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06/01/2019

For the week 5/27-5/31

[Posted 11:00 PM ET, Friday]

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Edition 1,051

President Trump said Thursday that he planned to impose a 5 percent tariff on all imported goods from Mexico beginning June 10, a tax that would “gradually increase” (to 25% by October) until Mexico stopped the flow of undocumented immigrants across the border.

This incredibly stupid move, totally out of left field, comes as the president is seeking support in Congress for his U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, USMCA, with neither of the three nations having gotten the accord through their respective legislatures.

Imposing new tariffs for what is a political issue, and with the failure of the administration to get any kind of immigration reform through Congress, is nuts. 

U.S. Special Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin opposed the president’s move, having been totally blindsided (though their respective offices said otherwise...they are lying), knowing how it jeopardized the USMCA.  The culprit?  The despicable White House advisor Stephen Miller, of course.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) blasted Trump’s move as “a misuse of presidential tariff authority and contrary to congressional intent.”  Implementing the tariffs, he said, would “seriously jeopardize passage” of the USMCA.

Trump tweeted:

“On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP.  The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied...

“...at which time the Tariffs will be removed. 

“Mexico has taken advantage of the United States for decades.  Because of the Dems, our Immigration Laws are BAD.  Mexico makes a FORTUNE from the U.S., have for decades, they can easily fix this problem. Time for them to finally do what must be done!”

“In order not to pay Tariffs, if they start rising, companies will leave Mexico, which has taken 30% of our Auto Industry, and come back home to the USA.  Mexico must take back their country from the drug lords and cartels. The Tariff is about stopping drugs as well as illegals!”

Trump’s move came a day after U.S. border authorities detained a group of more than 1,000 migrants in El Paso, Tex., the largest single group agents had ever encountered.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he has ordered his foreign minister to travel to Washington for talks, but none are scheduled until Wednesday, and the foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, will only be meeting with White House aides, it seems, especially since President Trump will be in Europe for festivities, and commemorations, in the UK.

It is thus highly likely the talks will be unproductive as Trump often ignores his aides’ recommendations anyway.

Lopez Obrador said this afternoon: “I want to insist that we are not going to fall into any provocations, that we are going to act prudently with respect to the authorities of the United States [and] with respect to President Donald Trump.”

In a letter to Trump, the Mexican leader said that with regards to the immigrants, his country was complying with its responsibility to avoid “as far as possible and without violating human rights, the passage [of migrants] through our country.”

The tension raised the prospect of a prolonged standoff between the two countries, and prices are inevitably going to rise on many products, particularly autos, where it is virtually impossible to quickly divert production, with all the supply chains tied to the plants in Mexico. 

U.S. companies imported $346.5 billion in goods from Mexico last year, with many manufacturers, including the major auto companies and the likes of Caterpillar and Whirlpool making products there and shipping them here.

Mexico has said thus far it won’t retaliate, but the country’s trade unions will force the government to.  There is already talk of targeting American farmers.

Needless to say, the U.S. stock market didn’t like what it heard from the White House last night and today, the Dow Jones falling 354 points Friday and 3% on the week, a sixth consecutive weekly decline, the longest such stretch since 2011.

But it’s far broader than this one issue with Mexico.  These next four weeks, through the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, and a possible sitdown with Chinese President Xi Jinping, could be critical for the Trump presidency.  If you in any shape or form believe this was a good week for him, you’re just not dealing with reality.  Forget the appearance of Robert Mueller, which I don’t think was a big deal, the president said and did some disturbing things, including his kowtowing to Kim Jong Un while standing alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.

It was like Trump’s equally disturbing summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I have said since the day Donald Trump was inaugurated that my main concern was foreign policy and you look around the world today and I defy you to identify a success on this front.

There is none, when it comes to the major issues that keep certain folks in the Pentagon and in our intelligence agencies up at night.

Speaking of the Pentagon, tonight, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is in Singapore, addressing regional defense chiefs at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, and it’s crossing the wires how he is suggesting China is responsible for a range of destabilizing activities in Asia, which no doubt will only exacerbate tensions between our two nations, and the world’s two largest economies. [Also crossing, he just said “Huawei is too close to the (Chinese) government.”]

Shanahan is right, of course, but as I’ve been writing for months now, Americans are totally blind to what could be coming.  This is an incredibly dicey world we find ourselves in.  The markets have been sniffing it out, especially the global bond markets, which I spell out below, but I ask you...at such a time, are you confident with President Donald Trump at the controls?

For decades, since I was a kid, the local New York Fox station has intoned before the nightly newscast, “It’s 10:00 p.m.  Do you know where your children are?”

Or to put it another way, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight.

We’re a ways from that...but it’s after 10:00 p.m., and I’ll sleep with one eye open so you don’t have to.

Trump World

--Special Counsel Robert Mueller spoke publicly on Wednesday for the first time in his two years spearheading the Russian election interference probe.

Mueller was careful to highlight the ways in which he disagreed with his boss, Attorney General William Barr, with regards to the facts and the law surrounding the investigation into President Trump.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said.

Barr had declared in March that while Mueller’s principal conclusions did not include a determination of whether the president had committed the crime of obstruction of justice, Barr had reviewed the evidence and concluded Trump did not break the law.

“The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime,” Barr wrote to Congress at the time.

But in his report and now his public remarks, Mueller indicated he holds a different view on the question of potential presidential crimes, refusing to clear the president and alluding to Congress’ impeachment power as the constitutional arbiter.

Mueller’s remarks also made clear how heavily his office relied on a longstanding legal opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that a sitting president cannot be indicted.  That opinion, Mueller said Wednesday, “says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”

Barr, though, made a point of saying that when the two men met privately on March 5 to discuss the findings, Mueller said he would not claim the president would have been charged with a crime if he weren’t the president.

“We specifically asked him about the OLC opinion and whether or not he was taking a position that he would have found a crime but for the existence of the OLC opinion.  And he made very clear several times that that was not his position,” Barr told reporters last month.

So after Mueller spoke, Democrats said his comments were a direct rebuke of the AG’s statements.

But to those who seek his testimony before Congress, Mueller pointedly said:

“I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak about this matter.  I am making that decision myself – no one has told me whether I can or should testify or speak further about this matter.”

Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor, told the Washington Post that Mueller’s statements show “a major disconnect with Barr on the issue of obstruction of justice.”

“Mueller made clear that he would have exonerated the president on obstruction if he believed the evidence warranted such a finding.  Yet Barr, looking at the same evidence, came to the opposite conclusion and issued a statement that the evidence was insufficient to establish that the president committed obstruction of justice,” Mintz said.

Opinion:

John Podhoretz / New York Post

“Special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s statement upon the shuttering of his two-year investigation into the Trump campaign was weird even by the standards of the weirdness of the past couple of years.  ‘Charging the president with a crime was not something we could consider,’ he reported.  Indeed, even pursuing that question, he added, would have been unconstitutional under longstanding Justice Department guidelines.

“But then he said that if his office could have exonerated the president, it would have: ‘If we had confidence the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.’

“Granted, he said pretty much the same thing in the report he produced: ‘If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.’

“His statement was only 8 minutes long.  The report is 400 pages long.  It matters what he chose to repeat from it and what he did not.  He wanted the American people to hear him speak those words.  He wanted to emphasize this point.

“The ‘I couldn’t exonerate him’ point is discomfiting for another reason, which is: Since when do prosecutors exonerate people? That isn’t a prosecutor’s job.  Maybe in the aftermath of a wrongful conviction, with irrefutable physical evidence, prosecutors will say something exculpatory.  But even in most of these cases, they usually drop charges on grounds of insufficient evidence, not positive proof of innocence.

“The obvious rejoinder here is that the president of the United States isn’t just any person and that it is bad for our government and our country for a dark cloud to hang over the president’s head.  Therefore, in theory, dissipating that cloud would be a good thing (even if such a purpose was not in any way Mueller’s charge when he was hired in 2017).

“Mueller wanted the American people to hear him say he couldn’t dissipate the cloud.  And by announcing that, he just spread it out over the president’s head again.  This is why his peculiar locutions and soothsayer ambiguity represent a terrible failure of his mission as a public servant in this case.

“He hasn’t clarified.  He has muddied.

“And if Mueller didn’t intend to signal to Congress that his report could serve as the basis for an impeachment, his statement was wildly incompetent.  Again, you have to note what he chose to emphasize in a statement that left out a great many things.  He cited the Justice Department opinion that forbade him from considering a criminal indictment of the president and noted: ‘The opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrongdoing.’

“That other process is, of course, impeachment.  Remember: He needn’t have brought it up.  But he did.

“In essence, he was saying to Congress: ‘We couldn’t exonerate Trump, and we couldn’t really examine the meaning of our inability to do so.  So it’s up to you guys in Congress.  As for me, I’m getting the hell out of Dodge.’....

“Mueller just made sure all the oxygen in Washington will be sucked into talking about the president’s post-election conduct and not Russia’s 2016 conduct.   And he will reinforce the president’s willful refusal to take Russian hacking seriously (because he wrongly thinks if he does so, he would somehow be acknowledging his election was illegitimate).  Mueller cannot be blamed for how Trump reacts, but he just made reaching bipartisan consensus on the need for cyber-protections against electoral interference far more difficult.

“If I could exonerate him on this point, I would so state.”

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“Robert Mueller is an honorable man, as Marc Antony might have put it.  And in his public statement Wednesday we saw a special counsel who went out of his way not to absolve Donald Trump and may have put his thumb on the scale toward impeachment.

“Mr. Mueller offered no new facts about his probe at a press appearance in which he read a statement and took no questions.  The event was mainly intended to deflect bipartisan requests that he testify on Capitol Hill about his 448-page report on Russia and the Trump campaign.  He may have succeeded in that deflection, but not without taking revenge on the President who has criticized his probe.

“The special counsel said the Russians he indicted for interfering in the 2016 election are innocent until proven guilty.  About Mr. Trump he said only that ‘there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy’ between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“Yet as his report shows beyond doubt, there is no evidence of a conspiracy, broad or narrow.  His report recounts a series of contacts between individual Russians and Trump officials that were of no great consequence and are connected by nothing more than coincidence.  Mr. Mueller should have said this clearly on Wednesday.

“Regarding obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller suggested that the reason his office reached no prosecutorial decision is because Justice Department rules don’t allow the indictment of a President while in office.  ‘Charging the president with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider,’ he said Wednesday.

“He thus left it hanging for everyone else to infer whether he would have indicted Mr. Trump if he were not a sitting President.  And he left Attorney General William Barr to take responsibility for reaching the prosecutorial judgment that Mr. Mueller refused to make.  Mr. Mueller added to this sneaky anti-Trump implication by noting that ‘the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrong doing.’  What else could he mean but Congress and impeachment?

“Yet Mr. Mueller’s analysis of the obstruction evidence in his own report makes clear that no investigation was obstructed.  Not the FBI’s counterintelligence probe, and not his own.  No witnesses were interfered with, and Mr. Mueller was allowed over two years to issue nearly 500 search-and-seizure warrants and interview anyone he wanted, including anyone in the White House.

“Mr. Trump sometimes showed his exasperation, and bad judgment, in suggesting to more than one adviser that Mr. Mueller be fired, but no one acted on it.  The special counsel probe rolled on without interference.  Yet on Wednesday Mr. Mueller would only say that ‘if we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.’  Since when do prosecutors make it their job to pronounce whether someone they investigate is exonerated?  Their job is to indict, or not, and if not then keep quiet....

“Mr. Mueller would have better served the country and his own reputation if he had simply done what he claimed he wants to do and let his report speak for itself.  Instead he has weighed in for the Democrats who want to impeach the President, though he doesn’t have to be politically accountable as he skips town.  This is the core problem with special counsels who think they answer only to themselves.

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t as fortunate.  The media and backbench pressure will now build on her to open an impeachment inquiry to charge Donald Trump with obstructing an investigation that wasn’t obstructed into a conspiracy that didn’t exist.  Unlike the honorable Mr. Mueller, House Democrats will be accountable at the ballot box in 2020.”

Trump tweeted after Mueller’s presentation:

“Nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent.  The case is closed!  Thank you.”

As I’ve said before, the Democrats would be exceedingly foolish to proceed with impeachment.  Trump will hand them more than enough ammunition over the next 17 months to allow them to run a competitive race without going through what would be a losing effort.

--Trump tweets:

“Hard to believe that with the Crisis on the Border, the Dems won’t do the quick and easy fix. Would solve the problem but they want Open Borders, which equals crime!”

---

“The Navy put out a disclaimer on the McCain story.  Looks like the story was an exaggeration, or even Fake News – but why not, everything else is!”

Trump denied a Wall Street Journal report that the White House issued a directive calling for a warship named after the late Sen. John McCain to be moved “out of sight” during his trip to Japan over Memorial Day weekend.

“I was not informed about anything having to do with the Navy Ship USS John S. McCain during my recent visit to Japan,” he tweeted initially.

But an email from a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official to U.S. Navy and Air Force officials noted that the directive that the USS John S. McCain must not be visible was a result of conversations between the White House Military Office and the Seventh Fleet, according to the Journal.

---

“Anyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected.  In particular, African Americans will not be able to vote for you. I, on the other hand, was responsible for Criminal Justice Reform, which had tremendous support, and helped fix the bad 1994 Bill!”

[Wrote the man who once called for the death penalty for suspects later deemed innocent.]

“Back from Japan after a very successful trip. Big progress on MANY fronts.  A great country with a wonderful leader in Prime Minister Abe!”

[Zero was accomplished.]

“Russia, Russia, Russia!  That’s all you heard at the beginning of this Witch Hunt Hoax...And now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected.  It was a crime that didn’t exist. So now the Dems and their partner, the Fake News Media,....

“....say he fought back against this phony crime that didn’t exist, this horrendous false accusation, and he shouldn’t fight back, he should just sit back and take it.  Could this be Obstruction?  No, Mueller didn’t find Obstruction either.  Presidential Harassment!”

“Great show tonight @seanhannity, you really get it (9:00 P.M. @FoxNews), that’s why you’re Number One (by far)!  Also, please tell Mark Levin congrats on having the Number One book!”

Wall Street and the Trade War

The global bond market has been sending ominous warnings of instability and a potential major slowdown in economic activity around the world.  Even in the U.S., with unemployment at or near record low levels, the yield on the U.S. 10-year fell to its lowest level since September 2017, closing the week at just 2.12%.

With some short-term rates along the curve yielding more than longer-term ones, an inverted yield curve, historically this has been viewed as a sign recession is looming.  At a minimum, it also means the bond market expects the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates.

It doesn’t help that we’ve had a breakdown in trade talks with China, and now we have the turmoil over the proposed tariffs on Mexico.

On the economic front, the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller 20-city home price index for March was up 0.4%, but only 3.7% for the 12 months, continuing a decline as West Coast markets cool rapidly.  Nationwide, Las Vegas leads with an 8.2% price increase year-over-year.

As of last week, the rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage, per Freddie Mac, was down to 4.06% from a high of 4.94% last November, and it will come down further after this week’s bond market action, but it hasn’t resulted in a booming housing market, owing no doubt to the issue of affordability, which the tepid increases in the Case-Shiller index are showing you.

Today, the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index for May came in at 54.2, less than expected (50 being the dividing line between growth and contraction), but at least it was up over April’s surprisingly poor (relatively speaking) 52.6.

And we had April’s data on personal income, up a solid 0.5%, and consumption, up 0.3%, but down from March’s red-hot 1.1%, which was revised upward.

The Fed’s preferred inflation barometer, the personal consumption expenditures index (PCE) was up 0.2% on core, 1.6% year-over-year, still well below the Fed’s 2% target.  Few expect it to increase from these levels anytime soon with the economic outlook both here and abroad.

The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow barometer for second-quarter growth is at just 1.2%. This week, first-quarter GDP was revised down a tick from 3.2% to 3.1%.

Trade:

On his state visit to Japan, President Trump said, “I think (China) probably wishes they made the deal that they had on the table before they tried to renegotiate it.  They would like to make a deal. We’re not ready to make a deal.”

The president added that American tariffs on Chinese goods “could go up very, very substantially, very easily.”

Trump said businesses were leaving China for countries without tariffs, including the U.S. and Asian neighbors such as Japan.  However, he also expressed optimism that the world’s biggest economies would eventually reach an agreement.

“I think sometime in the future China and the United States will absolutely have a great trade deal, and we look forward to that,” Trump said.

Helter-skelter.

The founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Ray Dalio, issued a warning in a blog post Wednesday.  Dalio said the U.S. is “weaponizing export controls” with its move to shut off U.S. supplies to Chinese tech giant Huawei. 

Dalio noted that the move could lead to China retaliating by shutting off the supply of rare-earth metals to U.S. companies, a “critical import” necessary for the manufacturing of mobile phones, night-vision glasses, gyroscopes in jets and LED lights, among other things.

“History shows that countries in conflict have seen that such conflicts can easily slip beyond their control and become terrible wars, that all parties, including the leaders who got their countries into them, deeply regretted, so the parties in the negotiations should be careful that doesn’t happen.  Right now we are seeing brinksmanship negotiations, so it is a risky time.”

“It is an ideological conflict of comparable powers in a small world.  It’s about 1) China emerging to challenge the power of the U.S. in many areas and 2) these two countries having two different approaches to life – one that’s top down and one that’s bottom up,” he wrote.  “These conflicts extend to American and Chinese businesses, technologies, capital markets, influences over other countries, militaries, ideologies, and most everything else.”

Dalio said both countries are moving toward being less dependent on each other.  “That is a big deal because it is a major, multi-year undertaking that will take resources away from other development,” he said, adding that the uncertainties caused by the conflict will be “major disruptors” to people, companies and governments.

Regarding Huawei Technologies Co., the U.S. has used 5G as one of the driving reasons for its steps against the Chinese telecom-giant, saying the company could be compelled to use its equipment or employees to spy on or disable foreign 5G networks.  Huawei says it isn’t beholden to Beijing and would never spy for any government.  Washington has asked allies to block Huawei from their 5G buildouts.

Huawei’s chief legal officer, Song Liuping, said the blacklisting of his company “sets a dangerous precedent” that will harm billions of consumers.  Speaking at a press conference, Song said the trade ban would also “directly harm” American companies and affect jobs.

“This decision threatens to harm our customers in over 170 countries, including more than three billion consumers who use Huawei products and services around the world.”

And then there is the issue of rare earth minerals, as discussed by Ray Dalio.  I told you last week that China could use its predominant position as the world’s biggest producer, accounting for almost 70 percent of global production and 40 percent of the world’s reserves, as well as a supplier of about 80 percent of U.S. imports, as a weapon.

So this week a flurry of Chinese media reports raised that very prospect, specifically the potential for the government to cut exports of the critical commodity.

In an editorial in People’s Daily, the paper said on Wednesday that the U.S. shouldn’t underestimate China’s ability to fight the trade war.

The commentary also included a rare Chinese phrase that means “don’t say I didn’t warn you.”  The specific wording was used by the paper in 1962 before China went to war with India, and “those familiar with Chinese diplomatic language know the weight of this phrase,” the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party, said in an article last month.  It was also used before conflict broke out between China and Vietnam in 1979.

On rare earths specifically, the People’s Daily said it isn’t hard to answer the question whether China will use the elements as retaliation in the trade war.

China is “seriously” considering restricting rare earth exports to the U.S. and may also implement other countermeasures, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times added in a tweet.  An official at the National Development & Reform Commission told CCTV that people in the country won’t be happy to see products made with exported rare earths being used to suppress China’s development.

Then there is the farm bailout....

Editorial / Washington Post

“President Trump has spouted some dubious economics over the years, but surely one of the more blatantly misleading claims to escape his lips recently had to do with his offer of $16 billion in federal aid to bail out U.S. commodity producers affected by tariff wars with China.  To Mr. Trump, this is a no-lose proposition for the American taxpayer, because the money for farmers ‘all comes from China’ – i.e., the tariffs he has levied on that country.  In retaliation, China has raised levies on U.S. products such as soybeans, badly hurting U.S. farmers. 

“In fact, the cost of tariffs is passed along to consumers, in the form of higher prices on Chinese goods and on U.S.-made goods assembled from Chinese inputs.  It would be more realistic to describe Mr. Trump’s new farm relief program as a tax on Americans in general that is being channeled to one particular sector.

“And a politically favored sector at that.  Many industries and companies have been hurt by the tariff wars (many more than the relative handful of intended beneficiaries, such as steel and aluminum companies).  Yet, so far, the president has singled out only agriculture for a massive bailout.  The reasons are obvious: American farmers are, indeed, being damaged financially by a policy they opposed, but they are also a vital constituency in the president’s reelection effort, strategically concentrated in red America.  Other small businesses, meanwhile, are being left to fend for themselves.

“To be sure, farm relief could be defensible as a short-term measure, to prevent collapse of an export-oriented sector of the economy caught up in hardball negotiations between two countries ultimately determined to make a deal.  If Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping manage to resolve bilateral economic differences within the next few months, then this year’s special spending for farmers, which came on top of last year’s $12 billion package, may go down in history as the price of progress.

“However, indications are that positions are hardening on both sides and that Mr. Trump regards protectionist tariffs as desirable in and of themselves.  Announcing the farm package on May 23, he implied it was only the beginning of a tariff-cum-bailout policy for agriculture: ‘We’ll be taking in, over a period of time, hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs and charges to China.  And our farmers will be greatly helped,’ he said.  ‘We want to get them back to the point where they would have had if they had a good year.’

“The long-term threat is that temporary bailouts morph into permanent entitlements, as was the case with the original New Deal farm programs.”

Meanwhile, the United States and European Union are  supposed to be in trade talks, ten months after President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker struck a Rose Garden truce meant to clear the way for negotiations to reduce tariffs on industrial goods and eliminate regulatory hurdles.  But the talks are going nowhere, and now with the EU parliamentary election results (see below), there are undoubtedly further structural obstacles to a deal, let alone the Brexit process is still out there.

Europe and Asia

Zero economic news for the eurozone this week of import, but next week will bring a slew of data, including the all-important PMIs.

But the story was the record-low yields across the continent.  Germany’s 10-year is down to an all-time low of -0.21%!  Yes, a classic flight to safety amid all the uncertainty around the globe, and post-European Parliament elections and the outlook for disunity in the euro area.  Pessimism is gripping investors.

France’s 10-year yield is just 0.20%.  Spain and Portugal are at record lows, 0.71% and 0.80%, respectively.  The Netherlands is at -0.02%.

Even Greece’s 10-year is below 3.00% for the first time ever, 2.87%.

But Italy is at 2.67%, up from 2.56% four weeks ago at a time when yields elsewhere have collapsed.  Read further below for an explanation.

Jim Grant / Barron’s

“It has been five years since the European Central Bank inaugurated its subzero interest-rate policy.  The theory behind the practice held that negative rates, by inhibiting saving and stimulating spending, would jolt the Continent back to economic life.

“But the central bankers misjudged the human animal.  Confronted with a novelty unprecedented in 4,000 years of interest-rate history (negative money-market interest rates are nothing new, but substantially negative note and bond yields are a post-2000 B.C. first), people not unreasonably suspected that something was wrong. And when something is wrong, you save more, not less.”

EU Elections: The European Parliament is made up of 751 members, called MEPs, who are directly elected by EU voters every five years.  The MEPs are to represent the interests of citizens from the EU’s 28 member states.

One of the parliament’s main legislative roles is scrutinizing and passing laws proposed by the European Commission – the bureaucratic arm of the EU.

It is also responsible for electing the president of the European Commission and approving the EU budget.

The EU and its Parliament set trade policy on the continent, regulate agriculture, oversee antitrust enforcement and set monetary policy for 19 of the 28 nations sharing the euro currency. 

So with this as background, Europeans went to the polls, concluding a rolling vote Sunday, with Britain voting, even though it is planning to leave the EU.  The UK’s EU lawmakers will lose their jobs as soon as Brexit happens.

The European Parliament has been ruled by the center-right and center-left, but this year the fear was the far-right, ultranationalists would make big gains.

While the center-right and center-left blocs did lose their combined majority, there was an unexpected increase in support for liberals and the Greens, as well as nationalists.

Pro-EU parties will still be in the majority but the traditional blocs will need to seek new alliances.

The liberals and Greens had a good  night across the continent, while nationalists were victorious in Italy, France and the UK.

Unexpectedly, turnout was the highest for 20 years, bucking decades of decline.

Although the populist and far-right parties gained ground in a few countries, they fell short of the gains feared in some quarters.

The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) remains the largest block at about 179 seats, but this is down from 216 in 2014. The Socialists and Democrats dropped to 150 from 191.  But these pro-EU parties will form a coalition with some smaller ones.

The Greens jumped from 50 to around 67 MEPs.

But the gains for the nationalist parties in Italy, France and elsewhere means they’ll have a greater say for Eurosceptics who want to curb the EU’s powers.

Matteo Salvini, who leads Italy’s League, has been working to establish an alliance of at least 12 parties, and his party set the tone winning more than 30% of the vote.  Salvini discounted, for now, speculation that his strong showing could tempt him to trigger a government crisis leading to fresh national elections as a way of distancing himself from his current coalition partner, the 5 Star Movement.

Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party (the successor to the National Front) secured 24% of the vote compared with Emmanuel Macron’s party at 22.5%.  So it was a big comeback for Le Pen, who was left for dead after flaming out in France’s 2017 presidential election against Macron.

In Germany, both major centrist parties suffered.  Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats dropped from 35% of the vote in 2014 to 28%, while the center-left Social Democratic Union fell to just 15.5% from 27%.  But right-wing populist Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) performed worse than expected, around 10%, though this was a slight improvement over its first vote in 2014.

In Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for an early election after the opposition conservative New Democracy party won 33.5% of the vote to 20% for his Syriza party.

The new European Parliament sits on July 2.

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“While the European Parliament still has a pro-EU majority, it’s as fragmented and ideologically incoherent as ever. The traditional center-right and center-left parties saw declines from 2014 but remain the two biggest parties.

“The bloc’s 28 members, save Britain, support basic EU arrangements like the free movement of people and goods.  But the deeper political integration envisioned by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr. Macron requires a much broader consensus.”

Merkel and Macron are now battling over their picks for the next president of the European Commission.

And back to Italy, as alluded to above, Salvini slammed Brussels’ focus on austerity this week, suggesting he is poised to challenge EU rules capping government debt and spending.

Italy has already been running afoul of the EU’s budget dictates, but Salvini said, “I’ll use all my energy to change these old and outdated rules.”

Well, that’s not exactly what the markets want to hear.

As opposed to Greece, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces defeat in a snap election at the hands of the conservative New Democracy party, which is considered more business-friendly than Tsipras’ Socialists.  Stocks and bonds both rallied on the prospect.

Brexit: Britain’s two main parties set the stage on Monday for a no-deal Brexit, hoping to win back voters who abandoned them for a new movement in the European elections, led by Eurosceptic Nigel Farage and other smaller parties. After a punishing night when acrimonious divisions over Britain’s departure from the EU were plain to see, contenders for the leadership of the governing Conservatives said the results were a demand to deliver Brexit no matter what.

But taking a different approach, the Labour Party said a new national election or second referendum was the way to reunite the country.

With Prime Minister Theresa May stepping down as leader of her party June 7, and a new Conservative leader to be selected by late July (during which time Mrs. May will remain prime minister), Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said this week that any Brexit deal should be put to a referendum, the strongest signal yet that a major British political party is willing to open the door to a vote that could cancel the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

While Corbyn has been all over the place on Brexit, after Labour performed poorly in both local and European parliamentary elections, he has come under intense pressure from within to make clear his party’s stance on leaving the EU.

“Let the people decide the country’s future, either in a general election or through a public vote on any [Brexit] deal agreed by Parliament,” Corbyn said.

A poll conducted by Panelbase this month found that if a new referendum on Brexit were held, 52% of Britons would vote to remain in the EU and 45% would vote to leave.  In the 2016 referendum, 52% voted to leave and 48% to stay.

As for the Conservative party leadership fight, about ten have thrown their hats into the ring, with former foreign secretary Boris Johnson still the favorite.  Johnson said last weekend: “We will leave the EU on Oct. 31, deal or no deal.”

But Finance Minister Philip Hammond said parliament would be “vehemently opposed” to a no-deal strategy and a prime minister who ignored parliament “cannot expect to survive very long...I will urge all of my colleagues who are standing in this contest to embrace the concept of compromise...going to parliament with a hard line absolutist view and daring parliament to accept it is quite a dangerous strategy.”

Meanwhile, a British judge ruled Wednesday that Boris Johnson will be summoned to court over allegations that he lied and misled the public during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016.

District Judge Margot Coleman said Johnson will answer questions about his possible misconduct in public office, when he claimed Britain contributed 350 million pounds ($442 million) to the European Union each week.

Johnson was a key figure in the “leave” campaign advocating a break with the EU.  The campaign emblazoned a bus with a promise that voting for Brexit would mean that instead of sending substantial money to the EU, the cash could be used to fund Britain’s National Health Service.

It was all a massive lie, starting with the figure of 350 million.

In Sunday’s European vote, Farage’s Brexit Party came out on top with 30.8% of the vote, with his former UKIP adding 3.2%.  Three staunchly pro-EU parties – the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Change UK – combined for 34.9%.  [Labour came in at 13.7%, the Conservatives 8.9%]

Turning to Asia, China’s official government manufacturing PMI came in at 49.4 in May, contraction, vs. 50.1 in April.  The sub-index measuring export orders fell for a 12th straight month to 46.5 from 49.2.  Not good, sports fans, and of course trade war related.

The non-manufacturing (services) figure was 54.3, unchanged over the prior month.

Japan reported industrial production in April rose 0.6% over March, after it was down in March over February, while retail sales rose just 0.5% in April, year-over-year, less than expected.  Consumers seem to be retrenching ahead of the anticipated nationwide sales tax hike in October, not what you’d think would be the case.

And in India, the economy grew at its slowest pace in almost five years, 5.8% in the first quarter, as announced by the government today, which is vs. 6.8% for the past financial year – April 2018 to March 2019.

India thus falls behind China’s pace for the first time in nearly two years, though it needs to be said both nations’ figures are highly suspect.

Nonetheless, India can no longer claim it is the world’s fastest-growing economy.

Street Bytes

--As noted above, the Dow Jones fell a sixth consecutive week, -3.0%, to 24815, while the S&P 500 (-2.6%) and Nasdaq (-2.4%) declined a fourth straight week.

For the month of May, the damage was significant.

Dow -6.7%
S&P  -6.6%
Nasdaq -7.9%

The S&P is now also 6.6% off its all-time closing high of 2945, that being hit April 30 (equalled May 3).

--U.S. Treasury Yields

6-mo. 2.34%  2-yr. 1.92%  10-yr. 2.12%  30-yr. 2.57%

--Oil prices fell to their lowest level since early March as U.S. inventories surged this month, with a slight decline this past week when a larger one had been expected.  Total U.S. crude-oil inventories now stand at 476.4 million barrels, just slightly below the bearish 22-month high reached in last week’s report.

The endless U.S.-China trade war certainly doesn’t help with its implications for global growth and energy demand.

A key will come end of June when OPEC holds a key summit, with the meeting’s participants voting to decide whether to extend until the end of the year the production cuts they put in place in December.

--The director general of the International Air Transport Association, IATA, speaking ahead of the trade group’s annual meeting in Seoul, that the timing on the 737 MAX’s return to service was up to regulators but that airlines expect the grounding to continue for at least 10 weeks or so, i.e., August.

“We have to maintain an alignment between those authorities,” said Alexandre de Juniac.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, speaking at an investor event in New York on Wednesday, said some regulators may trail others in lifting the flight ban, with no word from the Federal Aviation Administration as yet when it will clear the MAX for commercial service.

Boeing’s own statements thus far have hardly been accurate.  Muilenburg said at Boeing’s annual meeting on April 28 that he expected a test flight required for FAA certification by mid-May, and such a flight hasn’t yet been scheduled.

Two weeks ago, Boeing released a statement indicating it had finished its work on the revised fix, but the FAA quickly responded, “we are expecting additional information we requested.”

And then as I wrote the other week, the acting director of the FAA, Daniel Elwell, sure didn’t sound as if approval of the fix was coming anytime soon, though he is dropping hints that airlines that have taken the grounded aircraft out of their schedules until August did not need to extend those flight cancellations. 

Both Canada and Europe’s aviation safety agencies have said they will conduct their own review of Boeing’s proposed changes to the MAX before allowing it back into the sky.

As for the issue of getting the flying public to fly the MAX, Muilenburg admitted, “We have work to do to earn and re-earn the trust of the flying public,” calling the situation “a defining moment” for the company.

If the plane remains grounded for another 10 weeks or so, as seems will be the case, it would be missing from action for the bulk of the summer, the busiest travel period for most MAX operators.

Meanwhile, Boeing has cut production plans for the 737, and Muilenburg said the company would focus on clearing for service the more than 400 MAX jets now with customers or ready for delivery.

--With the campaign against Huawei Technologies, the telecom-equipment maker’s two biggest rivals are battling for market share...Nokia Corp. of Finland and Ericsson AB of Sweden.

The two announced Wednesday that they would become the primary providers for Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank Group Corp.’s network upgrade to 5G.

Ericsson has also said it has won 18 contracts to swap equipment out of Huawei, as it starts to upgrade its networks to 5G, the latest generation of super-fast mobile networks.

Nokia said it recently replaced some Huawei gear for Vodafone Group in Germany.  Out of 37 recent deals for 5G gear, it was won twice as many swaps as Ericsson, according to Nokia.  Ericsson said it doesn’t go into contract details

Whether the figures thrown out there by Nokia or Ericsson are actually accurate is subject to question, but there is no doubt this will be a trend as long as the U.S. position against Huawei holds, and it will redound to the benefit of the Scandinavians, who had been on top of the industry until the past decade, when Huawei and other smaller Chinese rivals moved into the market with cheaper alternatives.

According to the Wall Street Journal and market researcher Dell’Oro, the global market for providing 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G infrastructure is valued at roughly $30 billion in annual sales, excluding services.

Last month, Huawei reported a jump in first-quarter revenue, and said it had signed 40 5G deals globally, including one with the state-controlled telecom carrier in the United Arab Emirates, a strong U.S. ally.

--Corn prices popped to a 3-year high after a severe delay in plantings in the Midwest due to the devastating flooding in the region.  The price has soared about 25% since the start of May with the deteriorating conditions.

According to the latest crop progress report from the Department of Agriculture, only 58 percent of corn fields had been sown by the end of last week, which is far lower than the 90 percent planted on average in the past five years.  If you wanted to know the true impact of the floods, that’s all you need to know.

The issue now is the window for corn planting is closing.

As for soybeans, just 29% of the fields have been planted vs. a five-year average figure of 66%, and the price has risen minimally, with the trade dispute and an epidemic afflicting China’s pig herd reducing global demand for animal feed.

--Fiat Chrysler has proposed a merger with French car manufacturer Renault aimed at saving $billions for both companies.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) said the merged company would be 50% owned by FCA shareholders and 50% by Renault shareholders.

Renault is already in an alliance with Japan’s Nissan and Mitsubishi, but the partnership has been in turmoil since the November arrest of joint chief Carlos Ghosn.

But, recall, the French government owns 15% of Renault and is cautious about the new merger idea.  It’s about the unions and potential job losses.  The French state and labor union also command six out of the 17 votes on the automaker’s board.

One early demand from French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire is for heavy investment in the development of electric batteries in Europe

Fiat employs almost one-third of its global workforce of 198,500 in Europe, despite making almost all of its profit in North America.  Renault counts on Europe for almost half its sales.

Fiat has also held initial talks with Peugeot owner PSA Group.

Falling sales in the three major regions – China, the U.S., and Europe – have brought fresh urgency to the cause of consolidation in the industry, which was championed for years by the late former Fiat chief Sergio Marchionne, and deposed Renault-Nissan chairman Ghosn.

It was back in 2015, after he had created Fiat Chrysler, that Sergio Marchionne first argued that carmakers wasted $2.24 billion a week by duplicating investments they could share.

Renault owns 43% of Nissan.  A 2015 agreement granted Nissan guarantees preventing Renault from interfering in its governance, a move the Japanese carmaker considered necessary because the French government is Renault’s most powerful shareholder.

Together, Renault, Nissan and third partner Mitsubishi sold 10.76 million passenger cars and light trucks last year, putting them on par with the world’s two biggest automakers, Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp. Adding Fiat to the French and Japanese alliance would bring the total to more than 15 million vehicles a year, with a strong presence in all major markets and premium brands like Jeep, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Infiniti under a common umbrella.

Executives at Renault and FCA apparently want to reach an agreement on the merger by June 12 and Renault’s annual general meeting.

But how is FCA going to wring out $billions in annual costs without shutting down factories in France and Europe?

--The Southern California housing market ticked up in April after falling for the first time since 2012 in March.  Per a report from CoreLogic, the six-county median sales price rose 1.4% from a year earlier to $527,500, with sales up 12% from March, so at least in this case, the sustained drop in mortgage rates has brought some buyers back into the market, as opposed to the national picture.

But the annual gain in prices was far smaller than in recent years, and the media remains $7,500 below the all-time high reached in June.  Clearly affordability remains the problem.

In Orange County, the median rose 2.8% in April to $735,000, while sales fell 8% year-over-year.

--Costco Wholesale Corp. reported same-store sales rose a strong 5.6% in the quarter ended May 12, with e-commerce sales rising 20%.

It is unclear how this month’s tariff increases to 25% on around $200 billion worth of Chinese imports including bicycles, furniture and luggage will affect store prices or cost of goods, CEO Richard Galanti said on a call with analysts, though he conceded, “At the end of the day, prices will go up.”

Costco is looking to source outside of China in some cases, he said, with some price increases being passed on to customers.

Total revenue, including membership fees, rose to $34.7 billion in the quarter, with profits rising to $906 million.

--Dick’s Sporting Goods reported better-than-expected results in its fiscal first quarter for the period ending May 4.  Same-store sales were flat compared with a decrease of 2.5% in the comparable period of 2018 and analysts’ expectations for a drop of 1.3%, Dick’s raising guidance on earnings for the full year.

CEO Edward Stack said, “Same-store sales turned positive in March and remained positive in April, as we started to see the benefits of our key strategies and investments.  We are very enthusiastic about our business and are pleased to increase our full-year earnings outlook.”

The company expects to deliver positive same store sales beginning in the second quarter and for all of 2019, vs. a 3.1% decline last year.

--Dollar Tree posted fiscal first-quarter earnings and sales essentially in line with expectations.  Comp sales increased 2.2%, though the company guided a bit lower for the current quarter and the full year.

--The state of Oklahoma accused Johnson & Johnson on Tuesday of using deceptive marketing to create an oversupply of addictive painkillers that fueled the U.S. opioid epidemic, at the start of the first trial in lawsuits over the drug abuse crisis.  Lawyers for the state made those claims in their opening statements in a state court in Norman, Okla., the trial the first to result from around 2,000 similar lawsuits against opioid manufacturers nationally.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said: “This is the worst manmade public health crisis in our state’s history. To put it bluntly, this crisis is devastating Oklahoma.”

An attorney for the state argued that Johnson & Johnson, along with OxyContin makers Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries used misleading marketing beginning in the 1990s to push doctors to prescribe more opioids.  J&J, which sold the painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta, did so by marketing opioids as “safe and effective for everyday pain” while downplaying their addictive qualities, helping create a drug oversupply, attorney Brad Beckworth said.

J&J denies wrongdoing, arguing its marketing was proper and that Oklahoma cannot prove it caused the epidemic.  The shares fell about 4% this week.

The Oklahoma case is being closely followed in other jurisdictions, particularly in Ohio, where a federal judge has consolidated 1,850 cases and is pushing for a settlement ahead of an October trial.  Some plaintiffs’ lawyers have compared the opioid cases to litigation by states against the tobacco industry that led to a $246 billion settlement in 1998.

Separately, a New York state court jury ordered J&J to pay $300 million in punitive damages to a woman who claimed use of the company’s talc powder caused an asbestos-linked cancer.

--House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Facebook of “lying to the public” after accusing the social media platform of refusing to take down videos of her speaking which she says have been doctored to make it look like she is slurring her words.

Pelosi said on Wednesday that she believed Facebook’s inaction on the issue was evidence they were culpable in enabling Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Pelosi told California’s KQED: “We have said all along, poor Facebook, they were unwittingly exploited by the Russians.  I think wittingly, because right now they are putting up something that they know is false. I think it’s wrong.

“I can take it...But [Facebook is] lying to the public.”

She added: “I think they have proven – by not taking down something they know is false – that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election.”

--Uber Technologies Inc. posted a $1 billion quarterly loss, among the largest of any public company, but in line with expectations. 

In an effort to cut costs, the company said it would cut back on customer promotions and that marketing expenses as a percentage of revenue should decline in the current quarter.

The world’s biggest ride-hailing operator generated $2.76 billion in adjusted revenue in the first three months of the year, an increase of 14% and just exceeding analyst estimates of $2.75 billion.

One metric analysts follow, gross bookings, totaled $14.7 billion in the quarter, an increase of 34%, but down from 41% a year earlier.

The shares finished the week at $40.35, down from the $45 IPO price of a few weeks ago.

--FedEx Corp. announced it would start offering Sunday deliveries to most U.S. homes, as online shopping habits pressure companies to fulfill orders almost as fast as they are placed.

--Burger King’s plan to roll out a meatless Whopper nationwide could help boost sales by double digits, according to inMarket Insights.

After just 29 days of testing the plant-based Impossible Whopper in 50 eateries in the St. Louis area, the fast food giant saw foot traffic pop by 18.5%.

That’s compared with a 1.75% decline in traffic at the company’s other restaurants elsewhere in the U.S., according to inMarket.

Burger King is getting its veggie burger from Impossible Foods.

I know two weeks ago I was in my local Burger King, asking the employees when the Impossible Whopper was going to be available there, and they said a few weeks (haven’t been back since), but everyone was excited at the prospect.  “They’re all asking for it!” one told me.  I’m certainly trying it.

Foreign Affairs

Iran: President Hassan Rouhani signaled on Wednesday that talks with the United States might be possible if Washington lifted sanctions, days after President Trump said a deal with Tehran on its nuclear program was conceivable. 

Trump said on Monday: “I really believe that Iran would like to make a deal...and I think that’s a possibility.”

Rouhani said in remarks carried on state television: “Whenever they lift the unjust sanctions and fulfill their commitments and return to the negotiations table, which they left themselves, the door is not closed.  But our people judge you by your actions, not your words.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Tuesday that Iran saw no prospect of negotiations.

Wednesday, national security adviser John Bolton said naval mines “almost certainly from Iran” were used to attack oil tankers off the United Arab Emirates this month, and warned Tehran against conducting new operations.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mousavi dismissed Bolton’s remarks as a “ludicrous claim.”

So also on Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran will not negotiate with the U.S. over its nuclear and missile programs.

Khamenei was quoted as saying on his website: “We said before that we will not negotiate with America, because negotiation has no benefit and carries harm.  We will not negotiate over the core values of the revolution.  We will not negotiate over our military capabilities,” he was quoted as saying.

Arthur Herman, Hudson Institute / Wall Street Journal

“Iran sabotages ships in the Persian Gulf and threatens to resume enrichment of uranium for its nuclear program.  Russia dispatches troops to beleaguered dictator Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, while China sends logistical support. China resists a trade truce with the U.S. and seeks to drive a wedge between the U.S. and allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia by selling them armed drones.  Russia sends bombers and fighters into Alaska’s Air Defense Identification Zone.  Iran, Russia and China all work tirelessly to keep Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in power.

“In the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal in August 2015, I warned of a Moscow-Beijing-Tehran axis.  Since then, these three authoritarian and revisionist powers have become bolder, more sophisticated and more global.  Their effort to diminish and disrupt the influence of the U.S. and its allies extends from Syria and the Strait of Hormuz to North Korea and Latin America, as well as Central Asia and even the South Pacific.

“This axis is not a formal military alliance or even a coordinated conspiracy. The three powers have different goals in international affairs. China’s is global hegemony; Iran’s is to become a regional as well as a nuclear power; Russia is struggling to stay in the superpower game.  China’s primary focus is on gaining economic power.  Russia’s is on asserting its geopolitical clout.  Iran’s agenda is largely ideological – to be the guiding voice of a regional Shiite revolution and of radical Islam....

“All three recognize that the U.S. is a crucial obstacle to their success.  While they may not directly coordinate their actions, when one of them distracts the U.S., it creates an opportunity for the other two to gain ground.

“Take North Korea, where Russia has taken over from China as host and patron for Kim Jong Un.  Experts have noted that Pyongyang’s most recent missile test bears an uncanny resemblance to an advanced Russian design.  Or Syria, where Moscow’s military support for the Assad regime has allowed Iran to arm clients like Hezbollah and Hamas.  Or Venezuela, where Chinese and Iranian investments under the late Hugo Chavez are protected by Vladimir Putin’s support for Mr. Maduro....

“At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing early this year, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that ‘Moscow’s relationship with Beijing is closer than it has been in many decades.’  Tehran is the junior partner in this club of revisionist autocracies.  Together they seek to chip away at American might.  If they succeed the result will be a darker and less free world system. The struggle between the U.S. and the new axis may not be decided on the battlefield, but the stakes could be just as high.”

David Ignatius / Washington Post

“Watching the clown show that has been President Trump’s foreign policy lately, you wonder whether there’s any coherent logic embedded in his erratic, internally conflicting statements about Iran, North Korea and other issues. And of course, there is:

“It’s the politics, stupid.

“Trump is already in full campaign mode.  In his quest for reelection, he doesn’t want to be seen to fail in anything.  He wants to sound tough (popular) so long as it doesn’t get him into a war (unpopular).

“Trump is polishing his resume, claiming success for North Korea diplomatic negotiations that have gone nowhere.  If that means contradicting national security adviser John Bolton and pretending that Pyongyang’s recent ballistic tests didn’t violate UN Security Council resolutions, fine, no problem.  Just don’t call it a failure.

“ ‘My people think it could have been a violation,’ Trump said Monday.  ‘I view it differently.’  As for Chairman Kim Jong Un, Trump is treating him almost as a campaign surrogate.  ‘He knows that with nuclear [weapons]...only bad can happen.  He understands.  He is a very smart man.  He gets it.’

“Trump may hope to wheedle one more summit meeting with Kim in this election season, so he can get another of those glossy photo opportunities with the flags and bunting.  And maybe this time, a marching band!

“The Trump political calculus is especially obvious with Iran.  He blew up the Iran nuclear agreement last year on specious grounds and then declared what amounted to economic war against Tehran, with genuinely crippling sanctions.  Iran mobilized its forces, the Pentagon countered with its own mobilization, and suddenly the Iran showdown looked as though it might be heading for war.

“But hold on!  Middle East wars are unpopular. Voters might get upset.  So Trump quickly dialed back the implications of his own policy.  ‘We’re not looking for regime change,’ Trump said Monday.  ‘We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.’  (Hey, wait a minute: Wasn’t that the successful achievement of the 2015 agreement that Trump trashed?)

“Trump now seems convinced he’s found those elusive Iranian moderates, folks who are just itching to negotiate with the United States.  ‘I do believe that Iran would like to talk, and if they’d like to talk, we’ll talk also,’ Trump said Monday.  ‘Nobody wants to see terrible things happen, especially me.’

“Message to the president: Don’t count on any photo ops with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And you need to sort out the awkward problem of having labeled as ‘terrorists’ the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the leaders of which may be the only people who could actually make a deal about curbing Iranian regional meddling.  But it’s politics.  Anything’s possible.

“Obviously, it’s good that Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran, and it’s probably good he doesn’t share Bolton’s enthusiasm for regime change.  What makes your head spin is the way Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo relentlessly attack President Barack Obama’s approach (which, to recall, was tough economic sanctions, followed by negotiations) and then seek to emulate it.

“Pompeo appointed a talented team of special envoys for Syria, North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan, and they’ve done careful groundwork. What must those emissaries think as Trump’s foreign policy bounces from tweet to tweet? ....

“Trump enters the 2020 cycle as the incumbent, but with a strange chip on his shoulder.  He’s seeking next year the popular mandate he thinks was stolen from him by the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election to tilt the outcome in his favor.  One Republican says he has heard that Trump ruminates about revenge: ‘Our policies are resisted at home and abroad. But when we are reelected, they know they have to deal with us.’....

“A recent visitor to Beijing described how Chinese leaders are viewing the antics of this most unpredictable president.  ‘In meetings, the Chinese were calm and confident,’ this former U.S. senior official said.  Their attitude was: ‘If you Americans want a trade war, fine.’

“Why are the Chinese seemingly so unperturbed?  Perhaps because they know that every day Trump is president, the United States’ power and prestige are diminished.  Maybe they should jump aboard the 2020 bandwagon, too.”

Israel: Exactly one month after the 21st Knesset was sworn in, a majority voted late Wednesday to disperse themselves and initiate an unprecedented repeat election on September 17. The motion passed by a vote of 74-45.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefed his Likud faction ahead of the vote that he had not been successful in reaching a compromise with Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman on the controversial haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription bill (which exempts haredim from being drafted) and also tried unsuccessfully to woo MKs from the opposition to join his government.

“The State of Israel is going to elections because of the Likud’s refusal to accept our proposal,” Liberman said as he entered the Knesset plenum, adding that, “this is a complete surrender of the Likud to the ultra-Orthodox.  We will not be partners in a government of Jewish law.”

Netanyahu had a midnight deadline to form a government and Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset rather than give President Reuven Rivlin the opportunity to appoint someone other than Netanyahu to give it a try.

The ultra-Orthodox parties in which Netanyahu depends for power have to choose between Liberman’s version of the conscription law and a return to the original law, which means full mobilization for haredim.

So this is a stunning development, after Netanyahu’s “tremendous victory” seven weeks earlier.  It is the first time in the country’s history that it has been forced to hold a new national election because of a failure to form a government after the previous one.  Netanyahu has been in power uninterrupted for ten years.  President Rivlin had given the prime minister six weeks to get it done.

Liberman responded to Prime Minster Netanyahu calling him a Leftist and blaming him for the repeat election in September by turning the tables on Netanyahu.  Liberman has been positioning himself as the champion of Israel’s secular right.  Even though his ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu has only five seats in the 120 seat parliament, he became the kingmaker.

At a press conference Thursday, Liberman said he was the victim of discrediting by Likud.

“I want to remind the prime minister that it was him who voted for the disengagement from Gaza, apologized to the dictator Erdogan and refused the death penalty and the evacuation of Khan El-Ahmr and responded to 700 rockets by transferring $30 million to Hamas.

Liberman said the head of the Likud’s negotiating team, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, and Netanyahu’s son, Yair, need psychiatrists, due to their false accusations against him.  Liberman said the prime minister didn’t want Yisrael Beytenu in the government from day one of coalition talks and tried the entire time to “purchase” MKs in Yisrael Beytenu and opposition parties.

“Our candidates all got offers to leave,” Liberman said.  “Likud expected us to blink and get dictates.”

Liberman added his party would not recommend Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to form the next government and hinted that the party would not recommend Netanyahu, because “we want a right-wing nationalist government.”

Bradley Burston / Haaretz

“Benjamin Netanyahu’s darkest, deepest fear is coming true. We, an entire country, can suddenly see him for what he really is: A loser.

“It’s all coming apart. The gears are grinding on the Deus ex Machina, the gearwheel teeth coming loose and unmeshed from overuse and advancing age.  Gone is the oratorical virtuoso, the political Merlin, the electoral Midas.  Each, in his turn, has aged out.

“But none of that is what makes him a loser.

“What makes him a loser is that he is a man with no honor.  None.

“Here is a man whose every word, every facial expression, every argument, every belief, is a false front. There is not one cell of principle in him.

“You needn’t look any deeper than his eyes: His life is falsehood and hatred.  His work is falsehood and hatred.  His legacy is falsehood and hatred.

“Of literally thousands of examples, one will suffice.  The full 10 years of Netanyahu’s unbroken rule have been marked by inaction and broken promises to rescue the relatives of Ethiopian Israelis from starvation and threats of violence in Ethiopia.  In recent days, however, a  desperate Netanyahu sent word to newly elected MK Gadi Yevarkan that if the Ethiopian-born lawmaker agreed to desert his centrist opposition Kahol Lavan party and become the deciding 61st vote to ratify a new Bibi-led government, the prime minister would name him immigrant absorption minister.

“The message to Yevarkan was clear: Agree to the deal, or the thousands of family members – some of whom have waited decades in Ethiopia for rescue to Israel – will remain as hostages to a government callous as concrete to their plight.

“Under Netanyahu, Israel itself has come to stand for falsehood and hatred.  His campaign could not have been more straightforward: Without exception, anyone who does not vote for him is of The Left and therefore a trafficker with Arabs, who are themselves, without exception, ardent backers of terror.  All of them, Jew and non-Jew alike, are Uncitizens.  They are not, cannot be, part of The People.

“Except, of course, for those who vote instead for the Kahanists, the pedophile protectors, the subjugators and apartheidists and faux believers in the rule of law, who have all agreed to take his bribes and breach the public trust in return for backing the laws that will exempt him from going to trial and prison for bribery and breach of the public trust.

“Yet, he clearly hates even the people who vote for him.  In their company he is every bit as mirthless and forced and uncharitable and furious and condescending and explicitly uninterested in them – in victory – as he is in defeat.

“A person without honor, it turns out, is a person without a people.

“This is a man who has destroyed Israel’s relationship with the Jewish world, supporting and endorsing far-right leaders who countenance anti-Semites and exploit anti-Semitism.

“This is a man whose compassion – as he himself demonstrated during the recent election campaign – is confined entirely to himself, to his wife, and to his stay-at-home social media snot of an elder son.

“An entire nation is seeing him, as though for the first time. All he asked, all his life, was to be his father’s son, and now, this sad, frustrated, underappreciated, bitter boy wonder with the sad, frustrated, underappreciated bitter father, remains frantic still to win the approval of the father, dead these seven long years....

“Benjamin Netanyahu knows better than anyone that whatever happens now, however he weasels out of this one, we have come to know him for what he really is, and always was:

“A failure. A fraud. A man of dishonor.  In the broadest, most profound, most enduring meanings, a loser.”

Meanwhile, Sara Netanyahu, the wife of the prime minister, agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and pay a $15,000 fine to avoid trial on charges of misusing state funds for lavish catering at the couple’s official residence, Israeli Justice Ministry officials said.

The criminal charges stem from Mrs. Netanyahu expensing nearly $100,000 of catered meals to the family’s official residence between 2010 and 2013, despite the fact that they were already employing a private chef at government expense, according to an indictment  The meals, which were as costly as $7,000 each, included catering for parties from Jerusalem’s finest eateries.

Syria: Farmers across Syria and Iraq were looking forward to their best harvest in years as it has been the wettest spring in decades, but in what should be a good story, the two countries are struggling with a new problem.  The remnants of ISIS are setting fire to the farmers’ fields, destroying their crops.  The harvest season in this region for wheat and barley runs until mid-June.

It’s all part of Islamic State’s history of implementing a “scorched earth policy” in areas where they have been defeated or from which they retreat.

Separately, the European Union called on Wednesday for a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province and said Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government must protect civilians under siege. At least 250,000 people have fled a surge in violence in the province, the last major stronghold of rebels who have been fighting Assad’s government.

The issue is recent fighting that is leading to the displacement is hitting a buffer zone the parties had agreed to under a truce agreement reached last year for northwest Syria.  This week Turkey said it was sending the rebels arms to help them try to repel the Russian-backed assault.

Today, Russia said it was Turkey’s responsibility to stop rebels from firing on civilian and Russian targets, signaling Moscow was going to continue to back a Syrian government offensive.

Turkish President Erdogan called Vladimir Putin to demand a ceasefire to prevent more deaths and a refugee influx into Turkey.  The Kremlin said the rebels had to implement a ceasefire. 

This is devastatingly pathetic.

No tweets from President Trump calling for Russian restraint.

North Korea: Kim Jong Un carried out a deadly purge following the failed February summit with President Trump in Hanoi.  According to South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, Kim executed five people, including the country’s special envoy to the United States, Kim Hyok Chol.

“Kim Hyok Chol was investigated and executed at Mirim Airport with four foreign ministry officials in March,” the newspaper said, citing an unnamed North Korean official.

Four other top officials were put in front of a firing squad after being charged with taking bribes and spying for the United States, according to the report.

Another top official, Kim Yong Chol, was sentenced to hard labor after the summit collapsed.

North Korea neither confirmed nor denied the report, but it’s important to note, many of these reports have proven to be false.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang called national security adviser John Bolton a “war monger” and “defective human product” after he called the North’s recent tests of short-range missiles a violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The statement from the foreign ministry came as President Trump was in Japan.

Bolton told reporters in Tokyo days earlier that there was “no doubt” that North Korea’s latest launches violated UN resolutions, and that sanctions must be kept in place.

The foreign ministry spokesman said of Bolton: “It’s not that strange that crooked sound will always come out of the mouth of a man who is structurally flawed, and it’s best that this defective human product goes away as soon as possible.”

Kathleen Parker / Washington Post

“As the 2020 election gears up, it seems apparent that Mike Pence’s days as vice president are numbered.  Trump’s preference is obvious: Kim Jong Un.

“The vice-presidential candidate often plays the attack dog in a campaign – hurling invectives, slinging mud and taking the heat for expressing the id of the candidate, who can remain more statesmanlike.  Not that Trump has ever shied from exercising his terrible tongue, but this go-round, as it increasingly appears that former vice president Joe Biden could whup him in the general election, Trump has resorted to quoting other reckless idiots.

“In Kim, the erstwhile ‘Little Rocket Man,’ Trump has found a loyal pup to yip for him.  Recently, when North Korea’s state media referred to Biden as a ‘fool of low IQ,’ Trump first gave cover to his pet, dismissing Pyongyang’s recent missile tests, then expressed his appreciation for Kim’s loyalty and his legendary wit:

“ ‘North Korea fired off small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,’ he tweeted.  ‘I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me, 7 also smiled when he called Swampman Joe Biden a low IQ individual, & worse.’

“He added: ‘Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?’

“To the question, yes.  He’s probably signaling something along the lines of I’ll cover yours if you’ll cover mine. 

“Desperate times call for desperate measures, I reckon, from which we may infer that Trump is running scared.  But, gee, ‘small weapons’?

“Not only did John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, cite the missile tests as contra UN resolutions, but so did Trump’s host in Japan over the Memorial Day weekend.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that because of his country’s proximity to North Korea, Japan feels threatened. 

“While the president of the United States shrugs and says the ‘small weapons’ don’t bother him personally, older Americans back home may have recalled how threatened they felt in 1962, when Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida.  Then-President John F. Kennedy deployed a naval blockade to prevent Russian ships from bringing any more military supplies to the island and ultimately forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles already there.

“Funny, but Kennedy never mentioned his artfulness, even though the 13-day negotiation between the two countries was a great, big deal.  A nuclear confrontation was avoided – and the world exhaled.

“Trump’s cavalier attitude toward Kim and his suggestion that the dictator was simply seeking attention were most certainly the president’s attempt to scratch his loyal hound behind his well-exposed ears, thus keeping channels open for his own fantasy nuclear deal, not to mention future North Korean appraisals of his opponents.

“But why would Kim chuck his nuclear arsenal, sacrificing his only leverage for relevance in exchange for the removal of a few sanctions?  So what if his people are starving?  Kim has suffered no more distress over the misery of his people than he did over the execution of his uncle, per his command.

“How reassuring that the president of the United States finds solace in Kim’s company, wisdom, in his commentary and faith in his promises.”

Russia:  The United States believes Russia may be conducting low-level nuclear testing in violation of a moratorium on such tests, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency said on Wednesday. 

Lieutenant General Robert P. Ashley told an arms control forum at the Hudson Institute Russia was violating the 1990s Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which Russia ratified in 2000, but the United States has yet to, along with Israel, Iran, Egypt and others.

The head of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee, Vladimir Shamanov, told the Interfax news agency that Ashley “could not have made a more irresponsible statement.  Nuclear tests cannot be carried out secretly,” he was quoted as saying.  “These kinds of statements reveal that the professionalism of the military is systemically falling in America.”

Separately, the Kremlin rejected a UN tribunal’s call for Russia to release 24 Ukrainian sailors detained since November last year, and said it would continue to defend its position over the naval clash.

Last November, Russian ships seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and the 24 sailors in an incident in the Kerch Strait off the coast of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula invaded and annexed by Moscow in 2014.

Austria: Parliament voted to remove Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his government from office in a special parliamentary session.   His previous coalition ally, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), backed the motions brought by the opposition Social Democrats.

It was the FPO that became embroiled in a political scandal caused by a secret video, which ended the coalition.

Kurz, who heads the conservative Austrian People’s Party, is the first chancellor in post-war Austrian history to lose a confidence vote.  At 32, he is the world’s youngest state leader.

Kurz had won a surprisingly strong 35% in the European Union parliament elections on Sunday.

A new election will likely be held in September.

Random Musings

--Presidential tracking polls....

Gallup: 42% approval of President Trump, 52% disapproval; 90% Republicans, 33% Independents (May 15).
Rasmussen:  48% approval, 51% disapproval.

--A Morning Consult poll of Democratic voters released Tuesday had Joe Biden at 38 percent, Bernie Sanders 20 percent, and then it’s all the way down to Elizabeth Warren at 9, Mayor Pete 7, and Kamala Harris 7.

Biden’s support rises to 42 percent among primary voters in early states, which Morning Consult said included Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Sanders remained at 20 percent among such voters.

--The Supreme Court sidestepped major abortion cases Tuesday, letting stand a lower-court ruling that Indiana can’t ban abortions for the purpose of selecting sex or race, or to avoid having a disabled child.

In recent months, with the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the seat held by Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who had joined liberals to reaffirm women’s constitutional right to end their pregnancies, conservative lawmakers in several Republican-led states have proposed bills that are designed to challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision recognizing abortion rights.   As noted before, bills such as that signed by Alabama’s governor, that enacted a near-total ban on abortion.

But the Supreme Court isn’t likely to rule on the new laws anytime soon, though several new abortion cases are in the pipeline that could lead to a major ruling perhaps in 2020.

In the Indiana case, Justice Clarence Thomas did write: “Although the court declines to wade into these issues today, we cannot avoid them forever.”

--Barry McCaffrey / Washington Post

The president of the United States wields enormous constitutional power.  His power as commander in chief of the armed forces is particularly sweeping.  His power to pardon is nearly absolute.  And a rogue president is almost unconstrained, except by congressional removal from office or politically through the power of the electorate.

“A pardon by President Trump of military personnel who have been convicted of battlefield crimes or are pending general court-martial would be enormously damaging to the values of the U.S. armed forces.  He should not take this action.

“I am the first to admit that small-unit, direct combat is brutalizing and raw.  I’ve had four combat tours and been wounded three times. Exhausted, filthy and scared, young troops struggle to survive and keep their buddies alive.  You are trying to destroy enemy fighters with rifles and hand grenades and entrenching tools at close range.  You are not trying to make an arrest; your purpose is to kill these people.

“Civilians accidentally caught up in the fighting and those suspected to be complicit as non-uniformed combatants can be a terribly complicating factor.  It’s hard to explain to our citizens the intensity of violence and sheer lethality of the battlefield.

“Amid all the chaos and complexity, however, the armed forces subscribes to the rule of law.  Our values as a fighting force demand that we not abuse detainees or prisoners of war under our control.  Civilians and their property must be protected.  We work very hard to minimize collateral casualties.  It’s part of our training and our code of conduct....

“We hold our forces accountable for their actions just as we expect our enemies to do so.  If we forgive our forces when they step out of line, we can expect our rivals to do the same.  Commanders cannot do their jobs properly if soldiers feel there is no price to be paid for stepping out of line.  It is a recipe for a battlefield without any rules at all.

“A Trump political pardon of those convicted of murder by a jury of their combat peers would signal to the world that we are no longer a disciplined military force.  It would invalidate the principles of the congressionally mandated Uniform Code of Military Justice. It would state to the International Criminal Court that we will not hold our forces accountable and give the court grounds to intervene.  It would tell foreign fighters that we accept the murder or maltreatment of our own forces if captured.

“The president has publicly endorsed the torture of foreign fighters.  He has argued for the deliberate targeting of the families of terrorists.  If he pardons U.S. personnel convicted by a military court of the direct murder of unarmed detainees or civilians, he will have taken a step to dishonor our armed forces.”

--Maureen Dowd / New York Times...on Donald Trump....

“Just as Trump once wore out contractors, bankers, lawyers and businesspeople in New York with his combative, insulting and wayward ways, now he’s wearing out the political crowd, as he tries to beat everybody here into submission with his daily, even hourly, onslaught of outrage piled upon outrage.

“Journalists must not become inured to Trump’s outlandish, transgressive behavior.  Mitch McConnell, Barr and almost everyone else in the G.O.P. have made themselves numb to his abhorrent actions because of self-interest.

“But for those who are concerned about the scarring of the American psyche, it’s exhausting to find the vocabulary to keep explaining, over and over, how beyond the pale and out of the norm the 45th president is.

“How do you ratchet up from ‘remarkable,’ ‘extraordinary,’ ‘unprecedented’

“What words can you use about someone who considers pardoning war criminals on Memorial Day?  Who wants to make it simpler for adoption agencies to bar same-sex couples?  Who circumvents Congress to complete arms deals to benefit the same Saudis who are clearly culpable in the case of the dismembered Washington Post columnist?

“Pete Buttigieg and Nancy Pelosi have both mastered the art of puncturing Trump – far better than his Republican primary debate rivals did.

“ ‘I don’t have a problem standing up to somebody who was working on Season 7 of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ when I was packing my bags for Afghanistan,’ Buttigieg told The Post’s Robert Costa, saying he took a dim view of Trump’s bone-spurs excuse to get out of serving in Vietnam.

“Pelosi winds Trump up when she drips condescension worthy of a Jane Austen grande dame, saying she will pray for the president or pleading for someone to stage an intervention with the poor soul.

“After Pelosi remarked that the president was engaged in a cover-up, Trump dynamited his own meeting with ‘Crazy Nancy,’ as he called her....

“Trump tweeted a video of Pelosi that was manipulated to make her look as if she were slurring her words.

“ ‘Well, I don’t know about the videos,’ the president told reporters as he left on his trip to Japan.

“ ‘He does outrageous, nasty, destructive things, knowing full well he’s crossing a line, and then he pretends he didn’t,’ said Trump biographer Tim O’Brien.  ‘He has spent five decades going to gossip columnists, radio shows, TV interviews and newspapers to stick a knife into almost anybody who crosses his path that he doesn’t like and he revels in it.  There is something amazing in the Energizer Bunny aspect of his nastiness and his ignorance.  He doesn’t care what people think about how mean or dumb he is. He just keeps going.’”

--Dr. Keith Wolverson made the papers the other day. It seems that last June, while doing his thing at Royal Stoke University Hospital in the UK, he asked a Muslim woman to remove her veil, her niqab, a veil covering all but  the eyes, so he could hear her while trying to diagnose her daughter.

“I asked a lady to remove her face veil for adequate communication, in the same way I’d ask a motorcyclist to remove a crash helmet,” insisted Wolverson, a primary care physician for 23 years.

“I’m not racist. This has nothing to do with race, religion or skin color,” he previously told the Daily Mail.

Wolverson has made the headlines nearly a year later because he could lose his job and 100,000, at last word, have signed a petition backing him.

You see, the unidentified woman complained and the UK’s General Medical Council launched a formal probe.

“I’m a little bit sad the country has been committed to depths such as this,” Wolverson complained, having been suspended during the investigation, according to a report in the Independent.

But Wolverson said he has been “absolutely bowled over by the support.”

--A survey from Common Sense Media revealed that more than a third of teenagers wake up in the middle of the night and check their smartphones, but the parents are just as bad.  A quarter of them do the same.

--Over the winter I occasionally checked out the Mammoth Mountain, Calif., webcams to see the snow there.  As of a few days ago, Mammoth had received a record 29 inches in May!  The total for the season thus hit 489 inches at the main lodge, and 715 inches at the summit.  As of Memorial Day, the ski resort’s current base depth is between 90 and 155 inches.  February saw a record-breaking 24 feet!  [Which was rather tough on the locals, who had to tunnel out of their homes.]

Mammoth said it expects to be open into August, which has happened only twice before.

Needless to say, California is out of its drought, so this is good.

--The record rainfalls in basically the eastern 2/3s of the U.S. do not augur well for the mosquito season.  There were 2,544 cases of mosquito-borne West Nile virus across the country in 2018, with the highest concentration in the Midwest, according to the CDC.

The CDC recommends using a repellent with 25%-30% concentration of DEET, which will provide 4-6 hours of protection and is the “gold standard by which all repellents are judged,” according to Joseph Conlon, Technical Advisor of the American Mosquito Control Association.

And then you have ticks.  Mr. Conlon, aka “Mr. Party,” recommends a 40% formulation of oil of lemon eucalyptus to protect against ticks and mosquitoes.

Conlon also said the vast majority of home remedies found on the internet, including using dryer sheets (hadn’t heard that one) are “nonsense.”

--As one who has gone off on Civil War battlefield tours a number of times, I was depressed to read a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Cameron McWhirter that visitation to our nation’s main battlefield parks – Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Chicamauga/Chattanooga and Vicksburg – had a combined 3.1 million visitors in 2018, down from about 10.2 million in 1970, according to park-service data.    Gettysburg had about 950,000 visitors last year, just 14% of the total in 1970 and the lowest annual number of visitors since 1959.  Only one of the five, Antietam, in Maryland, saw an increase from 1970.

Needless to say this is having an impact on local businesses.  Civil War military-memorabilia stores often get most of their sales from hawking stuff from World War II.

It hasn’t helped that fights over Confederate monuments have been in the headlines and young people simply couldn’t give a damn. 

Well the museums and historical sites are working to draw a broader audience by telling a more complete story about the great conflict, in an attempt to draw in a broader audience.

Richmond recently opened a new American Civil War Museum, which is the merger six years ago of two Richmond museums, one of which was the Museum of the Confederacy.

CEO Christy Coleman said the new museum’s goal is to explore the stories of more people involved in the conflict, including slaves and women.

“We’re taking [the Civil War] back from the crazies,” she said, referring to people who argue slavery wasn’t a central issue of the conflict.

And the Atlanta History Center doubled its audience from February to May compared with the same period a year ago by opening new exhibits, including the display of the cyclorama, an enormous painting of the Battle of Atlanta.

So maybe there is hope.

--70,000 British soccer fans have descended on Madrid for Saturday’s Champions League final, Tottenham vs. Liverpool.  This is the ultimate prize in club football worldwide.

It’s also a nice boost to the local economy and the pubs.  Now behave, lads!

Yours truly is a Tottenham fan.

--As we approach the 75th anniversary of D-Day, “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) will be airing in 600 theaters nationwide for just two days – June 2 and June 5 – so check it out.

---

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

And we think of Virginia Beach tonight.

God bless America.

---

Gold $1310
Oil $53.36

Returns for the week 5/27-5/31

Dow Jones  -3.0%  [24815]
S&P 500  -2.6%  [2752]
S&P MidCap  -2.8%  [1810]
Russell 2000  -3.2%
Nasdaq   -2.4%  [7453]

Returns for the period 1/1/19-5/31/19

Dow Jones  +6.4%
S&P 500  +9.8%
S&P MidCap  +8.9%
Russell 2000  +8.7%
Nasdaq  +12.3%

Bulls 49.0
Bears 17.3

Have a great week.

Brian Trumbore



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Week in Review

06/01/2019

For the week 5/27-5/31

[Posted 11:00 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 1,051

President Trump said Thursday that he planned to impose a 5 percent tariff on all imported goods from Mexico beginning June 10, a tax that would “gradually increase” (to 25% by October) until Mexico stopped the flow of undocumented immigrants across the border.

This incredibly stupid move, totally out of left field, comes as the president is seeking support in Congress for his U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, USMCA, with neither of the three nations having gotten the accord through their respective legislatures.

Imposing new tariffs for what is a political issue, and with the failure of the administration to get any kind of immigration reform through Congress, is nuts. 

U.S. Special Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin opposed the president’s move, having been totally blindsided (though their respective offices said otherwise...they are lying), knowing how it jeopardized the USMCA.  The culprit?  The despicable White House advisor Stephen Miller, of course.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) blasted Trump’s move as “a misuse of presidential tariff authority and contrary to congressional intent.”  Implementing the tariffs, he said, would “seriously jeopardize passage” of the USMCA.

Trump tweeted:

“On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP.  The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied...

“...at which time the Tariffs will be removed. 

“Mexico has taken advantage of the United States for decades.  Because of the Dems, our Immigration Laws are BAD.  Mexico makes a FORTUNE from the U.S., have for decades, they can easily fix this problem. Time for them to finally do what must be done!”

“In order not to pay Tariffs, if they start rising, companies will leave Mexico, which has taken 30% of our Auto Industry, and come back home to the USA.  Mexico must take back their country from the drug lords and cartels. The Tariff is about stopping drugs as well as illegals!”

Trump’s move came a day after U.S. border authorities detained a group of more than 1,000 migrants in El Paso, Tex., the largest single group agents had ever encountered.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he has ordered his foreign minister to travel to Washington for talks, but none are scheduled until Wednesday, and the foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, will only be meeting with White House aides, it seems, especially since President Trump will be in Europe for festivities, and commemorations, in the UK.

It is thus highly likely the talks will be unproductive as Trump often ignores his aides’ recommendations anyway.

Lopez Obrador said this afternoon: “I want to insist that we are not going to fall into any provocations, that we are going to act prudently with respect to the authorities of the United States [and] with respect to President Donald Trump.”

In a letter to Trump, the Mexican leader said that with regards to the immigrants, his country was complying with its responsibility to avoid “as far as possible and without violating human rights, the passage [of migrants] through our country.”

The tension raised the prospect of a prolonged standoff between the two countries, and prices are inevitably going to rise on many products, particularly autos, where it is virtually impossible to quickly divert production, with all the supply chains tied to the plants in Mexico. 

U.S. companies imported $346.5 billion in goods from Mexico last year, with many manufacturers, including the major auto companies and the likes of Caterpillar and Whirlpool making products there and shipping them here.

Mexico has said thus far it won’t retaliate, but the country’s trade unions will force the government to.  There is already talk of targeting American farmers.

Needless to say, the U.S. stock market didn’t like what it heard from the White House last night and today, the Dow Jones falling 354 points Friday and 3% on the week, a sixth consecutive weekly decline, the longest such stretch since 2011.

But it’s far broader than this one issue with Mexico.  These next four weeks, through the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, and a possible sitdown with Chinese President Xi Jinping, could be critical for the Trump presidency.  If you in any shape or form believe this was a good week for him, you’re just not dealing with reality.  Forget the appearance of Robert Mueller, which I don’t think was a big deal, the president said and did some disturbing things, including his kowtowing to Kim Jong Un while standing alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.

It was like Trump’s equally disturbing summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I have said since the day Donald Trump was inaugurated that my main concern was foreign policy and you look around the world today and I defy you to identify a success on this front.

There is none, when it comes to the major issues that keep certain folks in the Pentagon and in our intelligence agencies up at night.

Speaking of the Pentagon, tonight, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is in Singapore, addressing regional defense chiefs at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, and it’s crossing the wires how he is suggesting China is responsible for a range of destabilizing activities in Asia, which no doubt will only exacerbate tensions between our two nations, and the world’s two largest economies. [Also crossing, he just said “Huawei is too close to the (Chinese) government.”]

Shanahan is right, of course, but as I’ve been writing for months now, Americans are totally blind to what could be coming.  This is an incredibly dicey world we find ourselves in.  The markets have been sniffing it out, especially the global bond markets, which I spell out below, but I ask you...at such a time, are you confident with President Donald Trump at the controls?

For decades, since I was a kid, the local New York Fox station has intoned before the nightly newscast, “It’s 10:00 p.m.  Do you know where your children are?”

Or to put it another way, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight.

We’re a ways from that...but it’s after 10:00 p.m., and I’ll sleep with one eye open so you don’t have to.

Trump World

--Special Counsel Robert Mueller spoke publicly on Wednesday for the first time in his two years spearheading the Russian election interference probe.

Mueller was careful to highlight the ways in which he disagreed with his boss, Attorney General William Barr, with regards to the facts and the law surrounding the investigation into President Trump.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said.

Barr had declared in March that while Mueller’s principal conclusions did not include a determination of whether the president had committed the crime of obstruction of justice, Barr had reviewed the evidence and concluded Trump did not break the law.

“The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime,” Barr wrote to Congress at the time.

But in his report and now his public remarks, Mueller indicated he holds a different view on the question of potential presidential crimes, refusing to clear the president and alluding to Congress’ impeachment power as the constitutional arbiter.

Mueller’s remarks also made clear how heavily his office relied on a longstanding legal opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that a sitting president cannot be indicted.  That opinion, Mueller said Wednesday, “says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”

Barr, though, made a point of saying that when the two men met privately on March 5 to discuss the findings, Mueller said he would not claim the president would have been charged with a crime if he weren’t the president.

“We specifically asked him about the OLC opinion and whether or not he was taking a position that he would have found a crime but for the existence of the OLC opinion.  And he made very clear several times that that was not his position,” Barr told reporters last month.

So after Mueller spoke, Democrats said his comments were a direct rebuke of the AG’s statements.

But to those who seek his testimony before Congress, Mueller pointedly said:

“I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak about this matter.  I am making that decision myself – no one has told me whether I can or should testify or speak further about this matter.”

Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor, told the Washington Post that Mueller’s statements show “a major disconnect with Barr on the issue of obstruction of justice.”

“Mueller made clear that he would have exonerated the president on obstruction if he believed the evidence warranted such a finding.  Yet Barr, looking at the same evidence, came to the opposite conclusion and issued a statement that the evidence was insufficient to establish that the president committed obstruction of justice,” Mintz said.

Opinion:

John Podhoretz / New York Post

“Special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s statement upon the shuttering of his two-year investigation into the Trump campaign was weird even by the standards of the weirdness of the past couple of years.  ‘Charging the president with a crime was not something we could consider,’ he reported.  Indeed, even pursuing that question, he added, would have been unconstitutional under longstanding Justice Department guidelines.

“But then he said that if his office could have exonerated the president, it would have: ‘If we had confidence the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.’

“Granted, he said pretty much the same thing in the report he produced: ‘If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.’

“His statement was only 8 minutes long.  The report is 400 pages long.  It matters what he chose to repeat from it and what he did not.  He wanted the American people to hear him speak those words.  He wanted to emphasize this point.

“The ‘I couldn’t exonerate him’ point is discomfiting for another reason, which is: Since when do prosecutors exonerate people? That isn’t a prosecutor’s job.  Maybe in the aftermath of a wrongful conviction, with irrefutable physical evidence, prosecutors will say something exculpatory.  But even in most of these cases, they usually drop charges on grounds of insufficient evidence, not positive proof of innocence.

“The obvious rejoinder here is that the president of the United States isn’t just any person and that it is bad for our government and our country for a dark cloud to hang over the president’s head.  Therefore, in theory, dissipating that cloud would be a good thing (even if such a purpose was not in any way Mueller’s charge when he was hired in 2017).

“Mueller wanted the American people to hear him say he couldn’t dissipate the cloud.  And by announcing that, he just spread it out over the president’s head again.  This is why his peculiar locutions and soothsayer ambiguity represent a terrible failure of his mission as a public servant in this case.

“He hasn’t clarified.  He has muddied.

“And if Mueller didn’t intend to signal to Congress that his report could serve as the basis for an impeachment, his statement was wildly incompetent.  Again, you have to note what he chose to emphasize in a statement that left out a great many things.  He cited the Justice Department opinion that forbade him from considering a criminal indictment of the president and noted: ‘The opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrongdoing.’

“That other process is, of course, impeachment.  Remember: He needn’t have brought it up.  But he did.

“In essence, he was saying to Congress: ‘We couldn’t exonerate Trump, and we couldn’t really examine the meaning of our inability to do so.  So it’s up to you guys in Congress.  As for me, I’m getting the hell out of Dodge.’....

“Mueller just made sure all the oxygen in Washington will be sucked into talking about the president’s post-election conduct and not Russia’s 2016 conduct.   And he will reinforce the president’s willful refusal to take Russian hacking seriously (because he wrongly thinks if he does so, he would somehow be acknowledging his election was illegitimate).  Mueller cannot be blamed for how Trump reacts, but he just made reaching bipartisan consensus on the need for cyber-protections against electoral interference far more difficult.

“If I could exonerate him on this point, I would so state.”

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“Robert Mueller is an honorable man, as Marc Antony might have put it.  And in his public statement Wednesday we saw a special counsel who went out of his way not to absolve Donald Trump and may have put his thumb on the scale toward impeachment.

“Mr. Mueller offered no new facts about his probe at a press appearance in which he read a statement and took no questions.  The event was mainly intended to deflect bipartisan requests that he testify on Capitol Hill about his 448-page report on Russia and the Trump campaign.  He may have succeeded in that deflection, but not without taking revenge on the President who has criticized his probe.

“The special counsel said the Russians he indicted for interfering in the 2016 election are innocent until proven guilty.  About Mr. Trump he said only that ‘there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy’ between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“Yet as his report shows beyond doubt, there is no evidence of a conspiracy, broad or narrow.  His report recounts a series of contacts between individual Russians and Trump officials that were of no great consequence and are connected by nothing more than coincidence.  Mr. Mueller should have said this clearly on Wednesday.

“Regarding obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller suggested that the reason his office reached no prosecutorial decision is because Justice Department rules don’t allow the indictment of a President while in office.  ‘Charging the president with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider,’ he said Wednesday.

“He thus left it hanging for everyone else to infer whether he would have indicted Mr. Trump if he were not a sitting President.  And he left Attorney General William Barr to take responsibility for reaching the prosecutorial judgment that Mr. Mueller refused to make.  Mr. Mueller added to this sneaky anti-Trump implication by noting that ‘the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrong doing.’  What else could he mean but Congress and impeachment?

“Yet Mr. Mueller’s analysis of the obstruction evidence in his own report makes clear that no investigation was obstructed.  Not the FBI’s counterintelligence probe, and not his own.  No witnesses were interfered with, and Mr. Mueller was allowed over two years to issue nearly 500 search-and-seizure warrants and interview anyone he wanted, including anyone in the White House.

“Mr. Trump sometimes showed his exasperation, and bad judgment, in suggesting to more than one adviser that Mr. Mueller be fired, but no one acted on it.  The special counsel probe rolled on without interference.  Yet on Wednesday Mr. Mueller would only say that ‘if we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.’  Since when do prosecutors make it their job to pronounce whether someone they investigate is exonerated?  Their job is to indict, or not, and if not then keep quiet....

“Mr. Mueller would have better served the country and his own reputation if he had simply done what he claimed he wants to do and let his report speak for itself.  Instead he has weighed in for the Democrats who want to impeach the President, though he doesn’t have to be politically accountable as he skips town.  This is the core problem with special counsels who think they answer only to themselves.

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t as fortunate.  The media and backbench pressure will now build on her to open an impeachment inquiry to charge Donald Trump with obstructing an investigation that wasn’t obstructed into a conspiracy that didn’t exist.  Unlike the honorable Mr. Mueller, House Democrats will be accountable at the ballot box in 2020.”

Trump tweeted after Mueller’s presentation:

“Nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent.  The case is closed!  Thank you.”

As I’ve said before, the Democrats would be exceedingly foolish to proceed with impeachment.  Trump will hand them more than enough ammunition over the next 17 months to allow them to run a competitive race without going through what would be a losing effort.

--Trump tweets:

“Hard to believe that with the Crisis on the Border, the Dems won’t do the quick and easy fix. Would solve the problem but they want Open Borders, which equals crime!”

---

“The Navy put out a disclaimer on the McCain story.  Looks like the story was an exaggeration, or even Fake News – but why not, everything else is!”

Trump denied a Wall Street Journal report that the White House issued a directive calling for a warship named after the late Sen. John McCain to be moved “out of sight” during his trip to Japan over Memorial Day weekend.

“I was not informed about anything having to do with the Navy Ship USS John S. McCain during my recent visit to Japan,” he tweeted initially.

But an email from a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official to U.S. Navy and Air Force officials noted that the directive that the USS John S. McCain must not be visible was a result of conversations between the White House Military Office and the Seventh Fleet, according to the Journal.

---

“Anyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected.  In particular, African Americans will not be able to vote for you. I, on the other hand, was responsible for Criminal Justice Reform, which had tremendous support, and helped fix the bad 1994 Bill!”

[Wrote the man who once called for the death penalty for suspects later deemed innocent.]

“Back from Japan after a very successful trip. Big progress on MANY fronts.  A great country with a wonderful leader in Prime Minister Abe!”

[Zero was accomplished.]

“Russia, Russia, Russia!  That’s all you heard at the beginning of this Witch Hunt Hoax...And now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected.  It was a crime that didn’t exist. So now the Dems and their partner, the Fake News Media,....

“....say he fought back against this phony crime that didn’t exist, this horrendous false accusation, and he shouldn’t fight back, he should just sit back and take it.  Could this be Obstruction?  No, Mueller didn’t find Obstruction either.  Presidential Harassment!”

“Great show tonight @seanhannity, you really get it (9:00 P.M. @FoxNews), that’s why you’re Number One (by far)!  Also, please tell Mark Levin congrats on having the Number One book!”

Wall Street and the Trade War

The global bond market has been sending ominous warnings of instability and a potential major slowdown in economic activity around the world.  Even in the U.S., with unemployment at or near record low levels, the yield on the U.S. 10-year fell to its lowest level since September 2017, closing the week at just 2.12%.

With some short-term rates along the curve yielding more than longer-term ones, an inverted yield curve, historically this has been viewed as a sign recession is looming.  At a minimum, it also means the bond market expects the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates.

It doesn’t help that we’ve had a breakdown in trade talks with China, and now we have the turmoil over the proposed tariffs on Mexico.

On the economic front, the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller 20-city home price index for March was up 0.4%, but only 3.7% for the 12 months, continuing a decline as West Coast markets cool rapidly.  Nationwide, Las Vegas leads with an 8.2% price increase year-over-year.

As of last week, the rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage, per Freddie Mac, was down to 4.06% from a high of 4.94% last November, and it will come down further after this week’s bond market action, but it hasn’t resulted in a booming housing market, owing no doubt to the issue of affordability, which the tepid increases in the Case-Shiller index are showing you.

Today, the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index for May came in at 54.2, less than expected (50 being the dividing line between growth and contraction), but at least it was up over April’s surprisingly poor (relatively speaking) 52.6.

And we had April’s data on personal income, up a solid 0.5%, and consumption, up 0.3%, but down from March’s red-hot 1.1%, which was revised upward.

The Fed’s preferred inflation barometer, the personal consumption expenditures index (PCE) was up 0.2% on core, 1.6% year-over-year, still well below the Fed’s 2% target.  Few expect it to increase from these levels anytime soon with the economic outlook both here and abroad.

The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow barometer for second-quarter growth is at just 1.2%. This week, first-quarter GDP was revised down a tick from 3.2% to 3.1%.

Trade:

On his state visit to Japan, President Trump said, “I think (China) probably wishes they made the deal that they had on the table before they tried to renegotiate it.  They would like to make a deal. We’re not ready to make a deal.”

The president added that American tariffs on Chinese goods “could go up very, very substantially, very easily.”

Trump said businesses were leaving China for countries without tariffs, including the U.S. and Asian neighbors such as Japan.  However, he also expressed optimism that the world’s biggest economies would eventually reach an agreement.

“I think sometime in the future China and the United States will absolutely have a great trade deal, and we look forward to that,” Trump said.

Helter-skelter.

The founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Ray Dalio, issued a warning in a blog post Wednesday.  Dalio said the U.S. is “weaponizing export controls” with its move to shut off U.S. supplies to Chinese tech giant Huawei. 

Dalio noted that the move could lead to China retaliating by shutting off the supply of rare-earth metals to U.S. companies, a “critical import” necessary for the manufacturing of mobile phones, night-vision glasses, gyroscopes in jets and LED lights, among other things.

“History shows that countries in conflict have seen that such conflicts can easily slip beyond their control and become terrible wars, that all parties, including the leaders who got their countries into them, deeply regretted, so the parties in the negotiations should be careful that doesn’t happen.  Right now we are seeing brinksmanship negotiations, so it is a risky time.”

“It is an ideological conflict of comparable powers in a small world.  It’s about 1) China emerging to challenge the power of the U.S. in many areas and 2) these two countries having two different approaches to life – one that’s top down and one that’s bottom up,” he wrote.  “These conflicts extend to American and Chinese businesses, technologies, capital markets, influences over other countries, militaries, ideologies, and most everything else.”

Dalio said both countries are moving toward being less dependent on each other.  “That is a big deal because it is a major, multi-year undertaking that will take resources away from other development,” he said, adding that the uncertainties caused by the conflict will be “major disruptors” to people, companies and governments.

Regarding Huawei Technologies Co., the U.S. has used 5G as one of the driving reasons for its steps against the Chinese telecom-giant, saying the company could be compelled to use its equipment or employees to spy on or disable foreign 5G networks.  Huawei says it isn’t beholden to Beijing and would never spy for any government.  Washington has asked allies to block Huawei from their 5G buildouts.

Huawei’s chief legal officer, Song Liuping, said the blacklisting of his company “sets a dangerous precedent” that will harm billions of consumers.  Speaking at a press conference, Song said the trade ban would also “directly harm” American companies and affect jobs.

“This decision threatens to harm our customers in over 170 countries, including more than three billion consumers who use Huawei products and services around the world.”

And then there is the issue of rare earth minerals, as discussed by Ray Dalio.  I told you last week that China could use its predominant position as the world’s biggest producer, accounting for almost 70 percent of global production and 40 percent of the world’s reserves, as well as a supplier of about 80 percent of U.S. imports, as a weapon.

So this week a flurry of Chinese media reports raised that very prospect, specifically the potential for the government to cut exports of the critical commodity.

In an editorial in People’s Daily, the paper said on Wednesday that the U.S. shouldn’t underestimate China’s ability to fight the trade war.

The commentary also included a rare Chinese phrase that means “don’t say I didn’t warn you.”  The specific wording was used by the paper in 1962 before China went to war with India, and “those familiar with Chinese diplomatic language know the weight of this phrase,” the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party, said in an article last month.  It was also used before conflict broke out between China and Vietnam in 1979.

On rare earths specifically, the People’s Daily said it isn’t hard to answer the question whether China will use the elements as retaliation in the trade war.

China is “seriously” considering restricting rare earth exports to the U.S. and may also implement other countermeasures, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times added in a tweet.  An official at the National Development & Reform Commission told CCTV that people in the country won’t be happy to see products made with exported rare earths being used to suppress China’s development.

Then there is the farm bailout....

Editorial / Washington Post

“President Trump has spouted some dubious economics over the years, but surely one of the more blatantly misleading claims to escape his lips recently had to do with his offer of $16 billion in federal aid to bail out U.S. commodity producers affected by tariff wars with China.  To Mr. Trump, this is a no-lose proposition for the American taxpayer, because the money for farmers ‘all comes from China’ – i.e., the tariffs he has levied on that country.  In retaliation, China has raised levies on U.S. products such as soybeans, badly hurting U.S. farmers. 

“In fact, the cost of tariffs is passed along to consumers, in the form of higher prices on Chinese goods and on U.S.-made goods assembled from Chinese inputs.  It would be more realistic to describe Mr. Trump’s new farm relief program as a tax on Americans in general that is being channeled to one particular sector.

“And a politically favored sector at that.  Many industries and companies have been hurt by the tariff wars (many more than the relative handful of intended beneficiaries, such as steel and aluminum companies).  Yet, so far, the president has singled out only agriculture for a massive bailout.  The reasons are obvious: American farmers are, indeed, being damaged financially by a policy they opposed, but they are also a vital constituency in the president’s reelection effort, strategically concentrated in red America.  Other small businesses, meanwhile, are being left to fend for themselves.

“To be sure, farm relief could be defensible as a short-term measure, to prevent collapse of an export-oriented sector of the economy caught up in hardball negotiations between two countries ultimately determined to make a deal.  If Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping manage to resolve bilateral economic differences within the next few months, then this year’s special spending for farmers, which came on top of last year’s $12 billion package, may go down in history as the price of progress.

“However, indications are that positions are hardening on both sides and that Mr. Trump regards protectionist tariffs as desirable in and of themselves.  Announcing the farm package on May 23, he implied it was only the beginning of a tariff-cum-bailout policy for agriculture: ‘We’ll be taking in, over a period of time, hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs and charges to China.  And our farmers will be greatly helped,’ he said.  ‘We want to get them back to the point where they would have had if they had a good year.’

“The long-term threat is that temporary bailouts morph into permanent entitlements, as was the case with the original New Deal farm programs.”

Meanwhile, the United States and European Union are  supposed to be in trade talks, ten months after President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker struck a Rose Garden truce meant to clear the way for negotiations to reduce tariffs on industrial goods and eliminate regulatory hurdles.  But the talks are going nowhere, and now with the EU parliamentary election results (see below), there are undoubtedly further structural obstacles to a deal, let alone the Brexit process is still out there.

Europe and Asia

Zero economic news for the eurozone this week of import, but next week will bring a slew of data, including the all-important PMIs.

But the story was the record-low yields across the continent.  Germany’s 10-year is down to an all-time low of -0.21%!  Yes, a classic flight to safety amid all the uncertainty around the globe, and post-European Parliament elections and the outlook for disunity in the euro area.  Pessimism is gripping investors.

France’s 10-year yield is just 0.20%.  Spain and Portugal are at record lows, 0.71% and 0.80%, respectively.  The Netherlands is at -0.02%.

Even Greece’s 10-year is below 3.00% for the first time ever, 2.87%.

But Italy is at 2.67%, up from 2.56% four weeks ago at a time when yields elsewhere have collapsed.  Read further below for an explanation.

Jim Grant / Barron’s

“It has been five years since the European Central Bank inaugurated its subzero interest-rate policy.  The theory behind the practice held that negative rates, by inhibiting saving and stimulating spending, would jolt the Continent back to economic life.

“But the central bankers misjudged the human animal.  Confronted with a novelty unprecedented in 4,000 years of interest-rate history (negative money-market interest rates are nothing new, but substantially negative note and bond yields are a post-2000 B.C. first), people not unreasonably suspected that something was wrong. And when something is wrong, you save more, not less.”

EU Elections: The European Parliament is made up of 751 members, called MEPs, who are directly elected by EU voters every five years.  The MEPs are to represent the interests of citizens from the EU’s 28 member states.

One of the parliament’s main legislative roles is scrutinizing and passing laws proposed by the European Commission – the bureaucratic arm of the EU.

It is also responsible for electing the president of the European Commission and approving the EU budget.

The EU and its Parliament set trade policy on the continent, regulate agriculture, oversee antitrust enforcement and set monetary policy for 19 of the 28 nations sharing the euro currency. 

So with this as background, Europeans went to the polls, concluding a rolling vote Sunday, with Britain voting, even though it is planning to leave the EU.  The UK’s EU lawmakers will lose their jobs as soon as Brexit happens.

The European Parliament has been ruled by the center-right and center-left, but this year the fear was the far-right, ultranationalists would make big gains.

While the center-right and center-left blocs did lose their combined majority, there was an unexpected increase in support for liberals and the Greens, as well as nationalists.

Pro-EU parties will still be in the majority but the traditional blocs will need to seek new alliances.

The liberals and Greens had a good  night across the continent, while nationalists were victorious in Italy, France and the UK.

Unexpectedly, turnout was the highest for 20 years, bucking decades of decline.

Although the populist and far-right parties gained ground in a few countries, they fell short of the gains feared in some quarters.

The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) remains the largest block at about 179 seats, but this is down from 216 in 2014. The Socialists and Democrats dropped to 150 from 191.  But these pro-EU parties will form a coalition with some smaller ones.

The Greens jumped from 50 to around 67 MEPs.

But the gains for the nationalist parties in Italy, France and elsewhere means they’ll have a greater say for Eurosceptics who want to curb the EU’s powers.

Matteo Salvini, who leads Italy’s League, has been working to establish an alliance of at least 12 parties, and his party set the tone winning more than 30% of the vote.  Salvini discounted, for now, speculation that his strong showing could tempt him to trigger a government crisis leading to fresh national elections as a way of distancing himself from his current coalition partner, the 5 Star Movement.

Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party (the successor to the National Front) secured 24% of the vote compared with Emmanuel Macron’s party at 22.5%.  So it was a big comeback for Le Pen, who was left for dead after flaming out in France’s 2017 presidential election against Macron.

In Germany, both major centrist parties suffered.  Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats dropped from 35% of the vote in 2014 to 28%, while the center-left Social Democratic Union fell to just 15.5% from 27%.  But right-wing populist Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) performed worse than expected, around 10%, though this was a slight improvement over its first vote in 2014.

In Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for an early election after the opposition conservative New Democracy party won 33.5% of the vote to 20% for his Syriza party.

The new European Parliament sits on July 2.

Editorial / Wall Street Journal

“While the European Parliament still has a pro-EU majority, it’s as fragmented and ideologically incoherent as ever. The traditional center-right and center-left parties saw declines from 2014 but remain the two biggest parties.

“The bloc’s 28 members, save Britain, support basic EU arrangements like the free movement of people and goods.  But the deeper political integration envisioned by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr. Macron requires a much broader consensus.”

Merkel and Macron are now battling over their picks for the next president of the European Commission.

And back to Italy, as alluded to above, Salvini slammed Brussels’ focus on austerity this week, suggesting he is poised to challenge EU rules capping government debt and spending.

Italy has already been running afoul of the EU’s budget dictates, but Salvini said, “I’ll use all my energy to change these old and outdated rules.”

Well, that’s not exactly what the markets want to hear.

As opposed to Greece, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces defeat in a snap election at the hands of the conservative New Democracy party, which is considered more business-friendly than Tsipras’ Socialists.  Stocks and bonds both rallied on the prospect.

Brexit: Britain’s two main parties set the stage on Monday for a no-deal Brexit, hoping to win back voters who abandoned them for a new movement in the European elections, led by Eurosceptic Nigel Farage and other smaller parties. After a punishing night when acrimonious divisions over Britain’s departure from the EU were plain to see, contenders for the leadership of the governing Conservatives said the results were a demand to deliver Brexit no matter what.

But taking a different approach, the Labour Party said a new national election or second referendum was the way to reunite the country.

With Prime Minister Theresa May stepping down as leader of her party June 7, and a new Conservative leader to be selected by late July (during which time Mrs. May will remain prime minister), Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said this week that any Brexit deal should be put to a referendum, the strongest signal yet that a major British political party is willing to open the door to a vote that could cancel the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

While Corbyn has been all over the place on Brexit, after Labour performed poorly in both local and European parliamentary elections, he has come under intense pressure from within to make clear his party’s stance on leaving the EU.

“Let the people decide the country’s future, either in a general election or through a public vote on any [Brexit] deal agreed by Parliament,” Corbyn said.

A poll conducted by Panelbase this month found that if a new referendum on Brexit were held, 52% of Britons would vote to remain in the EU and 45% would vote to leave.  In the 2016 referendum, 52% voted to leave and 48% to stay.

As for the Conservative party leadership fight, about ten have thrown their hats into the ring, with former foreign secretary Boris Johnson still the favorite.  Johnson said last weekend: “We will leave the EU on Oct. 31, deal or no deal.”

But Finance Minister Philip Hammond said parliament would be “vehemently opposed” to a no-deal strategy and a prime minister who ignored parliament “cannot expect to survive very long...I will urge all of my colleagues who are standing in this contest to embrace the concept of compromise...going to parliament with a hard line absolutist view and daring parliament to accept it is quite a dangerous strategy.”

Meanwhile, a British judge ruled Wednesday that Boris Johnson will be summoned to court over allegations that he lied and misled the public during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016.

District Judge Margot Coleman said Johnson will answer questions about his possible misconduct in public office, when he claimed Britain contributed 350 million pounds ($442 million) to the European Union each week.

Johnson was a key figure in the “leave” campaign advocating a break with the EU.  The campaign emblazoned a bus with a promise that voting for Brexit would mean that instead of sending substantial money to the EU, the cash could be used to fund Britain’s National Health Service.

It was all a massive lie, starting with the figure of 350 million.

In Sunday’s European vote, Farage’s Brexit Party came out on top with 30.8% of the vote, with his former UKIP adding 3.2%.  Three staunchly pro-EU parties – the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Change UK – combined for 34.9%.  [Labour came in at 13.7%, the Conservatives 8.9%]

Turning to Asia, China’s official government manufacturing PMI came in at 49.4 in May, contraction, vs. 50.1 in April.  The sub-index measuring export orders fell for a 12th straight month to 46.5 from 49.2.  Not good, sports fans, and of course trade war related.

The non-manufacturing (services) figure was 54.3, unchanged over the prior month.

Japan reported industrial production in April rose 0.6% over March, after it was down in March over February, while retail sales rose just 0.5% in April, year-over-year, less than expected.  Consumers seem to be retrenching ahead of the anticipated nationwide sales tax hike in October, not what you’d think would be the case.

And in India, the economy grew at its slowest pace in almost five years, 5.8% in the first quarter, as announced by the government today, which is vs. 6.8% for the past financial year – April 2018 to March 2019.

India thus falls behind China’s pace for the first time in nearly two years, though it needs to be said both nations’ figures are highly suspect.

Nonetheless, India can no longer claim it is the world’s fastest-growing economy.

Street Bytes

--As noted above, the Dow Jones fell a sixth consecutive week, -3.0%, to 24815, while the S&P 500 (-2.6%) and Nasdaq (-2.4%) declined a fourth straight week.

For the month of May, the damage was significant.

Dow -6.7%
S&P  -6.6%
Nasdaq -7.9%

The S&P is now also 6.6% off its all-time closing high of 2945, that being hit April 30 (equalled May 3).

--U.S. Treasury Yields

6-mo. 2.34%  2-yr. 1.92%  10-yr. 2.12%  30-yr. 2.57%

--Oil prices fell to their lowest level since early March as U.S. inventories surged this month, with a slight decline this past week when a larger one had been expected.  Total U.S. crude-oil inventories now stand at 476.4 million barrels, just slightly below the bearish 22-month high reached in last week’s report.

The endless U.S.-China trade war certainly doesn’t help with its implications for global growth and energy demand.

A key will come end of June when OPEC holds a key summit, with the meeting’s participants voting to decide whether to extend until the end of the year the production cuts they put in place in December.

--The director general of the International Air Transport Association, IATA, speaking ahead of the trade group’s annual meeting in Seoul, that the timing on the 737 MAX’s return to service was up to regulators but that airlines expect the grounding to continue for at least 10 weeks or so, i.e., August.

“We have to maintain an alignment between those authorities,” said Alexandre de Juniac.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, speaking at an investor event in New York on Wednesday, said some regulators may trail others in lifting the flight ban, with no word from the Federal Aviation Administration as yet when it will clear the MAX for commercial service.

Boeing’s own statements thus far have hardly been accurate.  Muilenburg said at Boeing’s annual meeting on April 28 that he expected a test flight required for FAA certification by mid-May, and such a flight hasn’t yet been scheduled.

Two weeks ago, Boeing released a statement indicating it had finished its work on the revised fix, but the FAA quickly responded, “we are expecting additional information we requested.”

And then as I wrote the other week, the acting director of the FAA, Daniel Elwell, sure didn’t sound as if approval of the fix was coming anytime soon, though he is dropping hints that airlines that have taken the grounded aircraft out of their schedules until August did not need to extend those flight cancellations. 

Both Canada and Europe’s aviation safety agencies have said they will conduct their own review of Boeing’s proposed changes to the MAX before allowing it back into the sky.

As for the issue of getting the flying public to fly the MAX, Muilenburg admitted, “We have work to do to earn and re-earn the trust of the flying public,” calling the situation “a defining moment” for the company.

If the plane remains grounded for another 10 weeks or so, as seems will be the case, it would be missing from action for the bulk of the summer, the busiest travel period for most MAX operators.

Meanwhile, Boeing has cut production plans for the 737, and Muilenburg said the company would focus on clearing for service the more than 400 MAX jets now with customers or ready for delivery.

--With the campaign against Huawei Technologies, the telecom-equipment maker’s two biggest rivals are battling for market share...Nokia Corp. of Finland and Ericsson AB of Sweden.

The two announced Wednesday that they would become the primary providers for Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank Group Corp.’s network upgrade to 5G.

Ericsson has also said it has won 18 contracts to swap equipment out of Huawei, as it starts to upgrade its networks to 5G, the latest generation of super-fast mobile networks.

Nokia said it recently replaced some Huawei gear for Vodafone Group in Germany.  Out of 37 recent deals for 5G gear, it was won twice as many swaps as Ericsson, according to Nokia.  Ericsson said it doesn’t go into contract details

Whether the figures thrown out there by Nokia or Ericsson are actually accurate is subject to question, but there is no doubt this will be a trend as long as the U.S. position against Huawei holds, and it will redound to the benefit of the Scandinavians, who had been on top of the industry until the past decade, when Huawei and other smaller Chinese rivals moved into the market with cheaper alternatives.

According to the Wall Street Journal and market researcher Dell’Oro, the global market for providing 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G infrastructure is valued at roughly $30 billion in annual sales, excluding services.

Last month, Huawei reported a jump in first-quarter revenue, and said it had signed 40 5G deals globally, including one with the state-controlled telecom carrier in the United Arab Emirates, a strong U.S. ally.

--Corn prices popped to a 3-year high after a severe delay in plantings in the Midwest due to the devastating flooding in the region.  The price has soared about 25% since the start of May with the deteriorating conditions.

According to the latest crop progress report from the Department of Agriculture, only 58 percent of corn fields had been sown by the end of last week, which is far lower than the 90 percent planted on average in the past five years.  If you wanted to know the true impact of the floods, that’s all you need to know.

The issue now is the window for corn planting is closing.

As for soybeans, just 29% of the fields have been planted vs. a five-year average figure of 66%, and the price has risen minimally, with the trade dispute and an epidemic afflicting China’s pig herd reducing global demand for animal feed.

--Fiat Chrysler has proposed a merger with French car manufacturer Renault aimed at saving $billions for both companies.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) said the merged company would be 50% owned by FCA shareholders and 50% by Renault shareholders.

Renault is already in an alliance with Japan’s Nissan and Mitsubishi, but the partnership has been in turmoil since the November arrest of joint chief Carlos Ghosn.

But, recall, the French government owns 15% of Renault and is cautious about the new merger idea.  It’s about the unions and potential job losses.  The French state and labor union also command six out of the 17 votes on the automaker’s board.

One early demand from French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire is for heavy investment in the development of electric batteries in Europe

Fiat employs almost one-third of its global workforce of 198,500 in Europe, despite making almost all of its profit in North America.  Renault counts on Europe for almost half its sales.

Fiat has also held initial talks with Peugeot owner PSA Group.

Falling sales in the three major regions – China, the U.S., and Europe – have brought fresh urgency to the cause of consolidation in the industry, which was championed for years by the late former Fiat chief Sergio Marchionne, and deposed Renault-Nissan chairman Ghosn.

It was back in 2015, after he had created Fiat Chrysler, that Sergio Marchionne first argued that carmakers wasted $2.24 billion a week by duplicating investments they could share.

Renault owns 43% of Nissan.  A 2015 agreement granted Nissan guarantees preventing Renault from interfering in its governance, a move the Japanese carmaker considered necessary because the French government is Renault’s most powerful shareholder.

Together, Renault, Nissan and third partner Mitsubishi sold 10.76 million passenger cars and light trucks last year, putting them on par with the world’s two biggest automakers, Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp. Adding Fiat to the French and Japanese alliance would bring the total to more than 15 million vehicles a year, with a strong presence in all major markets and premium brands like Jeep, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Infiniti under a common umbrella.

Executives at Renault and FCA apparently want to reach an agreement on the merger by June 12 and Renault’s annual general meeting.

But how is FCA going to wring out $billions in annual costs without shutting down factories in France and Europe?

--The Southern California housing market ticked up in April after falling for the first time since 2012 in March.  Per a report from CoreLogic, the six-county median sales price rose 1.4% from a year earlier to $527,500, with sales up 12% from March, so at least in this case, the sustained drop in mortgage rates has brought some buyers back into the market, as opposed to the national picture.

But the annual gain in prices was far smaller than in recent years, and the media remains $7,500 below the all-time high reached in June.  Clearly affordability remains the problem.

In Orange County, the median rose 2.8% in April to $735,000, while sales fell 8% year-over-year.

--Costco Wholesale Corp. reported same-store sales rose a strong 5.6% in the quarter ended May 12, with e-commerce sales rising 20%.

It is unclear how this month’s tariff increases to 25% on around $200 billion worth of Chinese imports including bicycles, furniture and luggage will affect store prices or cost of goods, CEO Richard Galanti said on a call with analysts, though he conceded, “At the end of the day, prices will go up.”

Costco is looking to source outside of China in some cases, he said, with some price increases being passed on to customers.

Total revenue, including membership fees, rose to $34.7 billion in the quarter, with profits rising to $906 million.

--Dick’s Sporting Goods reported better-than-expected results in its fiscal first quarter for the period ending May 4.  Same-store sales were flat compared with a decrease of 2.5% in the comparable period of 2018 and analysts’ expectations for a drop of 1.3%, Dick’s raising guidance on earnings for the full year.

CEO Edward Stack said, “Same-store sales turned positive in March and remained positive in April, as we started to see the benefits of our key strategies and investments.  We are very enthusiastic about our business and are pleased to increase our full-year earnings outlook.”

The company expects to deliver positive same store sales beginning in the second quarter and for all of 2019, vs. a 3.1% decline last year.

--Dollar Tree posted fiscal first-quarter earnings and sales essentially in line with expectations.  Comp sales increased 2.2%, though the company guided a bit lower for the current quarter and the full year.

--The state of Oklahoma accused Johnson & Johnson on Tuesday of using deceptive marketing to create an oversupply of addictive painkillers that fueled the U.S. opioid epidemic, at the start of the first trial in lawsuits over the drug abuse crisis.  Lawyers for the state made those claims in their opening statements in a state court in Norman, Okla., the trial the first to result from around 2,000 similar lawsuits against opioid manufacturers nationally.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said: “This is the worst manmade public health crisis in our state’s history. To put it bluntly, this crisis is devastating Oklahoma.”

An attorney for the state argued that Johnson & Johnson, along with OxyContin makers Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries used misleading marketing beginning in the 1990s to push doctors to prescribe more opioids.  J&J, which sold the painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta, did so by marketing opioids as “safe and effective for everyday pain” while downplaying their addictive qualities, helping create a drug oversupply, attorney Brad Beckworth said.

J&J denies wrongdoing, arguing its marketing was proper and that Oklahoma cannot prove it caused the epidemic.  The shares fell about 4% this week.

The Oklahoma case is being closely followed in other jurisdictions, particularly in Ohio, where a federal judge has consolidated 1,850 cases and is pushing for a settlement ahead of an October trial.  Some plaintiffs’ lawyers have compared the opioid cases to litigation by states against the tobacco industry that led to a $246 billion settlement in 1998.

Separately, a New York state court jury ordered J&J to pay $300 million in punitive damages to a woman who claimed use of the company’s talc powder caused an asbestos-linked cancer.

--House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Facebook of “lying to the public” after accusing the social media platform of refusing to take down videos of her speaking which she says have been doctored to make it look like she is slurring her words.

Pelosi said on Wednesday that she believed Facebook’s inaction on the issue was evidence they were culpable in enabling Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Pelosi told California’s KQED: “We have said all along, poor Facebook, they were unwittingly exploited by the Russians.  I think wittingly, because right now they are putting up something that they know is false. I think it’s wrong.

“I can take it...But [Facebook is] lying to the public.”

She added: “I think they have proven – by not taking down something they know is false – that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election.”

--Uber Technologies Inc. posted a $1 billion quarterly loss, among the largest of any public company, but in line with expectations. 

In an effort to cut costs, the company said it would cut back on customer promotions and that marketing expenses as a percentage of revenue should decline in the current quarter.

The world’s biggest ride-hailing operator generated $2.76 billion in adjusted revenue in the first three months of the year, an increase of 14% and just exceeding analyst estimates of $2.75 billion.

One metric analysts follow, gross bookings, totaled $14.7 billion in the quarter, an increase of 34%, but down from 41% a year earlier.

The shares finished the week at $40.35, down from the $45 IPO price of a few weeks ago.

--FedEx Corp. announced it would start offering Sunday deliveries to most U.S. homes, as online shopping habits pressure companies to fulfill orders almost as fast as they are placed.

--Burger King’s plan to roll out a meatless Whopper nationwide could help boost sales by double digits, according to inMarket Insights.

After just 29 days of testing the plant-based Impossible Whopper in 50 eateries in the St. Louis area, the fast food giant saw foot traffic pop by 18.5%.

That’s compared with a 1.75% decline in traffic at the company’s other restaurants elsewhere in the U.S., according to inMarket.

Burger King is getting its veggie burger from Impossible Foods.

I know two weeks ago I was in my local Burger King, asking the employees when the Impossible Whopper was going to be available there, and they said a few weeks (haven’t been back since), but everyone was excited at the prospect.  “They’re all asking for it!” one told me.  I’m certainly trying it.

Foreign Affairs

Iran: President Hassan Rouhani signaled on Wednesday that talks with the United States might be possible if Washington lifted sanctions, days after President Trump said a deal with Tehran on its nuclear program was conceivable. 

Trump said on Monday: “I really believe that Iran would like to make a deal...and I think that’s a possibility.”

Rouhani said in remarks carried on state television: “Whenever they lift the unjust sanctions and fulfill their commitments and return to the negotiations table, which they left themselves, the door is not closed.  But our people judge you by your actions, not your words.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Tuesday that Iran saw no prospect of negotiations.

Wednesday, national security adviser John Bolton said naval mines “almost certainly from Iran” were used to attack oil tankers off the United Arab Emirates this month, and warned Tehran against conducting new operations.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mousavi dismissed Bolton’s remarks as a “ludicrous claim.”

So also on Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran will not negotiate with the U.S. over its nuclear and missile programs.

Khamenei was quoted as saying on his website: “We said before that we will not negotiate with America, because negotiation has no benefit and carries harm.  We will not negotiate over the core values of the revolution.  We will not negotiate over our military capabilities,” he was quoted as saying.

Arthur Herman, Hudson Institute / Wall Street Journal

“Iran sabotages ships in the Persian Gulf and threatens to resume enrichment of uranium for its nuclear program.  Russia dispatches troops to beleaguered dictator Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, while China sends logistical support. China resists a trade truce with the U.S. and seeks to drive a wedge between the U.S. and allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia by selling them armed drones.  Russia sends bombers and fighters into Alaska’s Air Defense Identification Zone.  Iran, Russia and China all work tirelessly to keep Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in power.

“In the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal in August 2015, I warned of a Moscow-Beijing-Tehran axis.  Since then, these three authoritarian and revisionist powers have become bolder, more sophisticated and more global.  Their effort to diminish and disrupt the influence of the U.S. and its allies extends from Syria and the Strait of Hormuz to North Korea and Latin America, as well as Central Asia and even the South Pacific.

“This axis is not a formal military alliance or even a coordinated conspiracy. The three powers have different goals in international affairs. China’s is global hegemony; Iran’s is to become a regional as well as a nuclear power; Russia is struggling to stay in the superpower game.  China’s primary focus is on gaining economic power.  Russia’s is on asserting its geopolitical clout.  Iran’s agenda is largely ideological – to be the guiding voice of a regional Shiite revolution and of radical Islam....

“All three recognize that the U.S. is a crucial obstacle to their success.  While they may not directly coordinate their actions, when one of them distracts the U.S., it creates an opportunity for the other two to gain ground.

“Take North Korea, where Russia has taken over from China as host and patron for Kim Jong Un.  Experts have noted that Pyongyang’s most recent missile test bears an uncanny resemblance to an advanced Russian design.  Or Syria, where Moscow’s military support for the Assad regime has allowed Iran to arm clients like Hezbollah and Hamas.  Or Venezuela, where Chinese and Iranian investments under the late Hugo Chavez are protected by Vladimir Putin’s support for Mr. Maduro....

“At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing early this year, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that ‘Moscow’s relationship with Beijing is closer than it has been in many decades.’  Tehran is the junior partner in this club of revisionist autocracies.  Together they seek to chip away at American might.  If they succeed the result will be a darker and less free world system. The struggle between the U.S. and the new axis may not be decided on the battlefield, but the stakes could be just as high.”

David Ignatius / Washington Post

“Watching the clown show that has been President Trump’s foreign policy lately, you wonder whether there’s any coherent logic embedded in his erratic, internally conflicting statements about Iran, North Korea and other issues. And of course, there is:

“It’s the politics, stupid.

“Trump is already in full campaign mode.  In his quest for reelection, he doesn’t want to be seen to fail in anything.  He wants to sound tough (popular) so long as it doesn’t get him into a war (unpopular).

“Trump is polishing his resume, claiming success for North Korea diplomatic negotiations that have gone nowhere.  If that means contradicting national security adviser John Bolton and pretending that Pyongyang’s recent ballistic tests didn’t violate UN Security Council resolutions, fine, no problem.  Just don’t call it a failure.

“ ‘My people think it could have been a violation,’ Trump said Monday.  ‘I view it differently.’  As for Chairman Kim Jong Un, Trump is treating him almost as a campaign surrogate.  ‘He knows that with nuclear [weapons]...only bad can happen.  He understands.  He is a very smart man.  He gets it.’

“Trump may hope to wheedle one more summit meeting with Kim in this election season, so he can get another of those glossy photo opportunities with the flags and bunting.  And maybe this time, a marching band!

“The Trump political calculus is especially obvious with Iran.  He blew up the Iran nuclear agreement last year on specious grounds and then declared what amounted to economic war against Tehran, with genuinely crippling sanctions.  Iran mobilized its forces, the Pentagon countered with its own mobilization, and suddenly the Iran showdown looked as though it might be heading for war.

“But hold on!  Middle East wars are unpopular. Voters might get upset.  So Trump quickly dialed back the implications of his own policy.  ‘We’re not looking for regime change,’ Trump said Monday.  ‘We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.’  (Hey, wait a minute: Wasn’t that the successful achievement of the 2015 agreement that Trump trashed?)

“Trump now seems convinced he’s found those elusive Iranian moderates, folks who are just itching to negotiate with the United States.  ‘I do believe that Iran would like to talk, and if they’d like to talk, we’ll talk also,’ Trump said Monday.  ‘Nobody wants to see terrible things happen, especially me.’

“Message to the president: Don’t count on any photo ops with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And you need to sort out the awkward problem of having labeled as ‘terrorists’ the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the leaders of which may be the only people who could actually make a deal about curbing Iranian regional meddling.  But it’s politics.  Anything’s possible.

“Obviously, it’s good that Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran, and it’s probably good he doesn’t share Bolton’s enthusiasm for regime change.  What makes your head spin is the way Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo relentlessly attack President Barack Obama’s approach (which, to recall, was tough economic sanctions, followed by negotiations) and then seek to emulate it.

“Pompeo appointed a talented team of special envoys for Syria, North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan, and they’ve done careful groundwork. What must those emissaries think as Trump’s foreign policy bounces from tweet to tweet? ....

“Trump enters the 2020 cycle as the incumbent, but with a strange chip on his shoulder.  He’s seeking next year the popular mandate he thinks was stolen from him by the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election to tilt the outcome in his favor.  One Republican says he has heard that Trump ruminates about revenge: ‘Our policies are resisted at home and abroad. But when we are reelected, they know they have to deal with us.’....

“A recent visitor to Beijing described how Chinese leaders are viewing the antics of this most unpredictable president.  ‘In meetings, the Chinese were calm and confident,’ this former U.S. senior official said.  Their attitude was: ‘If you Americans want a trade war, fine.’

“Why are the Chinese seemingly so unperturbed?  Perhaps because they know that every day Trump is president, the United States’ power and prestige are diminished.  Maybe they should jump aboard the 2020 bandwagon, too.”

Israel: Exactly one month after the 21st Knesset was sworn in, a majority voted late Wednesday to disperse themselves and initiate an unprecedented repeat election on September 17. The motion passed by a vote of 74-45.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefed his Likud faction ahead of the vote that he had not been successful in reaching a compromise with Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman on the controversial haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription bill (which exempts haredim from being drafted) and also tried unsuccessfully to woo MKs from the opposition to join his government.

“The State of Israel is going to elections because of the Likud’s refusal to accept our proposal,” Liberman said as he entered the Knesset plenum, adding that, “this is a complete surrender of the Likud to the ultra-Orthodox.  We will not be partners in a government of Jewish law.”

Netanyahu had a midnight deadline to form a government and Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset rather than give President Reuven Rivlin the opportunity to appoint someone other than Netanyahu to give it a try.

The ultra-Orthodox parties in which Netanyahu depends for power have to choose between Liberman’s version of the conscription law and a return to the original law, which means full mobilization for haredim.

So this is a stunning development, after Netanyahu’s “tremendous victory” seven weeks earlier.  It is the first time in the country’s history that it has been forced to hold a new national election because of a failure to form a government after the previous one.  Netanyahu has been in power uninterrupted for ten years.  President Rivlin had given the prime minister six weeks to get it done.

Liberman responded to Prime Minster Netanyahu calling him a Leftist and blaming him for the repeat election in September by turning the tables on Netanyahu.  Liberman has been positioning himself as the champion of Israel’s secular right.  Even though his ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu has only five seats in the 120 seat parliament, he became the kingmaker.

At a press conference Thursday, Liberman said he was the victim of discrediting by Likud.

“I want to remind the prime minister that it was him who voted for the disengagement from Gaza, apologized to the dictator Erdogan and refused the death penalty and the evacuation of Khan El-Ahmr and responded to 700 rockets by transferring $30 million to Hamas.

Liberman said the head of the Likud’s negotiating team, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, and Netanyahu’s son, Yair, need psychiatrists, due to their false accusations against him.  Liberman said the prime minister didn’t want Yisrael Beytenu in the government from day one of coalition talks and tried the entire time to “purchase” MKs in Yisrael Beytenu and opposition parties.

“Our candidates all got offers to leave,” Liberman said.  “Likud expected us to blink and get dictates.”

Liberman added his party would not recommend Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to form the next government and hinted that the party would not recommend Netanyahu, because “we want a right-wing nationalist government.”

Bradley Burston / Haaretz

“Benjamin Netanyahu’s darkest, deepest fear is coming true. We, an entire country, can suddenly see him for what he really is: A loser.

“It’s all coming apart. The gears are grinding on the Deus ex Machina, the gearwheel teeth coming loose and unmeshed from overuse and advancing age.  Gone is the oratorical virtuoso, the political Merlin, the electoral Midas.  Each, in his turn, has aged out.

“But none of that is what makes him a loser.

“What makes him a loser is that he is a man with no honor.  None.

“Here is a man whose every word, every facial expression, every argument, every belief, is a false front. There is not one cell of principle in him.

“You needn’t look any deeper than his eyes: His life is falsehood and hatred.  His work is falsehood and hatred.  His legacy is falsehood and hatred.

“Of literally thousands of examples, one will suffice.  The full 10 years of Netanyahu’s unbroken rule have been marked by inaction and broken promises to rescue the relatives of Ethiopian Israelis from starvation and threats of violence in Ethiopia.  In recent days, however, a  desperate Netanyahu sent word to newly elected MK Gadi Yevarkan that if the Ethiopian-born lawmaker agreed to desert his centrist opposition Kahol Lavan party and become the deciding 61st vote to ratify a new Bibi-led government, the prime minister would name him immigrant absorption minister.

“The message to Yevarkan was clear: Agree to the deal, or the thousands of family members – some of whom have waited decades in Ethiopia for rescue to Israel – will remain as hostages to a government callous as concrete to their plight.

“Under Netanyahu, Israel itself has come to stand for falsehood and hatred.  His campaign could not have been more straightforward: Without exception, anyone who does not vote for him is of The Left and therefore a trafficker with Arabs, who are themselves, without exception, ardent backers of terror.  All of them, Jew and non-Jew alike, are Uncitizens.  They are not, cannot be, part of The People.

“Except, of course, for those who vote instead for the Kahanists, the pedophile protectors, the subjugators and apartheidists and faux believers in the rule of law, who have all agreed to take his bribes and breach the public trust in return for backing the laws that will exempt him from going to trial and prison for bribery and breach of the public trust.

“Yet, he clearly hates even the people who vote for him.  In their company he is every bit as mirthless and forced and uncharitable and furious and condescending and explicitly uninterested in them – in victory – as he is in defeat.

“A person without honor, it turns out, is a person without a people.

“This is a man who has destroyed Israel’s relationship with the Jewish world, supporting and endorsing far-right leaders who countenance anti-Semites and exploit anti-Semitism.

“This is a man whose compassion – as he himself demonstrated during the recent election campaign – is confined entirely to himself, to his wife, and to his stay-at-home social media snot of an elder son.

“An entire nation is seeing him, as though for the first time. All he asked, all his life, was to be his father’s son, and now, this sad, frustrated, underappreciated, bitter boy wonder with the sad, frustrated, underappreciated bitter father, remains frantic still to win the approval of the father, dead these seven long years....

“Benjamin Netanyahu knows better than anyone that whatever happens now, however he weasels out of this one, we have come to know him for what he really is, and always was:

“A failure. A fraud. A man of dishonor.  In the broadest, most profound, most enduring meanings, a loser.”

Meanwhile, Sara Netanyahu, the wife of the prime minister, agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and pay a $15,000 fine to avoid trial on charges of misusing state funds for lavish catering at the couple’s official residence, Israeli Justice Ministry officials said.

The criminal charges stem from Mrs. Netanyahu expensing nearly $100,000 of catered meals to the family’s official residence between 2010 and 2013, despite the fact that they were already employing a private chef at government expense, according to an indictment  The meals, which were as costly as $7,000 each, included catering for parties from Jerusalem’s finest eateries.

Syria: Farmers across Syria and Iraq were looking forward to their best harvest in years as it has been the wettest spring in decades, but in what should be a good story, the two countries are struggling with a new problem.  The remnants of ISIS are setting fire to the farmers’ fields, destroying their crops.  The harvest season in this region for wheat and barley runs until mid-June.

It’s all part of Islamic State’s history of implementing a “scorched earth policy” in areas where they have been defeated or from which they retreat.

Separately, the European Union called on Wednesday for a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province and said Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government must protect civilians under siege. At least 250,000 people have fled a surge in violence in the province, the last major stronghold of rebels who have been fighting Assad’s government.

The issue is recent fighting that is leading to the displacement is hitting a buffer zone the parties had agreed to under a truce agreement reached last year for northwest Syria.  This week Turkey said it was sending the rebels arms to help them try to repel the Russian-backed assault.

Today, Russia said it was Turkey’s responsibility to stop rebels from firing on civilian and Russian targets, signaling Moscow was going to continue to back a Syrian government offensive.

Turkish President Erdogan called Vladimir Putin to demand a ceasefire to prevent more deaths and a refugee influx into Turkey.  The Kremlin said the rebels had to implement a ceasefire. 

This is devastatingly pathetic.

No tweets from President Trump calling for Russian restraint.

North Korea: Kim Jong Un carried out a deadly purge following the failed February summit with President Trump in Hanoi.  According to South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, Kim executed five people, including the country’s special envoy to the United States, Kim Hyok Chol.

“Kim Hyok Chol was investigated and executed at Mirim Airport with four foreign ministry officials in March,” the newspaper said, citing an unnamed North Korean official.

Four other top officials were put in front of a firing squad after being charged with taking bribes and spying for the United States, according to the report.

Another top official, Kim Yong Chol, was sentenced to hard labor after the summit collapsed.

North Korea neither confirmed nor denied the report, but it’s important to note, many of these reports have proven to be false.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang called national security adviser John Bolton a “war monger” and “defective human product” after he called the North’s recent tests of short-range missiles a violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The statement from the foreign ministry came as President Trump was in Japan.

Bolton told reporters in Tokyo days earlier that there was “no doubt” that North Korea’s latest launches violated UN resolutions, and that sanctions must be kept in place.

The foreign ministry spokesman said of Bolton: “It’s not that strange that crooked sound will always come out of the mouth of a man who is structurally flawed, and it’s best that this defective human product goes away as soon as possible.”

Kathleen Parker / Washington Post

“As the 2020 election gears up, it seems apparent that Mike Pence’s days as vice president are numbered.  Trump’s preference is obvious: Kim Jong Un.

“The vice-presidential candidate often plays the attack dog in a campaign – hurling invectives, slinging mud and taking the heat for expressing the id of the candidate, who can remain more statesmanlike.  Not that Trump has ever shied from exercising his terrible tongue, but this go-round, as it increasingly appears that former vice president Joe Biden could whup him in the general election, Trump has resorted to quoting other reckless idiots.

“In Kim, the erstwhile ‘Little Rocket Man,’ Trump has found a loyal pup to yip for him.  Recently, when North Korea’s state media referred to Biden as a ‘fool of low IQ,’ Trump first gave cover to his pet, dismissing Pyongyang’s recent missile tests, then expressed his appreciation for Kim’s loyalty and his legendary wit:

“ ‘North Korea fired off small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,’ he tweeted.  ‘I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me, 7 also smiled when he called Swampman Joe Biden a low IQ individual, & worse.’

“He added: ‘Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?’

“To the question, yes.  He’s probably signaling something along the lines of I’ll cover yours if you’ll cover mine. 

“Desperate times call for desperate measures, I reckon, from which we may infer that Trump is running scared.  But, gee, ‘small weapons’?

“Not only did John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, cite the missile tests as contra UN resolutions, but so did Trump’s host in Japan over the Memorial Day weekend.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that because of his country’s proximity to North Korea, Japan feels threatened. 

“While the president of the United States shrugs and says the ‘small weapons’ don’t bother him personally, older Americans back home may have recalled how threatened they felt in 1962, when Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida.  Then-President John F. Kennedy deployed a naval blockade to prevent Russian ships from bringing any more military supplies to the island and ultimately forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles already there.

“Funny, but Kennedy never mentioned his artfulness, even though the 13-day negotiation between the two countries was a great, big deal.  A nuclear confrontation was avoided – and the world exhaled.

“Trump’s cavalier attitude toward Kim and his suggestion that the dictator was simply seeking attention were most certainly the president’s attempt to scratch his loyal hound behind his well-exposed ears, thus keeping channels open for his own fantasy nuclear deal, not to mention future North Korean appraisals of his opponents.

“But why would Kim chuck his nuclear arsenal, sacrificing his only leverage for relevance in exchange for the removal of a few sanctions?  So what if his people are starving?  Kim has suffered no more distress over the misery of his people than he did over the execution of his uncle, per his command.

“How reassuring that the president of the United States finds solace in Kim’s company, wisdom, in his commentary and faith in his promises.”

Russia:  The United States believes Russia may be conducting low-level nuclear testing in violation of a moratorium on such tests, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency said on Wednesday. 

Lieutenant General Robert P. Ashley told an arms control forum at the Hudson Institute Russia was violating the 1990s Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which Russia ratified in 2000, but the United States has yet to, along with Israel, Iran, Egypt and others.

The head of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee, Vladimir Shamanov, told the Interfax news agency that Ashley “could not have made a more irresponsible statement.  Nuclear tests cannot be carried out secretly,” he was quoted as saying.  “These kinds of statements reveal that the professionalism of the military is systemically falling in America.”

Separately, the Kremlin rejected a UN tribunal’s call for Russia to release 24 Ukrainian sailors detained since November last year, and said it would continue to defend its position over the naval clash.

Last November, Russian ships seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and the 24 sailors in an incident in the Kerch Strait off the coast of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula invaded and annexed by Moscow in 2014.

Austria: Parliament voted to remove Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his government from office in a special parliamentary session.   His previous coalition ally, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), backed the motions brought by the opposition Social Democrats.

It was the FPO that became embroiled in a political scandal caused by a secret video, which ended the coalition.

Kurz, who heads the conservative Austrian People’s Party, is the first chancellor in post-war Austrian history to lose a confidence vote.  At 32, he is the world’s youngest state leader.

Kurz had won a surprisingly strong 35% in the European Union parliament elections on Sunday.

A new election will likely be held in September.

Random Musings

--Presidential tracking polls....

Gallup: 42% approval of President Trump, 52% disapproval; 90% Republicans, 33% Independents (May 15).
Rasmussen:  48% approval, 51% disapproval.

--A Morning Consult poll of Democratic voters released Tuesday had Joe Biden at 38 percent, Bernie Sanders 20 percent, and then it’s all the way down to Elizabeth Warren at 9, Mayor Pete 7, and Kamala Harris 7.

Biden’s support rises to 42 percent among primary voters in early states, which Morning Consult said included Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Sanders remained at 20 percent among such voters.

--The Supreme Court sidestepped major abortion cases Tuesday, letting stand a lower-court ruling that Indiana can’t ban abortions for the purpose of selecting sex or race, or to avoid having a disabled child.

In recent months, with the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the seat held by Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who had joined liberals to reaffirm women’s constitutional right to end their pregnancies, conservative lawmakers in several Republican-led states have proposed bills that are designed to challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision recognizing abortion rights.   As noted before, bills such as that signed by Alabama’s governor, that enacted a near-total ban on abortion.

But the Supreme Court isn’t likely to rule on the new laws anytime soon, though several new abortion cases are in the pipeline that could lead to a major ruling perhaps in 2020.

In the Indiana case, Justice Clarence Thomas did write: “Although the court declines to wade into these issues today, we cannot avoid them forever.”

--Barry McCaffrey / Washington Post

The president of the United States wields enormous constitutional power.  His power as commander in chief of the armed forces is particularly sweeping.  His power to pardon is nearly absolute.  And a rogue president is almost unconstrained, except by congressional removal from office or politically through the power of the electorate.

“A pardon by President Trump of military personnel who have been convicted of battlefield crimes or are pending general court-martial would be enormously damaging to the values of the U.S. armed forces.  He should not take this action.

“I am the first to admit that small-unit, direct combat is brutalizing and raw.  I’ve had four combat tours and been wounded three times. Exhausted, filthy and scared, young troops struggle to survive and keep their buddies alive.  You are trying to destroy enemy fighters with rifles and hand grenades and entrenching tools at close range.  You are not trying to make an arrest; your purpose is to kill these people.

“Civilians accidentally caught up in the fighting and those suspected to be complicit as non-uniformed combatants can be a terribly complicating factor.  It’s hard to explain to our citizens the intensity of violence and sheer lethality of the battlefield.

“Amid all the chaos and complexity, however, the armed forces subscribes to the rule of law.  Our values as a fighting force demand that we not abuse detainees or prisoners of war under our control.  Civilians and their property must be protected.  We work very hard to minimize collateral casualties.  It’s part of our training and our code of conduct....

“We hold our forces accountable for their actions just as we expect our enemies to do so.  If we forgive our forces when they step out of line, we can expect our rivals to do the same.  Commanders cannot do their jobs properly if soldiers feel there is no price to be paid for stepping out of line.  It is a recipe for a battlefield without any rules at all.

“A Trump political pardon of those convicted of murder by a jury of their combat peers would signal to the world that we are no longer a disciplined military force.  It would invalidate the principles of the congressionally mandated Uniform Code of Military Justice. It would state to the International Criminal Court that we will not hold our forces accountable and give the court grounds to intervene.  It would tell foreign fighters that we accept the murder or maltreatment of our own forces if captured.

“The president has publicly endorsed the torture of foreign fighters.  He has argued for the deliberate targeting of the families of terrorists.  If he pardons U.S. personnel convicted by a military court of the direct murder of unarmed detainees or civilians, he will have taken a step to dishonor our armed forces.”

--Maureen Dowd / New York Times...on Donald Trump....

“Just as Trump once wore out contractors, bankers, lawyers and businesspeople in New York with his combative, insulting and wayward ways, now he’s wearing out the political crowd, as he tries to beat everybody here into submission with his daily, even hourly, onslaught of outrage piled upon outrage.

“Journalists must not become inured to Trump’s outlandish, transgressive behavior.  Mitch McConnell, Barr and almost everyone else in the G.O.P. have made themselves numb to his abhorrent actions because of self-interest.

“But for those who are concerned about the scarring of the American psyche, it’s exhausting to find the vocabulary to keep explaining, over and over, how beyond the pale and out of the norm the 45th president is.

“How do you ratchet up from ‘remarkable,’ ‘extraordinary,’ ‘unprecedented’

“What words can you use about someone who considers pardoning war criminals on Memorial Day?  Who wants to make it simpler for adoption agencies to bar same-sex couples?  Who circumvents Congress to complete arms deals to benefit the same Saudis who are clearly culpable in the case of the dismembered Washington Post columnist?

“Pete Buttigieg and Nancy Pelosi have both mastered the art of puncturing Trump – far better than his Republican primary debate rivals did.

“ ‘I don’t have a problem standing up to somebody who was working on Season 7 of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ when I was packing my bags for Afghanistan,’ Buttigieg told The Post’s Robert Costa, saying he took a dim view of Trump’s bone-spurs excuse to get out of serving in Vietnam.

“Pelosi winds Trump up when she drips condescension worthy of a Jane Austen grande dame, saying she will pray for the president or pleading for someone to stage an intervention with the poor soul.

“After Pelosi remarked that the president was engaged in a cover-up, Trump dynamited his own meeting with ‘Crazy Nancy,’ as he called her....

“Trump tweeted a video of Pelosi that was manipulated to make her look as if she were slurring her words.

“ ‘Well, I don’t know about the videos,’ the president told reporters as he left on his trip to Japan.

“ ‘He does outrageous, nasty, destructive things, knowing full well he’s crossing a line, and then he pretends he didn’t,’ said Trump biographer Tim O’Brien.  ‘He has spent five decades going to gossip columnists, radio shows, TV interviews and newspapers to stick a knife into almost anybody who crosses his path that he doesn’t like and he revels in it.  There is something amazing in the Energizer Bunny aspect of his nastiness and his ignorance.  He doesn’t care what people think about how mean or dumb he is. He just keeps going.’”

--Dr. Keith Wolverson made the papers the other day. It seems that last June, while doing his thing at Royal Stoke University Hospital in the UK, he asked a Muslim woman to remove her veil, her niqab, a veil covering all but  the eyes, so he could hear her while trying to diagnose her daughter.

“I asked a lady to remove her face veil for adequate communication, in the same way I’d ask a motorcyclist to remove a crash helmet,” insisted Wolverson, a primary care physician for 23 years.

“I’m not racist. This has nothing to do with race, religion or skin color,” he previously told the Daily Mail.

Wolverson has made the headlines nearly a year later because he could lose his job and 100,000, at last word, have signed a petition backing him.

You see, the unidentified woman complained and the UK’s General Medical Council launched a formal probe.

“I’m a little bit sad the country has been committed to depths such as this,” Wolverson complained, having been suspended during the investigation, according to a report in the Independent.

But Wolverson said he has been “absolutely bowled over by the support.”

--A survey from Common Sense Media revealed that more than a third of teenagers wake up in the middle of the night and check their smartphones, but the parents are just as bad.  A quarter of them do the same.

--Over the winter I occasionally checked out the Mammoth Mountain, Calif., webcams to see the snow there.  As of a few days ago, Mammoth had received a record 29 inches in May!  The total for the season thus hit 489 inches at the main lodge, and 715 inches at the summit.  As of Memorial Day, the ski resort’s current base depth is between 90 and 155 inches.  February saw a record-breaking 24 feet!  [Which was rather tough on the locals, who had to tunnel out of their homes.]

Mammoth said it expects to be open into August, which has happened only twice before.

Needless to say, California is out of its drought, so this is good.

--The record rainfalls in basically the eastern 2/3s of the U.S. do not augur well for the mosquito season.  There were 2,544 cases of mosquito-borne West Nile virus across the country in 2018, with the highest concentration in the Midwest, according to the CDC.

The CDC recommends using a repellent with 25%-30% concentration of DEET, which will provide 4-6 hours of protection and is the “gold standard by which all repellents are judged,” according to Joseph Conlon, Technical Advisor of the American Mosquito Control Association.

And then you have ticks.  Mr. Conlon, aka “Mr. Party,” recommends a 40% formulation of oil of lemon eucalyptus to protect against ticks and mosquitoes.

Conlon also said the vast majority of home remedies found on the internet, including using dryer sheets (hadn’t heard that one) are “nonsense.”

--As one who has gone off on Civil War battlefield tours a number of times, I was depressed to read a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Cameron McWhirter that visitation to our nation’s main battlefield parks – Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Chicamauga/Chattanooga and Vicksburg – had a combined 3.1 million visitors in 2018, down from about 10.2 million in 1970, according to park-service data.    Gettysburg had about 950,000 visitors last year, just 14% of the total in 1970 and the lowest annual number of visitors since 1959.  Only one of the five, Antietam, in Maryland, saw an increase from 1970.

Needless to say this is having an impact on local businesses.  Civil War military-memorabilia stores often get most of their sales from hawking stuff from World War II.

It hasn’t helped that fights over Confederate monuments have been in the headlines and young people simply couldn’t give a damn. 

Well the museums and historical sites are working to draw a broader audience by telling a more complete story about the great conflict, in an attempt to draw in a broader audience.

Richmond recently opened a new American Civil War Museum, which is the merger six years ago of two Richmond museums, one of which was the Museum of the Confederacy.

CEO Christy Coleman said the new museum’s goal is to explore the stories of more people involved in the conflict, including slaves and women.

“We’re taking [the Civil War] back from the crazies,” she said, referring to people who argue slavery wasn’t a central issue of the conflict.

And the Atlanta History Center doubled its audience from February to May compared with the same period a year ago by opening new exhibits, including the display of the cyclorama, an enormous painting of the Battle of Atlanta.

So maybe there is hope.

--70,000 British soccer fans have descended on Madrid for Saturday’s Champions League final, Tottenham vs. Liverpool.  This is the ultimate prize in club football worldwide.

It’s also a nice boost to the local economy and the pubs.  Now behave, lads!

Yours truly is a Tottenham fan.

--As we approach the 75th anniversary of D-Day, “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) will be airing in 600 theaters nationwide for just two days – June 2 and June 5 – so check it out.

---

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

And we think of Virginia Beach tonight.

God bless America.

---

Gold $1310
Oil $53.36

Returns for the week 5/27-5/31

Dow Jones  -3.0%  [24815]
S&P 500  -2.6%  [2752]
S&P MidCap  -2.8%  [1810]
Russell 2000  -3.2%
Nasdaq   -2.4%  [7453]

Returns for the period 1/1/19-5/31/19

Dow Jones  +6.4%
S&P 500  +9.8%
S&P MidCap  +8.9%
Russell 2000  +8.7%
Nasdaq  +12.3%

Bulls 49.0
Bears 17.3

Have a great week.

Brian Trumbore