secret payments to high-school basketball players.

--Finally, for many of us, this is the time of year when the leaf blowers come out of hibernation.  It has started in my neighborhood.  Understand I look down on eight single-family homes, all but two with the same gardener (who does my complex), while one of the other two has his own gigantic hantavirus spreader and the other, god bless him, has a silent, good old-fashioned mower.

As you all know, leaf blowers do nothing more than throw rat, mouse, and bird crap up in the air, and god knows what else, while throwing off more pollution and greenhouse gases than you can even conceive.

In the April issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows weighs in on the technology of LBs:

“Their high volume, which I had long considered their most salient feature, is only their second-most-unusual aspect.  The real marvel is the living-fossil nature of their technology. And because the technology is so crude and old, the level of pollution is off the charts.

“When people encounter engines these days, they’re generally seeing the outcome of decades of intense work toward higher efficiency.  The latest models of jet-turbine engines are up to 80 percent more fuel-efficient than their 1950s counterparts.  While power plants burning natural gas obviously emit more carbon than wind or solar facilities, they emit about half as much as coal-fired plants. Today, the average car on America’s streets is almost 200 percent more efficient than in 1950, and smog-causing emissions from cars are about 99 percent lower.

“The great outlier here is a piece of obsolete machinery Americans encounter mainly in lawn-care equipment: the humble ‘two-stroke engine.’...

“(Vastly) dirtier and less fuel-efficient, because by design it sloshes together a mixture of gasoline and oil in the combustion chamber and then spews out as much as one-third of that fuel as an unburned aerosol.  If you’ve seen a tuk-tuk, one of the noisy tricycle-style taxis in places such as Bangkok and Jakarta, with purple smoke wafting out of its tailpipe, you’ve seen a two-stroke engine in action....

“In 2014 a study published in Nature Communications found that VOC emissions (a variety of carbon gases that can produce smog and harm human beings) were on average 124 times higher from an idling two-stroke scooter than from a truck or a car.  With respect to benzene, a carcinogenic pollutant, the group found that each cubic meter of exhaust from an idling two-stroke scooter contained 60,000 times the safe level of exposure.  Two-stroke engines have largely disappeared from the scooter, moped, and trail-bike markets in America.  Regulators around the world are pushing older two-stroke engines toward extinction.

“Yet they remain the propulsive force behind the 200-mph winds coming out of many backpack leaf blowers....the impact of these little machines is significant.  In 2017, the California Air Resources Board issued a warning that may seem incredible but has not been seriously challenged: By 2020, gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and similar equipment in the state could produce more ozone pollution than all the millions of cars in California combined.  Two –stroke engines are that dirty. Cars have become that clean.”

So there is a movement in various communities and cities to ban these tools of evil.  I fully support any efforts of this kind and will continue to use this space to weigh in on the topic.

---

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

God bless America.

---

Gold $1297
Oil $60.18

Returns for the week 3/25-3/29

Dow Jones  +1.7%  [25928]
S&P 500  +1.2%  [2834]
S&P MidCap  +2.2%
Russell 2000  +2.3%
Nasdaq  +1.1%  [7729]

Returns for the period 1/1/19-3/29/19

Dow Jones  +11.2%
S&P 500  +13.1%
S&P MidCap  +14.0%
Russell 2000  +14.2%
Nasdaq  +16.5%

Bulls 52.0
Bears 20.6 [Week before the ratio was 53.9 / 20.6]

Have a great week.

Brian Trumbore