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Russia Gives US Red Line On Venezuela

Authored by Finian Cunningham via The Strategic Culture Foundation,

At a high-level meeting in Rome this week, it seems that Russia reiterated a grave warning to the US – Moscow will not tolerate American military intervention to topple the Venezuelan government with whom it is allied.

Meanwhile, back in Washington DC, President Donald Trump was again bragging that the military option was still on the table, in his press conference with Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro. Trump is bluffing or not yet up to speed with being apprised of Russia’s red line.

The meeting in the Italian capital between US “special envoy” on Venezuelan affairs Elliot Abrams and Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov had an air of urgency in its arrangement. The US State Department announced the tête-à-tête only three days beforehand. The two officials also reportedly held their two-hour discussions in a Rome hotel, a venue indicating ad hoc arrangement.

Abrams is no ordinary diplomat. He is a regime-change specialist with a criminal record for sponsoring terrorist operations, specifically the infamous Iran-Contra affair to destabilize Nicaragua during the 1980s. His appointment by President Trump to the “Venezuela file” only underscores the serious intent in Washington for regime change in Caracas. Whether it gets away with that intent is another matter.

Moscow’s interlocutor, Sergei Ryabkov, is known to not mince his words, having earlier castigated Washington for seeking global military domination. He calls a spade a spade, and presumably a criminal a criminal.

The encounter in Rome this week was described as “frank” and “serious” – which is diplomatic code for a blazing exchange. The timing comes at a high-stakes moment, after Venezuela having been thrown into chaos last week from civilian power blackouts that many observers, including the Kremlin, blame on American cyber sabotage. The power grid outage followed a failed attempt by Washington to stage a provocation with the Venezuelan military over humanitarian aid deliveries last month from neighboring Colombia.

The fact that Washington’s efforts to overthrow the elected President Nicolas Maduro have so far floundered, might suggest that the Americans are intensifying their campaign to destabilize the country, with the objective of installing US-backed opposition figure Juan Guaido. He declared himself “acting president” in January with Washington’s imprimatur.

Given that the nationwide power blackouts seem to have failed in fomenting a revolt by the civilian population or the military against Maduro, the next option tempting Washington could be the military one.

It seems significant that Washington has recently evacuated its last remaining diplomats from the South American country. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented on the evacuation by saying that having US personnel on the ground “was limiting” Washington’s scope for action. Also, American Airlines reportedly cancelled all its services to Venezuela in the past week. Again, suggesting that the US was considering a military intervention, either directly with its troops or covertly by weaponizing local proxies. The latter certainly falls under Abrams’ purview.

After the Rome meeting, Ryabkov said bluntly:

“We assume that Washington treats our priorities seriously, our approach and warnings.”

One of those warnings delivered by Ryabkov is understood to have been that no American military intervention in Venezuela will be tolerated by Moscow.

For his part, Abrams sounded as if he had emerged from the meeting after having been given a severe reprimand.

“No, we did not come to a meeting of minds, but I think the talks were positive in the sense that both sides emerged with a better understanding of the other’s views,” he told reporters.

“A better understanding of the other’s views,” means that the American side was given a red line to back off.

The arrogance of the Americans is staggering. Abrams seems, according to US reporting, to have flown to Rome with the expectation of working out with Ryabkov a “transition” or “compromise” on who gets the “title of president” of Venezuela.

That’s what he no doubt meant when he said after the meeting “there was not a meeting of minds”, but rather he got “a better understanding” of Russia’s position.

Washington’s gambit is a replay of Syria. During the eight-year war in that country, the US continually proffered the demand of a “political transition” which at the end would see President Bashar al Assad standing down. By contrast, Russia’s unflinching position on Syria has always been that it’s not up to any external power to decide Syria’s politics. It is a sovereign matter for the Syrian people to determine independently.

Nearly three years after Russia intervened militarily in Syria to salvage the Arab country from a US-backed covert war for regime change, the American side has manifestly given up on its erstwhile imperious demands for “political transition”. The principle of Syrian sovereignty has prevailed, in large part because of Russia’s trenchant defense of its Arab ally.

Likewise, Washington, in its incorrigible arrogance, is getting another lesson from Russia – this time in its own presumed “back yard” of Latin America.

It’s not a question of Russia being inveigled by Washington’s regime-change schemers about who should be president of Venezuela and “how we can manage a transition”. Moscow has reiterated countless times that the legitimate president of Venezuela is Nicolas Maduro whom the people voted for last year by an overwhelming majority in a free and fair election – albeit boycotted by the US-orchestrated opposition.

The framework Washington is attempting to set up of choosing between their desired “interim president” and incumbent Maduro is an entirely spurious one. It is not even worthy to be discussed because it is a gross violation of Venezuela’s sovereignty. Who is Washington to even dare try to impose its false choice?

On Venezuela, Russia is having to remind the criminal American rulers – again – about international law and respect for national sovereignty, as Moscow earlier did with regard to Syria.

And in case Washington gets into a huff and tries the military option, Moscow this week told regime-change henchman Abrams that that’s a red line. If Washington has any sense of rationale left, it will know from its Syria fiasco that Russia has Venezuela’s back covered.

Political force is out. Military force is out. Respect international law and Venezuela’s sovereignty. That’s Russia’s eminently reasonable ultimatum to Washington.

Now, the desperate Americans could still try more sabotage, cyber or financial. But their options are limited, contrary to what Trump thinks.

How the days of American imperialist swagger are numbered. There was a time when it could rampage all over Latin America. Not any more, evidently. Thanks in part to Russia’s global standing and military power.

UK Coup Erupts: Theresa May Cabinet In Revolt, Plotting Her Imminent Overthrow

Theresa May may have days, if not hours, left as prime minister of the UK following a full-blown cabinet coup on Saturday night as senior ministers moved to oust the UK prime minister and replace her with her deputy, David Lidington.

According to the Sunday Times, following a “frantic series of private telephone calls”, senior ministers agreed the prime minister must announce she is standing down, warning that she has become a toxic and “erratic” figure whose judgment has “gone haywire.”

The plotters reportedly plan to confront May at a cabinet meeting on Sunday and demand that she announces she is quitting. If she refuses, they will threaten mass resignations or publicly demand her head. The “conspirators” were locked in talks late on Saturday to try reach a consensus deal on a new prime minister so there does not have to be a protracted leadership contest.

Tory MPs now texting round saying Theresa May should go this week and a Gove / Lidington / Hunt triumvirate should sort out this mess

— Sam Coates Times (@SamCoatesTimes) March 23, 2019

The Sunday Times, which reported that up to 11 cabinet minister confirmed they wanted the prime minister to make way for someone else, said that at six senior ministers want her deputy, David Lidington, to deliver Brexit and then make way for a full leadership contest in the autumn. Lidington’s supporters include cabinet remainers Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, also believes Lidington should take over if May refuses this week to seek a new consensus deal on Brexit. Sajid Javid, has agreed to put his own leadership ambitions on hold until the autumn to clear the way for Lidington — as long as his main rivals do the same.

The relatively unfamiliar – especially outside the UK – Lidington “is understood not to be pressing for the top job but is prepared to take over if that is the will of cabinet. He would agree not to stand in the contest to find a permanent leader.”

A cabinet source said: “David’s job would be to secure an extension with the EU, find a consensus for a new Brexit policy and then arrange an orderly transition to a new leader.”

Lidington’s friends want him to pledge to allow the cabinet to decide Brexit policy in order to get Hunt and Gove on board, urging the three cabinet heavyweights to work together to take control of the government.

Michael Gove, a leading Brexiteer in the 2016 referendum, and Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt also have some support.

So: there are signs tonight the cabinet have turned against May

But huge scrap over whether Gove or Lidington might take over. Big problems with both at this stage. So you couldn’t say there is “a successor”

So it remains the case it’s impossible to tell what will now happen

— Sam Coates Times (@SamCoatesTimes) March 23, 2019

Hunt, the foreign secretary, does not support Lidington because he believes he would do a deal with Labour to take Britain into a permanent customs union with the EU, although he has lost confidence in May’s ability to take advice or deliver the deal.

Meanwhile environment secretary Gove has a leadership team in place and a raft of supporters who have been recruited in a series of secret dinners hosted by Mel Stride, the Treasury minister. Gove is said to be ready to support Lidington if others do but is sceptical that agreement will be reached.

* * *

As the Times details, the coup erupted “after a week of mistakes” by May, who delivered a television statement that alienated the MPs whose support she needs for her Brexit deal and then flirted with backing a no deal before performing a U-turn.

One cabinet minister said: “The end is nigh. She won’t be prime minister in 10 days’ time.”

A second said: “Her judgment has started to go haywire. You can’t be a member of the cabinet who just puts your head in the sand.”

Similar to recurring mentions of the 25th Amendment in the US, concerns about May’s mental and physical resilience are widely shared. Officials in parliament were so concerned about May’s welfare they drew up a protocol to extract her from the Commons if she collapsed at the dispatch box.

For now May has refused to comply with the coup’s demands, and the Times sources at Downing Street say May has not yet come to the conclusion that she should resign and is still being encouraged by her husband Philip to fight on. But she has also lost the confidence of key allies whose job it is to maintain party discipline. Whether she remains or quits, the current Brexit process remains irreparably broken: Julian Smith, the chief whip, believes there is no prospect of the prime minister winning support for her deal unless she announces that she is standing down so the second phase of Brexit negotiations can be conducted by a new leader.

Smith told May that she should offer to go in the summer. May last night won the backing of Gisela Stuart, the most high-profile Labour supporter of the Vote Leave campaign. Writing in The Sunday Times, Stuart said: “It’s not the deal we want but it is the only deal we have.”

But Smith and other senior Tories believe that May’s resignation is a prerequisite to securing the support of key Brexiteers Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Jacob Rees-Mogg for the deal — without whom it is doomed to defeat.

In a desperate last ditch move to save her seat, May’s team is said to be working on a plan to secure the support of the Democratic Unionist Party and Labour MPs by granting them a say on the final trade deal, to be negotiated after Brexit.

That appears to be too little, too late: MPs claimed that just one member of the whips’ office, Mike Freer, wants May to carry on.

In an astonishing challenge to her authority one senior whip, Paul Maynard, told May to her face that she should go because she was “betraying Brexit” and “destroying our party”. Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of backbenchers, is “at the end of his chain” and also thinks May should resign.

Another cabinet minister said: “If the prime minister no longer has confidence of the parliamentary party, is badly placed to win over support of other parties and patience with her is almost run out among the EU 27 — then her continuing is a real problem.”

Meanwhile, in bad news for pound bulls, with May’s authority in freefall, Times sources said it is unlikely that the prime minister will hold a third meaningful vote on her Brexit deal this week. Instead she will be a passenger as MPs vote tomorrow on a motion that will let them seize control of Wednesday’s Commons business to host a series of “indicative votes”, where MPs can express a preference for alternatives to May’s Brexit plan. That could lead to pressure for a new referendum or a Norway-style deal that keeps Britain in the single market.

The most likely outcome, however, is even more chaos and confusion as in addition to having no real Brexit plans ahead of the (extended) hard Brexit headline in three weeks, the UK will soon be without a real leader.

* * *

And so with the UK facing a political coup, much remains unsure, with Times deputy political editor Sam Coates tweeting that:

  • are we really sure that it will be left to an “interim” PM to change direction of the county?
  • still clearly disagreement over timetable from different parts of cabinet
  • no contest involving Tory membership means massive row

So much unsure tonight

– are we really sure that it will be left to an “interim” PM to change direction of the county?

– still clearly disagreement over timetable from different parts of cabinet

– no contest involving Tory membership means massive row https://t.co/10jtrErCIo

— Sam Coates Times (@SamCoatesTimes) March 23, 2019

The report of the political revolt comes, ironically, just hours after hundreds of thousands of Britons poured into the streets of London demanding a second public vote.

WATCH: Here is a bird’s eye view of the thousands of people in today’s #PeoplesVoteMarch in London calling for a new #Brexit referendum #PutItToThePeople pic.twitter.com/hbQkBEbmfX

— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) March 23, 2019

Marchers,  accompanied by live performances from noted U.K. musicians including DJ Fatboy Slim, clogged the streets of central London as they walked from Hyde Park to Parliament Square to hear from the opposition Labour Party mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and deputy Labour leader Tom Watson.
Watson promised to back Theresa May’s twice-defeated political deal — breaking from the party’s position — in return for her  agreement to put the withdrawal accord to a public vote.

“I will support your deal, I will help you get over the line, to help avoid a disastrous no-deal Brexit, but only if you let the people vote on it,” Watson said.

And while most of the attendees favor Britain staying in the bloc, the rest of the UK reportedly remains sternly against going back to that other vortex of political chaos known as the European Union.

* * *

Appendix: for those who still pretend to bother about the Brexit process and where we currently stand, the following flowchart from AFP should give you a rough idea.

SPLC Implodes: President And Legal Director Resign Amid Sexual Misconduct Scandal

The Southern Poverty Law Center – the “vicious left-wing attack dog” used by the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon to identify “hate groups” – is unraveling. 

A week after co-founder Morris Dees was ousted over sexual misconduct claims – with two dozen employees signing a letter of concern over “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism,” the head of the SPLC, Richard Cohen, as well as the organization’s legal director, Rhonda Brownstein, resigned on Friday. 

Morris Dees, Richard Cohen, Rhonda Brownstein

Cohen had been with the organization 33 years and was one of its most prominent figures. 

At 5:03 p.m. Friday, Cohen sent a message to staff, with the subject line “Stepping Down,” announcing that he, too, would be leaving the organization that he and Dees had turned into a research and fundraising juggernaut.

“Whatever problems exist at the SPLC happened on my watch, so I take responsibility for them,” Cohen wrote, while asking the staff to avoid jumping to conclusions before the board completes an internal review of the Montgomery, Ala., organization’s work culture. –LA Times

Earlier this week, the SPLC board of directors appointed Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, Tina Tchen – who, in an unrelated matter, unsuccessfully tried to pull strings and have the Jussie Smollett case transferred from the Chicago PD to the FBI. Tchen is heading up the inquiry into the sexual misconduct claims.

Tina Tchen

Also out on Friday was Rhonda Brownstein – who had worked with the organization for nearly three decades, according to the Montgomery Advertiser‘s Melissa Brown. 

Inside the SPLC “Scam”

As the Washington Examiner‘s Beckett Adams writes, the Southern Poverty Law Center is a “scam,” which has taken ” no care whatsoever for the reputational and personal harm it causes by lumping Christians and anti-extremist activists with actual neo-Nazis.”

As it turns out, the SPLC is a cynical money-making scheme, according to a former staffer’s blistering tell-all, published this week in the New Yorker. The center’s chief goal is to bilk naive and wealthy donors who believe it’s an earnest effort to combat bigotry.

The only thing worse than a snarling partisan activist is a slimy conman who merely pretends to be one. –Washington Examiner

““Outside of work,” recalls Bob Moser of his days working for the organization, “we spent a lot of time drinking and dishing in Montgomery bars and restaurants about … the hyperbolic fund-raising appeals, and the fact that, though the center claimed to be effective in fighting extremism, ‘hate’ always continued to be on the rise, more dangerous than ever, with each year’s report on hate groups. ‘The S.P.L.C.—making hate pay,’ we’d say.”

“[I]t was hard, for many of us, not to feel like we’d become pawns in what was, in many respects, a highly profitable scam,” added Moser. 

The way Moser tells it, the center’s chief founder, Morris Dees, who was dismissed unceremoniously last week for unspecified reasons, discovered early on that he could rake in boatloads of cash by convincing “gullible Northern liberals that his group is doing the hard work of fighting “hate.”

But the center’s supposed mission of combating bigotry doesn’t actually matter to its top brass, Moser says. It’s just a business choice and one that has been extremely lucrative throughout the years. Moser’s article reminds readers of the time Dees actually said of the SPLC in an interview with then-Progressive magazine reporter John Egerton, “We just run our business like a business. Whether you’re selling cakes or causes, it’s all the same.” –Washington Examiner

Moser claims that the SPLC’s business model centers entirely around keeping its precious donors in constant fear using gimmicks such as “hate maps” and “hate lists.” 

“[T]he center continues to take in far more than it spends. And it still tends to emphasize splashy cases that are sure to draw national attention,” he writes adding the group’s “central strategy” involves “taking on cases guaranteed to make headlines and inflame the far right while demonstrating to potential donors that the center has not only all the right enemies but also the grit and know-how to take them down.” 

Moser adds there is an inescapable sense of “guilt” that comes with thinking about “the legions of donors who believed that their money was being used, faithfully and well, to do the Lord’s work in the heart of Dixie. We were part of the con, and we knew it.”

Who knew you could make the big bucks simply by lumping Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ben Carson with actual, honest-to-God neo-Nazis? –Washington Examiner

Right wing commentator and Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes is currently suing the SPLC for labeling his right-wing fraternal organization, the Proud Boys, a hate group

The SPLC has gone from a noble institution genuinely dedicated to eradicating hate to a hate group in and of itself that pretends this country is frothing with bigots desperate to foment World War III,” McInnes said in a press release. 

McInnes has raised nearly $200,000 out of a goal of $250,000 to continue his lawsuit. From his website Defendgavin.com: 

I’m suing the SPLC. And it’s not just because they destroyed my career and shattered my reputation. It’s because they could do the same to you. Though this group is often cited as a credible source by the media, nobody who actually knows stuff takes them seriously.

No, being called an extremist by the SPLC does NOT mean you’re an extremist. No, being called a Hate Group by the SPLC does NOT make you a Hate Group. And no, being called a racist or an anti-Semite or an Islamophobe or a transphobe or a homophobe by the SPLC does NOT make you any of those things. -Gavin McInnes

We wonder if there will even be an SPLC left to sue by the time it reaches a courtroom. 

Don’t Shoot The Dogs: The Growing Epidemic Of Cops Shooting Family Pets

Authored by John Whitehead via The Rutherford Institute,

“In too much of policing today, officer safety has become the highest priority. It trumps the rights and safety of suspects. It trumps the rights and safety of bystanders. It’s so important, in fact, that an officer’s subjective fear of a minor wound from a dog bite is enough to justify using potentially lethal force, in this case at the expense of a 4-year-old girl. And this isn’t the first time. In January, an Iowa cop shot and killed a woman by mistake while trying to kill her dog. Other cops have shot other kidsother bystanderstheir partnerstheir supervisors and even themselves while firing their guns at a dog. That mind-set is then, of course, all the more problematic when it comes to using force against people.

– Journalist Radley Balko

The absurd cruelties of the American police state keep reaching newer heights.

Consider that if you kill a police dog, you could face a longer prison sentence than if you’d murdered someone or abused a child.

If a cop kills your dog, however, there will be little to no consequences for that officer.

Not even a slap on the wrist.

In this, as in so many instances of official misconduct by government officials, the courts have ruled that the cops have qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that incentivizes government officials to engage in lawless behavior without fear of repercussions.

This is the heartless, heartbreaking, hypocritical injustice that passes for law and order in America today.

It is estimated that a dog is shot by a police officer “every 98 minutes.”

The Department of Justice estimates that at least 25 dogs are killed by police every day. 

The Puppycide Database Project estimates the number of dogs being killed by police to be closer to 500 dogs a day (which translates to 182,000 dogs a year).

In 1 out of 5 cases involving police shooting a family pet, a child was either in the police line of fire or in the immediate area of a shooting. For instance, a 4-year-old girl was accidentally shot in the leg after a police officer opened fire on a dog running towards him, missed and hit the little girl instead.

At a time when police are increasingly inclined to shoot first and ask questions later, it doesn’t take much to provoke a cop into opening fire on an unarmed person guilty of doing nothing more than standing a certain way, or moving a certain way, or holding something—anything—that police could misinterpret to be a weapon.

All a cop has to do is cite an alleged “fear” for his safety.

According to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, all it takes for dogs to pose a sufficient threat to police to justify them opening fire is for the dog to move or bark.

Even in the absence of an actual threat, the perception of a threat is enough for qualified immunity to kick in and for the cop to be let off the hook for behavior that would get the rest of us jailed for life.

As journalist Radley Balko points out, “In too much of policing today, officer safety has become the highest priority. It trumps the rights and safety of suspects. It trumps the rights and safety of bystanders. It’s so important, in fact, that an officer’s subjective fear of a minor wound from a dog bite is enough to justify using potentially lethal force.”

The epidemic of cops shooting dogs takes this shameful behavior to a whole new level, though.

It doesn’t take much for a cop to shoot a dog.

Dogs shot and killed by police have been “guilty” of nothing more menacing than wagging their tails, barking in greeting, or merely being in their own yard. 

For instance, Spike, a 70-pound pit bull, was shot by NYPD police when they encountered him in the hallway of an apartment building in the Bronx. Surveillance footage shows the dog, tail wagging, right before an officer shot him in the head at pointblank range.

Arzy, a 14-month-old Newfoundland, Labrador and golden retriever mix, was shot between the eyes by a Louisiana police officer. The dog had been secured on a four-foot leash at the time he was shot. An independent witness testified that the dog never gave the officer any provocation to shoot him.

Seven, a St. Bernard, was shot repeatedly by Connecticut police in the presence of the dog’s 12-year-old owner. Police, investigating an erroneous tip, had entered the property—without a warrant—where the dog and her owner had been playing in the backyard, causing the dog to give chase.

Dutchess, a 2-year-old rescue dog, was shot three times in the head by Florida police as she ran out her front door. The officer had been approaching the house to inform the residents that their car door was open when the dog bounded out to greet him.

Yanna, a 10-year-old boxer, was shot three times by Georgia police after they mistakenly entered the wrong home and opened fire, killing the dog, shooting the homeowner in the leg and wounding an investigating officer.

Payton, a 7-year-old black Labrador retriever, and 4-year-old Chase, also a black Lab, were shot and killed after a SWAT team mistakenly raided the mayor’s home while searching for drugs. Police shot Payton four times. Chase was shot twice, once from behind as he ran away. “My government blew through my doors and killed my dogs. They thought we were drug dealers, and we were treated as such. I don’t think they really ever considered that we weren’t,” recalls Mayor Cheye Calvo, who described being handcuffed and interrogated for hours—wearing only underwear and socks—surrounded by the dogs’ carcasses and pools of the dogs’ blood.

In another instance, a Missouri SWAT team raided a family home, killing a 4-year-old pit bull Kiya. Believe it or not, this time the SWAT raid wasn’t in pursuit of drugs, mistaken or otherwise, but was intended “to check if [the] home had electricity and natural gas service.”

A dog doesn’t even have to be an aggressive breed to be shot by a cop.

Balko has documented countless “dog shootings in which a police officer said he felt ‘threatened’ and had no choice but to use lethal force, including the killing of a Dalmatian (more than once), a yellow Lab , a springer spaniel, a chocolate Lab, a boxer, an Australian cattle dog, a Wheaten terrier, an Akita… a Jack Russell terrier… a 12-pound miniature dachshund… [and] a five-pound chihuahua.”

Chihuahuas, among the smallest breed of dog (known as “purse” dogs), seem to really push cops over the edge.

In Arkansas, for example, a sheriff’s deputy shot an “aggressive” chihuahua for barking repeatedly. The dog, Reese’s, required surgery for a shattered jaw and a feeding tube to eat.

Same thing happened in Texas, except Trixie—who was on the other side of a fence from the officer—didn’t survive the shooting.

Let’s put this in perspective, shall we?

We’re being asked to believe that a police officer, fully armed, trained in combat and equipped to deal with the worst case scenario when it comes to violence, is so threatened by a yipping purse dog weighing less than 10 pounds that the only recourse is to shoot the dog?

If this is the temperament of police officers bred by the police state, we should all be worried.

Clearly, our four-legged friends are suffering at the hands of an inhumane police state in which the police have all the rights, the citizenry have very few rights, and our pets—viewed by the courts as personal property like a car or a house, but far less valuable—have no rights at all.

So what’s to be done?

Essentially, it comes down to training and accountability.

It’s the difference between police officers who rank their personal safety above everyone else’s and police officers who understand that their jobs are to serve and protect.

It’s the difference between police who are trained to shoot to kill and police trained to resolve situations peacefully.

Most of all, it’s the difference between police who believe the law is on their side and police who know that they will be held to account for their actions under the same law as everyone else.

Unfortunately, more and more police are being trained to view themselves as distinct from the citizenry, to view their authority as superior to the citizenry, and to view their lives as more precious than those of their citizen counterparts. Instead of being taught to see themselves as mediators and peacemakers whose lethal weapons are to be used as a last resort, they are being drilled into acting like gunmen with killer instincts who shoot to kill rather than merely incapacitate.

These dog killings are, as Balko recognizes, “a side effect of the new SWAT, paramilitary focus in many police departments, which has supplanted the idea of being an ‘officer of the peace.’”

Thus, whether you’re talking about police shooting dogs or citizens, the mindset is the same: a rush to violence, abuse of power, fear for officer safety, poor training in how to de-escalate a situation, and general carelessness.

It’s time to rein in this abuse of power.

A good place to start is by requiring police to undergo classes annually on how to peacefully resolve and de-escalate situations with the citizenry. While they’re at it, they should be forced to de-militarize. No one outside the battlefield—and barring a foreign invasion, the U.S. should never be considered a domestic battlefield—should be equipped with the kinds of weapons and gear being worn and used by local police forces today. If the politicians are serious about instituting far-reaching gun control measures, let them start by taking the guns and SWAT teams away from the countless civilian agencies that have nothing to do with military defense that are packing lethal heat.

Ultimately, this comes down to better—and constant—training in nonviolent tactics, serious consequences for those who engage in excessive force, and a seismic shift in how law enforcement agencies and the courts deal with those who transgress.

In terms of our four-legged friends, many states are adopting laws to make canine training mandatory for police officers. As dog behavior counselor Brian Kilcommons noted, officers’ inclination to “take command and take control” can cause them to antagonize dogs unnecessarily. Officers “need to realize they’re there to neutralize, not control… If they have enough money to militarize the police with Humvees, they have enough money to train them not to kill family members. And pets are considered family.”

After all, as the Washington Post points out, while “postal workers regularly encounter both vicious and gregarious dogs on their daily rounds… letter carriers don’t kill dogs, even though they are bitten by the thousands every year. Instead, the Postal Service offers its employees training on how to avoid bites.” Journalist Dale Chappell adds, “Using live dogs, handlers and trainers put postal workers through scenarios to teach them how to read a dog’s behavior and calm a dog, or fend it off, if necessary. Meter readers also have benefited from the same training, drastically reducing incidents of dog bites.”

The Rutherford Institute is working on a program aimed at training police to deescalate their interactions with dogs rather than resorting to lethal force, while providing pet owners with legal resources to better protect the four-legged members of their household.

Yet as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, there will be no end to the bloodshed – of unarmed Americans or their family pets – until police stop viewing themselves as superior to those whom they are supposed to serve and start acting like the peace officers they’re supposed to be.

Goldman Just Put On The Next “Big Short” Trade

At the start of March in a span of just 48 hours, several big names in the American mall industry announced they would be slashing store counts to the tune of over 300 stores. Gap said during its earnings call that it is going to shutter 230 locations over the next two years, just hours after JCPenney said that it would close 18 of its department stores. This news came after L Brands said they were going to close 53 Victoria’s Secret stores in North America this year according to Bloomberg. The icing on the cake was when “disruptor” Tesla recently announced all of its sales would be moving online, which was a nice way to say that almost all of its retail locations – many of which are located in malls – were going to close (since then Musk appears to have flip-flopped and as of this moment, the fate of Tesla’s retail operation remains unknown).

These closures followed a number of high profile bankruptcies in the “bricks and mortar” space: Payless Inc. just went bankrupt for the second time in two years, bankrupt Sears was minutes away from liquidation, while perennial mall tenant Brookstone filed for chapter last August, slashing the size of their operations – and once American mall staples like Gymboree, RadioShack, Bon-Ton Shoes and Wet Seal all filed for bankruptcy over the last half decade. Payless is going to be abandoning its 2500 stores, while Things Remembered will also be closing most of its 400 stores.

Overall, since 2016, 35 major retail chains, and countless smaller ones, have filed for Chapter 11.

So, as a result of this ongoing default tsunami, malls are becoming increasingly mere vacant lots, a few scattered fashion retailers, Apple stores and food courts, primarily just feeding Apple employees. And while the idea of imploding malls is not new, as the industry did seem to stabilize at one point as the cost of gas fell and consumer confidence rose, it now appears that the eye of the hurricane may have passed, and the tide is heading out once again, as vacancy rates at US malls jumped to 9% in the fourth quarter of 2018, up from 8.3% the year prior.

And, as we said three weeks ago, this relapse in the sector suggests animal shorting spirits may soon re-emerge. Recall that back in 2017 we, and others, dubbed these U.S. retail store closures as “the next big short”. We said that “just like 10 years ago, when the “big short” was putting on the RMBX trade, and to a smaller extent, its cousin the CMBX, some were starting to short CMBS through the CMBX, a CDS index which tracks the values of bonds backed by various commercial properties. We explained our reasoning for putting on this short through CMBX versus stocks:

The trade, as we discussed before, is not so much shorting the equities where a persistent threat of a short squeeze has burned the bears on more than one occasion, but going long default risk via CMBX or otherwise shorting the CMBS complex. Based on fundamentals, the trade indeed appears justified: Sold in 2012, the mortgage bonds have a higher concentration of loans to regional malls and shopping centers than similar securities issued since the financial crisis. And because of the way CMBS are structured, the BBB- and BB rated notes are the first to suffer losses when underlying loans go belly up.

The trade lost some of its vigor in early 2018, when it seemed that the lows in CMBX BBB- may have been hit with the tranche trading in a tight range for the past 2 years.

However, we concluded that “once the new wave of bankruptcies flows through the mall P&L (or rather, does not) and a new wave of distress hits the mall sector, we fully expect new lows to be observed in this trade which is basically an inverse bet on Amazon’s continued success in stealing market share from pretty much everyone.”

Just a few days later, we reported that one of the largest credit hedge funds, Canyon Partners, had put a $1 billion bet on CMBX blowing up in the coming months on expectations the commercial real estate bubble would soon blow up.

Now, three weeks later, none other than Goldman has decided to echo what we said at the start of the month, and is urging its clients join the “big short” bandwagon  by going short CMBX AAA bonds (while hedging in a pair trade by going long five-year investment-grade corporate CDX).

Noting that US commercial real estate prices have reached expensive levels, with cap rates tight relative to real Treasury rates by historical standards…

… Goldman points out a discrepancy, namely that at the same time, spreads on AAA CMBX indices have moved to historically tight levels: tight vs. other fixed income instruments such as CDX IG, and tight even relative to the spreads on the exact CMBS cash bond underliers referenced by the AAA CMBX products.

And while that means that the highest-rated commercial mortgage loans are paying off on time now, with few default concerns on the horizon, Goldman’s credit analysts Marty Young and Lofti Karoui fear that this scenario could easily reverse if commercial real estate prices start to decline.

Citing the bank’s recent review of potential areas of financial imbalance across the US corporate and household sectors, Young notes that stretched CRE valuations ranked near the top in terms of risk level; and while a large and immediate commercial property price downturn is not the bank’s baseline forecast, “a scenario with falling commercial property prices in the next 1-2 years is one to which we would attach non-negligible probability” the analysts caution.

Of course, there is not just one AAA CMBX series, but rather 7 – from series 6, representing deals issued in 2012, to the on-the-run series 12 which references bonds from deals issued in 2018.

So what index should investors who wish to put on the big commercial real estate “big short”, bet on dropping?

According to Goldman, investors looking to hedge near-term CRE distress scenarios may favor buying protection on the older, shorter maturity, series, as spreads are even tighter for these instruments (Exhibit 5). For example, loans in the series 6 deals have 3.3 years remaining maturity on average, and the CMBX 6 AAA spread is just 23bp.

As a reminder, when the “big short” commercial real estate trade first emerged in 2017, investors were originally betting on the Markit CMBX Series 6, that references CMBS bonds from 2012, as the series 6 deals have a high (40%) concentration of loans backed by retail properties, a sector facing secular pressures. Vintages after series 6 have less retail exposure, but these later series necessarily have higher exposure to other property types, many of which also have distinct risks. Series 12 deals, for example, have high shares of single-tenant and suburban office properties, and high shares of mortgages which pay interest-only, with no principal amortization.

To be sure, unlike some aggressive contrarian investors, Goldman hedges, noting that the dovish pivot by the Fed this year makes the bank reluctant to maintain a large outright short positioning; as a result, Goldman recommends putting on a pair trade “expressing the view that AAA CMBX spreads are too tight via a portfolio that sells protection on the on-the-run 5-year CDX IG contract and buys protection on the CMBX 6 AAA index, at a 1:1 notional ratio.”

The trade package has positive exposure to corporate credit risk, which we think will continue to benefit from positive momentum in rating actions, as low recession odds and a relatively conservative mindset among BBB corporate issuers keeps downgrade risk idiosyncratic. The long-short portfolio has positive carry; we would recommend implementing the trade with a target return of +2% of notional, and a stop of -2%.

Why is this notable? Because regular readers will recall that the 2007/2008 financial crisis really kicked in only after Goldman’s prop desk started aggressively shorting various RMBS tranches, both cash and synthetic, in late 2006 and into 2007 and 2008, with the trade eventually becoming the “big short” that was popularized in the Michael Lewis book.

Will Goldman’s reco to short CMBX-6 AAA be the trigger that collapses the house of cards for the second time in a row? While traditionally lightning never strikes twice the same place, the centrally-planned market is now so broken that even conventional idioms have to be redone when it comes to the world’s (still) most important trading desk. In any case, keep an eye on commercial real estate prices: while residential markets have already peaked with most MSAs sliding fast, commercial may just be the first domino to drop that unleashes a tsunami of disastrous consequences across the rest of the market.