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SEC Pursuing Broad Review of Stock-Market Structure, Chairman Says


The Securities and Exchange Commission is considering changing rules that govern how U.S. stocks are traded, including pricing incentives that exchanges and high-speed traders use to attract orders, Chairman

Gary Gensler

said Wednesday.

Speaking to an industry conference, Mr. Gensler outlined a broader examination of market structure than he had previously described. Mr. Gensler, who took over the SEC in April, has questioned the system that results in many individual investors’ orders being routed to high-speed traders known as wholesalers, such as Citadel Securities and Virtu Financial Inc., instead of going to public exchanges.

Mr. Gensler suggested individual investors might get better prices if more trading were done on public exchanges. Only about 53% of all trading in January was done on exchanges, while the rest involved wholesalers and broker-run trading venues known as dark pools, Mr. Gensler said.

“The question is whether our equity markets are as efficient as they could be, in light of the technological changes and recent developments,” Mr. Gensler told the Piper Sandler Global Exchange and FinTech conference.

SEC Chairman Gary Gensler said he was seeking to revise rules for controversial 10b5-1 plans at WSJ’s CFO Network Event. Corporate insiders use the plans to avoid insider-trading claims when buying or selling their own company’s stock.

While public exchanges disclose their bids and offers and then compile the orders to publish a national best bid and offer for every stock, wholesalers and the so-called dark pools don’t reveal their pre-trade prices. Those off-exchange venues have to execute trades at prices at least as good as the national best price coming from the exchanges.

But the national best bid and offer, known as the NBBO, may be a substandard benchmark, Mr. Gensler said, because so many trades happen away from the exchanges. Even some exchange orders aren’t included in the national best price, such as those in odd-lot sizes, in which fewer than 100 shares change hands.

“I believe there are signs…that the NBBO is not a complete enough representation of the market,” Mr. Gensler said.

The SEC will consider revising how the benchmark is calculated, and will examine other potential rule changes related to how exchanges and brokers price shares, he said.

Mr. Gensler has previously criticized a system of trading incentives known as payment for order flow, in which retail brokers send clients’ orders to firms like Virtu and Citadel Securities for a fee. The wholesaler executes the order, typically at a price slightly better than the national best bid or offer.

Trading apps could see some regulation in the future, SEC Chairman Gary Gensler told WSJ’s Jean Eaglesham at the CFO Network Event.

That price improvement can be a fraction of a cent per share. Exchanges aren’t allowed to price shares at prices of less than a penny. That may give wholesalers an advantage when competing for orders, Mr. Gensler said.

Shares of Virtu dropped about 8% in the minutes after Mr. Gensler’s remarks, though they later pared their losses. Virtu handles between 25% and 30% of individual investors’ order flow in U.S. stocks, and its stock has rallied this year amid heavy trading of meme stocks like

AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc.

and

GameStop Corp.

by small investors. Citadel Securities, the only wholesaler with a larger market share, isn’t publicly traded.

The SEC will consider changes to rules governing the minimum price increments, Mr. Gensler said. Any rule changes would first be issued as proposals, giving the ability to investors and other market participants to comment on them. Mr. Gensler didn’t say when the agency would issue a proposal, but said “it should not be confused with something that is far off.”

Exchanges also use incentives, known as rebates, to attract orders from brokers. The SEC tried to force the exchanges to experiment with limiting rebates, but a federal appeals court ruled last year that regulators didn’t have the authority to mandate the planned pilot program. The regulator will consider changes to that pricing system as well, Mr. Gensler said.

“Both types of payment for order flow raise questions about whether investors are getting best execution,” Mr. Gensler said. He noted that brokers are banned from paying for order flow in the U.K., Canada and Australia.

Write to Dave Michaels at [email protected] and Alexander Osipovich at [email protected]

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8



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Future

Ant Group Explores Future Without Chinese Billionaire Jack Ma


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Future

Opinion: Biden’s infrastructure plan must look to the future, not wrap itself in a nostalgic view of past American greatness


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Project Syndicate)—President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan is likely to be a watershed moment for the American economy, clearly signaling that the neoliberal era, with its belief that markets work best and are best left alone, is behind us. But while neoliberalism may be dead, it is less clear what will replace it.

The challenges that the United States and other advanced economies face today are fundamentally different from those they faced in the early decades of the 20th century. Those earlier challenges gave rise to the New Deal and the welfare state. Today’s problems—climate change, the disruption of labor markets due to new technologies, and hyper-globalization—require new solutions.

Capitol Report: Biden says he’s ‘prepared to negotiate’ on infrastructure as he meets bipartisan group of lawmakers

We need a new economic vision, not nostalgia for a mythicized age of widely shared prosperity at home and global supremacy abroad.

On climate change, Biden’s plan falls short of the Green New Deal advocated by progressive Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But it contains significant investments in a green economy, such as supporting markets for electric vehicles and other programs to cut carbon-dioxide emissions, making it the largest federal effort ever to curb greenhouse-gases.


Economics is different from an arms race. A strong U.S. economy should not be a threat to China, just as Chinese economic growth need not threaten America.

On jobs, the plan aims to expand employment offering good pay and benefits, focusing, in addition to infrastructure, on manufacturing and the growing and essential care economy.

Book Watch: Caregiving is a vital part of the nation’s infrastructure like bridges and roads

The role of government

New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only 1 percentage point of gross domestic product, and is projected to pay for itself eventually.

A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue. Even if the plan were nothing more than a big public investment push financed by taxes on large corporations, it would do a lot of good for the U.S. economy.


We need a new economic vision, not nostalgia for a mythicized age of widely shared prosperity at home and global supremacy abroad.

But Biden’s plan can be much more. It could fundamentally reshape the government’s role in the economy and how that role is perceived.

Traditional skepticism about government’s economic role is rooted in the belief that private markets, driven by the profit motive, are efficient, while governments are wasteful. But the excesses of private markets in recent decades—the rise of monopolies, the follies of private finance, extreme concentration of income, and rising economic insecurity—have taken the shine off the private sector.

At the same time, it is better understood today that in a complex economy characterized by so much uncertainty, top-down regulation is unlikely to work. Regardless of the specific domain—promoting green technologies, developing new institutional arrangements for home-care workers, deepening domestic supply chains for high-tech manufacturing, or building on successful workforce development programs—government collaboration with nongovernmental actors will be essential.


If it succeeds, the example it sets of markets and governments acting as complements, not substitutes—demonstrating that each works better when the other pulls its weight—could be its most important and enduring legacy.

In all these areas, the government will have to work with markets and private businesses, as well as other stakeholders such as unions and community groups. New models of governance will be required to ensure public objectives are pursued with the full participation of those actors who have the knowledge and capacity to achieve them. The government will have to become a trusted partner; and it will have to trust other social actors in turn.

In the past, each excessive swing in the state-market balance has eventually prompted an excessive swing in the opposite direction. The Biden plan can break this cycle. If it succeeds, the example it sets of markets and governments acting as complements, not substitutes—demonstrating that each works better when the other pulls its weight—could be its most important and enduring legacy.

Biden’s unhelpful framing

In this regard, it is unhelpful to view the Biden plan as a way to restore America’s competitive position in the world, especially vis-à-vis China. Unfortunately, Biden himself is guilty of this framing. The package will “put us in a position to win the global competition with China in the coming years,” he recently argued.

Peter Morici: Biden doesn’t understand how dangerous China is

It may be politically tempting to market the infrastructure plan in this fashion. In an earlier era, the prevailing fear that the U.S. was losing its edge to the Soviet Union in ballistic missiles and in the space race helped catalyze a national technological mobilization.

But there is much less reason for fearmongering today. It is unlikely to buy much Republican support for the plan, given the intensity of partisan polarization. And it diverts attention from the real action: if the plan increases incomes and opportunities for ordinary Americans, as it should, it will have been worth doing, regardless of the effects on America’s geopolitical status.

Moreover, economics is different from an arms race. A strong U.S. economy should not be a threat to China, just as Chinese economic growth need not threaten America. Biden’s framing is damaging insofar as it turns good economics at home into an instrument of aggressive, zero-sum policies abroad. Can we blame China if it tightens restrictions on U.S. corporations as a defensive measure against the Biden plan?

The plan could transform the U.S. and set an important example for other developed countries to follow. But to achieve its potential, it must avoid misleading state-versus-market dichotomies and outdated Cold War tropes. Only by leaving behind the models of the past can it chart a new vision for the future.

This commentary was published with permission of Project SyndicateBiden Must Fix the Future, Not the Past.

Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the author of “Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy.”

More From Project Syndicate

Megan Greene; How the Fed could give a green light to environmentally sustainable investments

James K. Galbraith: Here’s why fears of surging inflation are off-base

Minxin Pei: China sabotages its economic future by escalating tiff with West over forced labor of Uighurs



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Republican attorneys general seek assistance from courts in thwarting Biden’s agenda


WASHINGTON (AP) — These are busy days for Republican state attorneys general, filing repeated lawsuits that claim President Joe Biden and his administration are overstepping their authority on immigration, climate change, the environment and taxes.

The strategy harks back to what Democrats did during Trump’s presidency, heading to court in New York, California, Maryland and other states where they were likely to receive a friendly reception. Even before that, Republicans were frequent filers during Barack Obama’s White House years.

“This is something the Republicans have taken from the Democratic playbook, just as the Democrats had taken a lot of things from the Republican playbook during Trump’s tenure,” said New York University law professor Sally Katzen, who served in the Clinton White House.

The legal action reflects GOP opposition to Biden initiatives, but it also is providing the attorneys general, many with higher political ambitions, to showcase their willingness to stand up to Biden and unabashedly side with Trump.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2022, brags in a TV ad that he is “on the conservative front line suing to stop the Biden administration’s worst abuses.”

The main target of lawsuits filed so far have been executive orders issued by Biden.

But several states also have sued over a provision of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue plan that prohibits states from using their share of federal money to reduce taxes.

Chris Carr, the Georgia attorney general and new chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association, said he and his colleagues have been cast in this role because Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House.

“We’ve got a situation where President Biden says, ‘Look, I want to be more bipartisan in nature.’ But then he turns around and has issued more executive orders in the beginning of a term than any president in modern history, I’m told,” Carr said.

“Our job is to ensure the rule of law is upheld. It’s a natural tension we’ve seen throughout American history. How does the federal government stay in its lane?” he said.

It took only two days after Biden’s inauguration for the first legal fight to erupt.

Following the president’s announcement of a 100-day pause in deportations, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who famously appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Trump’s loss to Biden in a crucial set of swing states, drawing the support of 17 fellow state attorneys general and 106 Republican members of Congress — went to court and won a court order against the halt.

Several other states have since followed with similar claims.

Just since the middle of March:
• Texas, Montana and 19 other states filed suit in Texas to overturn Biden’s cancellation of the contentious Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.
• Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry led 13 states in suing the administration to end a suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal land and water and to reschedule canceled sales of leases in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska waters and western states.
• Missouri sued over the restriction on state tax cuts as a condition of receiving money from the huge COVID-19 bill.

See: Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton battles Texas news media over records related to Capitol siege on Jan. 6

Also: Twitter sues Texas attorney general, claiming retaliation for its Trump ban

Earlier in March, Schmitt led 12 states in a suit that claims the administration lacks the authority to take account of the social costs of climate change. The president said on Jan. 20 that federal agencies must account for damages caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions, including changes in farm productivity, human health and property damage from increased flood risk.

In at least two instances, Republicans are trying to get the Supreme Court involved to keep in place Trump policies that Biden is reviewing or has indicated he will reverse.

Paxton is leading a push to get the justices to reimpose the Trump-era immigration rule denying green cards to immigrants who use public benefits like food stamps. A federal court has blocked the policy nationwide and the Biden administration dropped the defense of it.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is leading a 19-state effort to keep the court from dismissing a case over the Trump policy that bans family planning programs that receive federal funds from referring women for abortions.

The administration and medical groups that had challenged the policy agreed to dismiss the case because the Health and Human Services Department shortly will propose a new rule rescinding the ban on abortion referrals.

Paxton’s predecessor was Greg Abbott, now the Texas governor. Abbott burnished his conservative credentials by frequently going to court over Obama initiatives. “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home,” he said in 2013, boasting then of having sued the administration 25 times.

By the middle of 2016, the Wall Street Journal counted at least 44 times that Texas went to court against the Obama administration.

The one thing that has changed since the last Democratic administration is that Trump was able to move appeals courts across the country to the right, adding six judges each to appeals courts that hear cases from Ohio and Texas and four to the court that includes Missouri. All three already leaned conservative.

Even the famously liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which hears appeals from Montana, became more evenly balanced in the past four years, with the addition of 10 Trump appointees.

“Republican attorneys general might take extra comfort from the fact that there were a significant number of conservative judges confirmed during the Trump administration, and there are a number of courts of appeals where the balance was tipped. So, it’s an even better shot than before,” Katzen said.

MarketWatch contributed.



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J&J Single-Dose Covid-19 Vaccine Gains Backing From FDA Advisory Panel


Johnson & Johnson’s


JNJ -2.64%

single-dose Covid-19 vaccine worked safely and should be authorized for use in the U.S., a panel of experts advised federal health regulators Friday.

The advisory committee’s vote in support of the vaccine’s authorization is the last step before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issues a decision, which is expected Saturday.

The panel, a group of 22 medical specialists in fields like internal medicine, pediatrics, vaccines and epidemiology, regularly advises the FDA about experimental vaccines. It voted to recommend shots from

Pfizer Inc.


PFE -0.98%

and partner

BioNTech


BNTX -2.94%

SE and

Moderna Inc.


MRNA 4.33%

before the agency authorized them in December.

During the all-day public meeting, representatives from the FDA and J&J discussed the safety and effectiveness of the company’s vaccine in a 44,000-plus subject study, as well as how effective the J&J vaccine is in preventing new cases caused by variants.

The give-and-take of questions and answers can be valuable in bolstering public confidence in the shot, according to FDA officials.

The vaccine was 66% effective at protecting people from moderate to severe Covid-19, an FDA review found, and even more effective at preventing severe disease alone.

“If authorized, Janssen’s vaccine candidate would play a pivotal role in the global effort to fight Covid-19,”

Johan Van Hoof,

global head of vaccines research at J&J’s Janssen pharmaceutical unit, said during the panel’s meeting. “A single-dose regimen offers the ability to vaccinate a population faster.”

As highly transmissible coronavirus variants sweep across the world, scientists are racing to understand why these new versions of the virus are spreading faster, and what this could mean for vaccine efforts. New research says the key may be the spike protein, which gives the coronavirus its unmistakable shape. Illustration: Nick Collingwood/WSJ

A rollout of the J&J vaccine could add enough shots in the U.S. by the end of March to boost the total number of people vaccinated by 20%. Health authorities are pushing to inoculate enough people as quickly as possible so that business, schools and other establishments can fully reopen.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

How would you grade the vaccine rollout? Join the conversation below.

J&J has said it would deliver about 20 million doses for U.S. use by the end of March.

The FDA often convenes public meetings of outside experts to scrutinize experimental drugs, devices and vaccines up for agency approval, in part to boost public acceptance of the products should they be cleared for wide use.

J&J’s vaccine appeared to be safe in its pivotal study, the FDA found, aside from being effective.

“The known and potential benefits of Ad26 outweigh the known and potential risks,” Macaya Douoguih, head of clinical development and medical affairs at J&J’s Janssen unit, said during Friday’s meeting, using a code name for J&J’s vaccine.

FDA medical officer Yosefa Hefter said there are still unknowns about the vaccine, including the duration of immune protection and the safety and effectiveness in children.

An FDA analysis for the committee meeting also said rare cases of deep vein clots and of blockages in lung arteries were slightly more common in vaccine recipients than in placebo patients, and that the FDA considers these as “of clinical interest.”

The vaccine was effective “across demographic subgroups,” the FDA said. The demographic subgroups in the large study of J&J’s vaccines included racial and ethnic groups such as Black, Latino and Asian people, and age groups such as those 60 years and older.

Researchers also assessed efficacy in people who had underlying medical conditions including obesity and high blood pressure before entering the clinical trial. Sometimes vaccines don’t work as well in older people because of weakened immune systems.

One exception was that the vaccine appeared to be less effective in people 60 and older who had certain underlying medical conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines also worked effectively across various demographic subgroups.

The vaccine was less effective in South Africa, where a more-transmissible Covid-19 variant has thrived, than in the U.S. J&J is among the companies working on new shots targeting the new strain, against which several current vaccines don’t appear to work as well.

J&J’s Covid-19 shot was, however, very effective against severe and critical cases in South Africa. The vaccine was 73.1% effective in preventing such cases occurring at least 14 days after vaccination, and 81.7% effective in preventing such cases at least 28 days after vaccination.

How Viral Vector Vaccines Work

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine relies on a different mechanism for conferring immunity than traditional vaccines.

Traditional Vaccines

1. In classic vaccines, such as those against measles and polio, the patient is inoculated with weakened or inactivated versions of the virus. This triggers the immune system to produce specialized antibodies that are adapted to recognize the virus.

2. After vaccination, the antibodies remain in the body. If the patient later becomes infected with the actual virus, the antibodies can identify and help neutralize it.

Johnson & Johnson’s Vaccine

Scientists have isolated the genes in coronavirus responsible for producing these spike proteins. The genes are spliced into weakened, harmless versions of other viruses.

Instead of using the whole virus to generate an immune response, these vaccines use only coronavirus’s outer spike proteins, which are what antibodies use to recognize the virus.

Weakened virus with

spike protein genes

When injected into a patient, the genetically engineered viruses enter healthy cells where they produce coronavirus spike proteins.

The spike proteins produced by the cells prompt the immune system to mount a defense, just as with traditional vaccines.

Vaccine-generated antibody response

1. In classic vaccines, such as those against measles and polio, the patient is inoculated with weakened or inactivated versions of the virus. This triggers the immune system to produce specialized antibodies that are adapted to recognize the virus.

2. After vaccination, the antibodies remain in the body. If the patient later becomes infected with the actual virus, the antibodies can identify and help neutralize it.

Johnson & Johnson’s Vaccine

Scientists have isolated the genes in coronavirus responsible for producing these spike proteins. The genes are spliced into weakened, harmless versions of other viruses.

Instead of using the whole virus to generate an immune response, these vaccines use only coronavirus’s outer spike proteins, which are what antibodies use to recognize the virus.

Weakened virus with

spike protein genes

When injected into a patient, the genetically engineered viruses enter healthy cells where they produce coronavirus spike proteins.

The spike proteins produced by the cells prompt the immune system to mount a defense, just as with traditional vaccines.

Vaccine-generated antibody response

1. In classic vaccines, such as those against measles and polio, the patient is inoculated with weakened or inactivated versions of the virus. This triggers the immune system to produce specialized antibodies that are adapted to recognize the virus.

2. After vaccination, the antibodies remain in the body. If the patient later becomes infected with the actual virus, the antibodies can identify and help neutralize it.

Johnson & Johnson’s Vaccine

Scientists have isolated the genes in coronavirus responsible for producing these spike proteins. The genes are spliced into weakened, harmless versions of other viruses.

Instead of using the whole virus to generate an immune response, these vaccines use only coronavirus’s outer spike proteins, which are what antibodies use to recognize the virus.

Weakened virus with

spike protein genes

When injected into a patient, the genetically engineered viruses enter healthy cells where they produce coronavirus spike proteins.

The spike proteins produced by the cells prompt the immune system to mount a defense, just as with traditional vaccines.

Vaccine-generated antibody response

1. In classic vaccines, such as those against measles and polio, the patient is inoculated with weakened or inactivated versions of the virus. This triggers the immune system to produce specialized antibodies that are adapted to recognize the virus.

2. After vaccination, the antibodies remain in the body. If the patient later becomes infected with the actual virus, the antibodies can identify and help neutralize it.

Johnson & Johnson’s Vaccine

Instead of using the whole virus to generate an immune response, these vaccines use only coronavirus’s outer spike proteins, which are what antibodies use to recognize the virus.

Scientists have isolated the genes in coronavirus responsible for producing these

spike proteins. The genes are spliced into weakened, harmless versions of other viruses.

Weakened virus with

spike protein genes

When injected into a patient, the genetically engineered viruses enter healthy cells where they produce coronavirus spike proteins.

The spike proteins produced by the cells prompt the immune system to mount a defense, just as with traditional vaccines.

Vaccine-generated antibody response

J&J, citing preliminary evidence in an analysis released by the FDA, said the vaccine was 65.5% effective in preventing asymptomatic infections in a subset of study subjects.

Health authorities have been watching whether Covid-19 shots can stop people without symptoms from transmitting the virus. The virus has largely been spread by people who were infected but didn’t realize it because they had no symptoms.

The vaccine was less effective in South Africa, where a more-transmissible Covid-19 variant has thrived, than in the U.S. J&J is among the companies working on new shots targeting the new strain, which several current vaccines don’t appear to work as well against.

Write to Thomas M. Burton at [email protected] and Peter Loftus at [email protected]

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8



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Pompeo trolls critics in long goodbye as he looks to his future | National


By the time Secretary of State Michael Pompeo was wrapping up a 10-day swing through Europe and the Middle East, he had angered Turkey’s leaders, infuriated the Palestinians and befuddled the French.

It’s a trip that seemed almost calculated to offend — and to burnish Pompeo’s conservative credentials for a possible 2024 presidential campaign. Never one for niceties of etiquette or protocol, Pompeo’s last big tour as America’s 70th secretary of state offered provocations of those who have questioned Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy and Pompeo’s role as its No. 1 promoter.

Like President Trump, Pompeo refuses to publicly acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3 election. Nonetheless, the seven-nation journey, one of the longest he’s taken as secretary, offered evidence that Pompeo is already looking past the Trump era, chockablock as the trip was with pronouncements likely to make Biden’s life difficult and setting out a platform for his own political future.

“He’s spending his last two months in office trolling the world,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s an odd role for the nation’s top diplomat to be playing at a rather sensitive time.”

The trip started in Paris, where Pompeo’s first event — before seeing government officials — was a private meeting with reporters from right-wing French media, including Valeurs Actuelles. It’s a magazine that was roundly condemned as racist — and was put under preliminary investigation by a prosecutor — after printing an image that depicted a Black French lawmaker as a slave in a piece of fiction.

In Turkey, Pompeo proposed that government ministers come to him in Istanbul — they refused — where he met with the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Turkish officials called Pompeo’s statement on religious freedom in the country “extremely inappropriate,” while senior State Department officials blamed a scheduling conflict for his failure to travel to Ankara, the capital. In Georgia, Pompeo waded into that country’s election dispute, lending legitimacy to a government that has cracked down on protesters demanding a new vote.

Pompeo hit peak anti-diplomacy by visiting a winery in the Israel-occupied West Bank that once named a red blend after him — with a label that says #madeinlegality — for his pro-settlement stance. Under any previous administration, Republican or Democrat, this would have been forbidden, not least because Palestinian families still claim the land on which the winery was built.”He visited settlements, drank from the poisoned chalice, sanctioned dispossession,” the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said in an editorial on Pompeo’s last day in Israel. “These are the last days of Pompeo. How good it is that this is the case.”

Through it all, the question was — why? What was so important that it merited a trip just as France, Israel and other nations undertake new lockdowns in a desperate effort to get the coronavirus under control before Christmas?

The tour was planned well before the U.S. election, and secretaries of state routinely travel in the lame-duck period between election and inauguration. Before the trip, senior State Department officials said it had many goals: honoring the victims of terrorism in France, promoting religious freedom and discussing the diplomatic agreements between Israel, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

A senior department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity on Sunday, rejected the idea the trip was a victory lap or aimed at furthering Pompeo’s ambitions. The official described it as important diplomacy even amid the pandemic and said the administration would pursue its policies until it’s not in office any more, whenever that might be.

But there’s never has been a situation like this, as Trump refuses to concede his re-election loss and the coronavirus in the U.S. continues to shatter records.

Two people familiar with Pompeo’s conversations said the people he met with largely avoided the issue of the U.S. elections.

Shortly before he departed the U.S., when asked at a briefing whether he was preparing for a Biden administration, he said, “I’m preparing for a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” Although it appeared to be a joke, Pompeo was criticized for making light of an election crisis in his own country considering the U.S. often calls out other nations’ voting travails.

Pompeo added, “When the process is complete, there’ll be electors selected. There’s a process.”

As for the officials he met on the road, they seem already to have moved on. French President Emmanuel Macron saw Pompeo for only a few minutes, dropping in for what his office called a “courtesy visit” at the end of Pompeo’s meeting with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. French officials made sure to tell reporters the meeting had taken place at Pompeo’s request.

Throughout his travels, Pompeo avoided any opportunity for reporters to question him about the transition and Biden. He didn’t hold a news conference or a briefing. The State Department blamed coronavirus restrictions.

In fact, America’s top diplomat did virtually no public diplomacy. The only place he offered any public statements was Israel, where he commented three times.

Pompeo traveled by helicopter to a military outpost-turned-tourist stop in the Golan Heights. Near a gift shop and a sign advertising mozzarella pizza, Pompeo got a briefing from retired Brigadier General Avigdor Kahalani, a former tank commander who rebuffed a Syrian attack during fighting in 1973.”It was all the rage in the salons in Europe and in the elite institutions in America to say that this should be returned to Syria,” Pompeo said of the Golan, without mentioning that successive prime ministers, including the current one, Benjamin Netanyahu, had held secret talks on withdrawing from the area. “Imagine, imagine with Assad in control of this place, the risk, the harm to the West and to Israel and to the people of Israel.”

Pompeo also stopped at a museum that highlights the contributions made by non-Jews to Israel over the years. It’s called Friends of Zion.

“I do see it as another Trump effort to nail down his legacy, but for ‘nail down his legacy’ you could read ‘stick a thumb in the eye of his critics,'” said Kenneth Pollack, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Pompeo may have other things in mind, particularly nailing down his own relationship with Israel for his own future prospects.”

Officials denied that Pompeo was intent on advancing policies that will become booby traps for Biden if he seeks to return to a less one-sided policy on Israel and the Palestinians.

The biggest announcement of Pompeo’s trip was that the U.S. will allow goods produced in Israeli settlements to carry a “Made in Israel” label. Moves like that will be difficult for Biden to undo, subjecting him to criticism from Republicans running for president in 2024 — perhaps including Pompeo — that he’s weak in his support of Israel.

A centerpiece of Trump’s foreign policy has been strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia, so it was fitting that one of Pompeo’s last stops is Neom, the Saudi city that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is constructing in the desert as a testament to Saudi technological advancement.

“I find the trip bizarre, but I think I can explain it in terms of Pompeo’s obeisance to Trump and highlight the issues his boss has pursued,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Mideast official at the State Department. “It has as much to do with Pompeo’s own politics as it does with a president who is quickly fading in the rear view mirror.”

PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194):

Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency.



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