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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Iran: The Plot Thickens
      •  White House: No Way Cummings Gets His Way on Conway
      •  Economic Trade Wind May Soon Become a Head Wind for Trump
      •  Sanders Unveils Student Debt Plan
      •  And Then There Were Two...Dozen
      •  Tuesday Q&A

Iran: The Plot Thickens

There were quite a few developments on Monday when it comes to the Trump administration and Iran. Having called off the planned attack that would have left an estimated 150 Iranians dead (at least for now), Donald Trump turned to his favorite tool of diplomacy Monday afternoon, and announced "hard-hitting" new sanctions against Iran will soon be imposed.

At first glance, that may seem like a strong, meaningful step to take. But, as always, the devil is in the details. The Iranians have already been sanctioned quite harshly as a country, and there isn't much more blood to be squeezed from that stone. Consequently, the President announced that he was going to target the personal wealth of Iran's leaders, particularly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who allegedly has as much as $200 billion stashed in banks across the world. The problem here is that in making a big show of announcing the sanctions, Trump may have given Khamenei (and others) time to move their money around, and to re-hide it. So, the new sanctions may not do much, beyond inflaming tensions with the Iranians, and allowing Trump to save face after Thursday's aborted attack.

Meanwhile, when it comes to figuring out exactly what happened last Thursday, a few more pieces of the puzzle presented themselves on Monday. There is now no question that Trump was given some sort of casualty estimate long before the attack took place, and that his claim that he only found out about the 150 projected deaths at the last minute is not quite the full story. On that point, Vice President Mike Pence appears to have let something interesting slip (by accident) in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper. In an effort to explain and justify the President's change of heart, Pence said that he did get casualty estimates earlier in the process, but that "late in the process there were more specific projections given to him." In other words, Pence says that Trump was presented with a number early on, but he never heard a number as large as 150 until late in the process.

Pence certainly seems to be telling the truth here; the question is "Why did Trump have an inaccurate understanding of the situation until the last minute?" Three possibilites present themselves. The least problematic, and the explanation that the VP is peddling, is that the numbers were revised dramatically upward at the last moment. The weakness in this explanation is that this is not really how it works. The only reason for a casualty estimate to be doubled or tripled is if the plan changes, and there's no indication it did. That leads us to a second possibility, that Trump was advised of the 150 figure early on but, as a man who is famously bored by briefings, he simply wasn't paying attention. And the third possibility, which is the most nefarious of all, is that the hawks in the administration (ahem, NSA John Bolton) deliberately fed him deflated estimates until they thought it was too late to back down. If this is true, it would obviously be very concerning.

The latter thesis gained at least a little bit of support from another piece of the puzzle that became public on Monday. It turns out that after the attack was called off, Trump fled to Camp David for a golf getaway. During that trip, he told the senior most members of the administration to stay home. The highest-ranking person Trump actually took with him was Dan Scavino, his social media guru (which is not exactly, at least as of the moment, a Cabinet-level position). This certainly has the look of a President who is aggravated by his senior staff and needs some time to cool down. It also means that he made the decision about new sanctions largely on his own, without input from the Mike Pompeos and John Boltons of the world.

Whatever it is that's motivating him at the moment, Trump also made clear on Monday that he reserves the right to attack Iran at any time, and that he does not need Congress' approval. Senate Democrats pushed back on that notion, and they are considering the possibility of filibustering this year's military spending bill unless language is added that stops the President from attacking Iran without permission.

So, that is where this story stands at the moment. Where next it goes, nobody knows. As we've pointed out several times, Trump has effectively shut down any possibility of a diplomatic solution. Beyond his unwillingness to do anything that looks even faintly Obama-like, he also approaches negotiations with foreign countries in the way he approaches negotiations with Democrats in Congress: His concerns are paramount, the other side's concerns are irrelevant. What he wants from the Iranian government—for example, an end to all missiles, not just nuclear ones—they cannot and will not give. It would be suicidal, both in terms of domestic politics and in terms of their national security. And even if there was some middle ground between the Iranian position and the administration's position, he's now poisoned the well. Late Monday night (or midday Tuesday, Iranian time), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced the "permanent closure of the doors of diplomacy."

All of this means that it is certainly possible that the administration will resume consideration of some sort of military strike. It would just be nice if the American people could be certain that Trump is actually getting accurate information from his people, and that if he decides to pull the trigger, it will be solely because that is the right course of action, and not because it will please the base, or will allow him to show Congressional Democrats who is boss. (Z)

White House: No Way Cummings Gets His Way on Conway

This barely qualifies as news, since everyone knew it was coming. Nonetheless, on Monday, the White House officially announced that spokesperson Kellyanne Conway would not abide by House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings' (D-MD) request that she come and chat with him about all the times she has violated the Hatch Act, which forbids most government employees from electioneering while acting in an official capacity. White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who apparently enjoys creating legal doctrine out of thin air sent a letter explaining that the White House has always had the right, at its sole discretion, to decline any and all appearances before Congressional committees by its current and/or former employees. That's gotta be news to folks like Oliver North and John Dean, who presumably didn't realize they were appearing before Congress voluntarily.

Cummings had already scheduled a vote for a subpoena, which will move forward as scheduled tomorrow. Then, once Conway ignores the subpoena, Cummings and his committee will find her in contempt. And from there, it will presumably head to the courts, and who knows what they will do, or how quickly they will do it? (Z)

Economic Trade Wind May Soon Become a Head Wind for Trump

We are sometimes leery when it comes to items about the economy and where it is headed. There are so many tea leaves to read, and nobody seems to have figured out exactly which ones are the right ones. That said, what is knowable is how people are feeling about the economy. And many farmers, at very least, are feeling the pinch from Donald Trump's wars, and are not happy.

The reasons for their unhappiness are easy enough to discern. Many of them have crops they cannot sell, because their usual business partners (e.g., China) are currently not buying. They also don't know what to plant, if anything, in anticipation of the next growing season. Income is down 50% in just six years, and debt is way up. In fact, as many of them take out loans to make ends meet, the total debt held by farmers will exceed $427 billion, which is the highest figure in nearly 40 years.

There is both polling and anecdotal evidence of the farmers' growing discontent. In terms of the former, numerous polls have shown growing skepticism about the trade war in general, and about the possibility of a quick resolution, in particular. Note that the farmers are still with the President for now (nearly 60% approve of the job he is doing), but the trendlines have to be worrisome for the administration. For example, a poll from Purdue University reveals that in just one month, the percentage of farmers who think the trade war will be resolved in favor of the U.S. has dropped by 6 points, from 71% to 65%. Anecdotally, meanwhile, quite a few outlets have recently done pieces like this one from the Washington Post, featuring interviews with cranky farmers. "This trade thing is going to kill us," says one. "People are starting to say, 'I don't know how we're going to survive this,'" says another.

This is a potential double whammy for Trump. First, if he loses even a fraction of the farming vote that he got in 2016 (say, 5%), he's in deep trouble, given that he won by razor thin margins in several states that have lots of farmers. On top of that, if the farming economy gets dragged into the mud by Trump's policies, it could send the economy into a recession. As we noted, we're a little leery of folks who claim they can read the tea leaves, but it is the case that many of those folks are saying that we're awash in indicators of a looming recession. And even if one does not buy into the economists' woo, there's this basic logic: In just one week, the current economic expansion will become the longest in U.S. history, at 10 years and counting. The party can't last forever. It never does.

If the economy does tank, it could make for a grim Election Day for Trump. The current strong economy may not actually be his doing, but whether it is or not, the 40-45% of people who approve of his job performance are giving him major credit for it. And that, along with the highly related tax cut, are far and away the biggest feathers in his cap. If he loses the biggest source of wind at his back, what is he going to run on? "Vote for me again, and I'll definitely get that wall built this time?" "Vote for me again, and hope RBG can't last 4 years? Meanwhile, every Democrat in the country will be pointing out that Democratic leadership and no big tax cuts for the rich equaled prosperity, while Republican leadership and juicy tax cuts for the rich equaled recession. The President really needs to hope that the Federal Reserve, led by a chairman he really wants to fire, is able to ride to his rescue. (Z)

Sanders Unveils Student Debt Plan

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had the progressive lane all to himself in 2016, which freed him up to make pie in the sky proposals without necessarily offering a lot of specifics. That's not true anymore, which has forced him to clarify exactly what he wants to do, and exactly how he's going to pay for it. Consistent with that, he just announced a plan to cancel all of the $1.6 trillion in student loan debt that is currently outstanding, to be paid for by a new tax on Wall Street trades.

It's true that this is more specific than Sanders' student debt plank in 2016. Specifically, it would impose a 0.5% tax on stock trades and a 0.1% tax on bond trades. Whether this can raise $1.6 trillion is up for debate, but at least it is a specific plan. The trouble is that investors, especially big and active ones, won't like it, and might move some of their business to the Toronto or London Stock Exchanges. Meanwhile, the Senator's plan is going to be compared to that of his colleague, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whose mantra appears to be "progressive, but doable." That is to say, she's clearly on the left of the party, but she's also putting out proposals that are a bit more viable. Her student debt plan would forgive $640 billion in debt, with most of the forgiveness going to people making less than $100,000 a year. This would be paid for by a tax of 2-3% on the assets of people with a net worth of above $50 million.

In the end, Sanders and Warren are making a play for a lot of the same voters. And there is mounting evidence that the Vermont Senator may have the weaker side of that contest. It remains to be seen if 2020 voters are more interested in pragmatism (Warren) or optimism (Sanders). On top of that, there are probably some folks that would prefer to see a woman atop the ticket. Sanders may also feel some backlash from 2016, as some voters feel he put himself above the party, helping to create fractures that never fully healed. Warren, of course, does not have that baggage. And finally, between Warren and Sanders, one claims to be a capitalist and one claims to be a Democratic socialist. In fact, only one even claims to be a member of the Democratic Party. What affect that has on younger voters is not clear, but for many older voters the word "socialist" is still pretty poisonous. Ultimately, the point is that Sanders has a much tougher row to hoe in 2020, which is why he's putting his nose to the policy grindstone in a way that he really didn't in 2016. (Z)

And Then There Were Two...Dozen

Yesterday, we mentioned a poll that says that 12% of Democrats don't feel 23 candidates is enough to choose from, and they would like to see more. Well, those folks just got their wish, though we are guessing they didn't have yet another white, male senior citizen in mind. Particularly one who has lost as many elections as he has won and who got trounced in the primaries by a political novice the last time he ran.

The fellow who has grown the field of "serious" Democratic contenders to 24 is former representative and vice admiral Joe Sestak, who declared his candidacy late Sunday. Here is his pitch:

Our country desperately needs a president with a depth of global experience and an understanding of all the elements of our nation's power, from our economy and our diplomacy to the power of our ideals and our military, including its limitation. So that, when faced with the decision on whether to use our military, our commander in chief will know how it will end before deciding if it is wise to begin.

In other words, the centerpiece of his campaign appears to be "I will only lead us into the correct wars."

If you cannot tell, we are skeptical about his chances, starting so late in the process, already locked out of the first debates (and with a less-than-stellar chance to make the second), and with a résumé that seems to be far out of step with the current Democratic electorate. Nonetheless, in the name of thoroughness, we will pause our Democratic candidate updates for a week, and will do a profile of him soon. (Z)

Tuesday Q&A

An unusual Tuesday edition prompted, as we noted yesterday, by our plans for debate coverage.

Have you read about the situation in Oregon? I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you think something like this would happen in a non-Trump scenario? Has something like this happened in the recent past? L.H., Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

For those who don't care to read the link, and who have not been following what is going on, the Democratic-controlled legislature in Oregon wants to impose strict new standards for industrial polluters. The blue team controls the state senate, 18-12, but they need at least two Republicans to be present in order to have a quorum, and to be able to vote on the bill. 11 of those 12 folks have stopped showing up to work, to keep a quorum from existing. Gov. Kate Brown (D) told the state police to go find the truant senators, and some of them apparently fled into neighboring Idaho, beyond the reaches of state law enforcement. If that were not drama enough, local militias have volunteered to provide "security" for the missing lawmakers, or to "take care" of the problem Democrats. Because of the latter threat, the state capitol was on lockdown this weekend.

Anyhow, in answer to your question, this has happened before. In fact, it's common enough that it has a name: quorum-busting. There are many notable examples over the years. For example, nearly two centuries ago (in the 1830s), Abraham Lincoln's Whig Party was trying to quorum-bust, so the Sergeant-at-arms of the Illinois state legislature locked all the doors. Abe, who was pretty tall and lanky, opened up a second-story window and jumped out of the building to get away.

It doesn't happen on the federal level all that much, but there are a few notable examples. The most famous, probably, was in 1988 when Capitol police found Sen. Robert Packwood (R-OR) at whatever hiding place he was at (given his reputation, we don't want to know), and carried him forcibly into Senate chamber a little after 1:00 in the morning.

The most notable recent examples took place in Texas in 2003, when some Democrats went to New Mexico and others went to Oklahoma in order to prevent quorum on a redistricting bill, and in both Wisconsin and Indiana in 2011, where Democrats (in both cases) fled to Illinois (in both cases) to stop anti-union bills (in both cases). In all of these situations, as in Oregon right now, the purpose of leaving the state was to get away from state police.

So, is the situation in Oregon Trump's fault? The involvement of the militias probably is, but not so much the quorum-busting, which has been around for much longer than he has been.

You wrote: "A situation where the Californias and New Yorks and Oregons of the world largely ignore the federal government, up to and including withholding tax revenue, is certainly a possibility." How might that work? Federal tax revenue is not collected by the states and then forwarded to the IRS; it is paid to the IRS directly. A large portion isn't even paid personally by individuals, but on their behalf by their employers via payroll withholdings; even if a sizable number of individuals refuse to pay the balance of their taxes due in April, the lion's share of their taxes would have already been paid to the IRS by their employers. I don't see many of those employers being willing to defy the federal government, particularly large ones with multi-state operations, as these employers would be exposed to federal tax enforcement through those operations. Or have I grossly misunderstood the sources and channels of federal tax revenue? S.K., Sunnyvale, CA

You have not grossly misunderstood. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and if the government of California got serious about a non-violent rebellion of some sort, they could do many sorts of things to stop the flow of tax revenue to the federal government. The simplest and clearest answer to your question, though, is this: The single-largest employer in the state of California is...the state of California. The cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose are also not far down the list, and all are deep blue. So, just holding on to the withholding from state and city employees' checks would be a pretty big poke in the IRS' eye.

In response to the item "Trump Aggressively Shifts Gears, Twice in Two Days," I'm wondering about your thoughts on this just being part of Trump's negotiation strategy. He blatantly signals a massive thing that is happening, with very short notice. This causes panic, and that panic becomes his leverage for getting something he wants. For the ICE raid, he got the Democrats to look at a solution, for Mexico the tariff threat got a deal, for Iran he shows he can make a humanitarian decision as well as avoid starting a war, and for China he keeps upping the tariffs until they have to cave. All of this was done with very little public process. This, combined with his persona of being cavalier create a very effective, albeit unpleasant negotiation strategy. The only time he lost in memory was the government shutdown. I dislike him as much as anyone, but there could be a type of brilliance in that. Do you see it that way or am I missing something? W.M., Providence, RI

It's absolutely a negotiation tactic. But we disagree with you that it's worked—ever (at least, not in his political career). It's not clear what he got, if anything, from threatening the ICE raids. The "deal" he got from Mexico, such as it is, was agreed to by Kirstjen Nielsen well before he threatened tariffs against the Mexicans. The Iran situation appears to be deteriorating (see above). The Chinese may well be able to hold out until 2020, or even 2024, if that is what it takes, and there's certainly no sign they are about to fold. We just can't see any case where this approach has actually been fruitful. Meanwhile, it is Negotiation 101 that you don't pull these stunts with folks you expect to do business with again, because they remember and hold it against you. So not only has Trump failed to achieve much of anything, he's weakened his position vis-a-vis all of these adversaries for future negotiation.

How often has a candidate won the nomination, despite having a dismal showing of support in their home state? A.M., Miami Beach, FL

As you can imagine, it's virtually unheard of. There are two reasons this is the case. First, if you've had any sort of political career, it likely means that you were at least somewhat popular among the residents of your own state—particularly the residents of your own state who are in the same party as you are. Second, presidential nominations are often locked up fairly early in the process, such that many primary voters are effectively only given one choice.

The most recent case of this we can find (and it may be the only case, since the primary/caucus era has only been going on for 60 years or so) is 1968. In that year, Californian Richard Nixon was up against the sitting governor, namely Ronald Reagan. The Gipper won the primary (on June 4 of that year), but Tricky Dick won the nomination, of course.

If any reader is aware of any other cases, we would be happy to hear about them. And in any event, you're undoubtedly asking because of candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who look like they may not win their home states. If that happens to Harris, particularly at the hands of a non-Californian, that would be very, very bad news for her.

And note that we understood your question to be about the primaries and the nomination, not the general election. It's rare for a nominee to fail to win their home state in the general, but not as rare as failing to win their home state in the primary. Trump, for example, won the New York primary in 2016, but lost the general.

I have to question your assertion that "the DNC really did stack the deck for Hillary Clinton." All the public evidence I've seen is that there was only some anti-Sanders griping by a few mid-level staffers who floated suggestions for undermining Bernie Sanders that never went anywhere and in some cases were shot down immediately by their superiors. Where is the evidence the DNC actually took steps to hinder Sanders? K.H., Ypsilanti, MI

Actually, the answer is that your point of view and ours are not mutually exclusive.

First, let us explain the main way the deck was stacked. Entering the 2016 election season, the DNC was in debt, and the Clinton campaign was very well heeled. An arrangement was reached that Clinton 2016 would pay off the DNC's bills, and in exchange Team Clinton would be given enormous control over the party apparatus, including hiring and firing of many key functionaries. This allowed Clinton to effectively stop any establishment competition in their tracks, because she had control of everything—the data operation, all the good staffers, the fundraising machinery, etc. To put that another way, she won the "invisible primary" more handily than any candidate in recent memory.

However, just because the DNC was strongly pro-Clinton doesn't necessarily mean they actively undermined Sanders. They did a few minor things, as you note, and they definitely arranged the debate calendar to suit her needs ahead of his. But most of the primary structure and rules were in place before he was even a candidate. In fact, by so thoroughly cowing possible challengers to Clinton (excepting the odd Martin O'Malley or Lincoln Chafee), they probably made Bernie 2016 possible, since there was a wide open anti-establishment lane left wide open for him to occupy.

Finally, Bernie supporters who believe the DNC killed off the senator's chances think the national committees have far more power than they actually have. There were 17 Republicans running the 2016 primary and the RNC probably didn't care if the nominee was Jeb!, Marco Rubio, or Chris Christie, but Donald Trump was absolutely and certainly its 17th choice. But he won anyway, despite the RNC absolutely hating him. The moral of the story is that the national committees do have some influence, but the days of Mayor Daley picking the candidate in a smoke-filled room are as dead as the mayor himself.

Throughout the 2016 primary season, every time a TV news program showed the current count of Democratic delegates, it included the superdelegates (most of whom were already "pledged" to Hillary from Day 1, or at least very early), and therefore showed Hillary ahead by a landslide. To the unsophisticated viewer, this created the illusion that Hillary winning the primary was a foregone conclusion, when the primary race was in fact a lot closer if you omitted superdelegates. What do you think about this? B.W., Flagstaff, AZ

It would be difficult to know for certain, but it is likely this worked to Sanders' benefit, not his detriment. We can think of one way it might have hurt him: By causing his supporters, or his potential supporters, to decide that it's not worth it to get to the polls and cast a vote for him because it was a lost cause. However, we can also think of three ways it might have helped him. First, by causing Hillary Clinton's supporters, or her potential supporters, to decide that it's not worth it to get to the polls and cast a vote for her because it was already in the bag. Second, by giving some voters cover to vote for a "protest" candidate without fear of affecting the actual outcome. And third, by giving the Sanders campaign an underdog/"the world is against us" narrative to rally around. On balance, then, the superdelegate totals probably helped Sanders more than they hurt him. And either way, as we argue above, he was not going to win.

Gov. Jay Inslee may have no chance of getting the nomination, but he has the right core issue. Go Earth! Why does he get no traction when he acknowledges the most serious core issue facing our future, while the others give (relatively) only lip service to the crisis? T.B., Tallahassee, FL

Well, one could point to characteristics particular to Inslee. For example, he's from a mid-sized state in the corner of the country, and so has zero national profile. He's also not a particularly dynamic politician, of the sort that is going to get the voters he's trying to connect with (young people, progressives, young progressives) excited. That's not to say he's a cold fish, merely that he's not endowed with the charisma of, say, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

That said, we would suggest that the real problem is that this issue does not really separate him from the pack. Many of the other Democrats have given considerably more than just lip service to global warming. And given the state of American politics, there's only so much that can be accomplished in the short term. So, there actually isn't that much practical difference between a candidate who makes this one of their planks, or a candidate who makes it their only plank. Either way, they're going to have to stare down a bunch of intransigent Republicans in the U.S. Senate, and be satisfied with moderate progress, at best. Plus, AOC and others are already fighting a pretty good fight, and anything they actually get through Congress, any of the 24 Democrats will surely sign. So, Inslee doesn't offer much that the other candidates can't offer, and some of them bring additional stuff to the table that he doesn't.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jun24 Trump Aggressively Shifts Gears, Twice in Two Days
Jun24 The Subpoenas May Fly This Week
Jun24 Poll: There Are Too Many Candidates
Jun24 Why Isn't Trump Benefiting More from a Good Economy?
Jun24 What If Trump Loses But Won't Concede?
Jun24 Conway Is at It Again
Jun24 Democrats Are Divided on Health Care
Jun24 Republican Senators Are Divided over Election Security
Jun24 Early Democratic Primaries May Influence the Senate Races
Jun24 Withdrawal from the Postal Union May Help Trump
Jun24 Nadler and Donaldson Reach a Deal
Jun21 Iran Pokes Trump in the Eye; Trump Blinks
Jun21 Senate Pushes Back on Saudi Arms Deal
Jun21 Hicks Transcript Is Out
Jun21 Roy Moore Is In
Jun21 Biden Steps In It, Again
Jun21 It's Summer, and That Means Fish Fry Day
Jun21 RNC Raises $14.6 Million in May
Jun21 DCCC Outraises NRCC in May
Jun21 Democratic Presidential Candidate Update: Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend)
Jun20 Hicks Refuses to Answer Questions
Jun20 Sanders Takes a Potshot at Warren
Jun20 New National Poll: Biden First, Warren Second, Sanders Third
Jun20 Trump Raises $25 Million in 24 Hours
Jun20 Judge May Reopen Census Case
Jun20 Fed Believes Trump Cannot Remove Powell
Jun20 The Past is Never Dead. It's Not Even Past
Jun20 Senate Bipartisanship Is Coming Up Roses
Jun20 Thursday Q&A
Jun19 Trump "Launches" 2020 Campaign
Jun19 Shanahan Removes His Name from Consideration for Secretary of Defense
Jun19 Hope Hicks on Deck
Jun19 Budget Talks Look Promising, Except for the Fly in the Ointment
Jun19 Everybody Hates Tom
Jun19 Roy Moore to Announce Plans on Thursday
Jun19 A Master Class in Kissing Ass
Jun18 Trump Administration to Launch Another Crackdown on Undocumented Immigrants
Jun18 Mulvaney: Secret Mexico Deal May Remain Secret Forever
Jun18 Iran Situation Is Deteriorating
Jun18 Bad Numbers All Around for Trump
Jun18 Democrats Prepare Ad Blitz
Jun18 SCOTUS Hands Democrats Two Wins
Jun18 Rep. Katie Porter Endorses Impeachment Proceedings
Jun17 The Lineups for the First Democratic Debates Are Set
Jun17 Trump Will Run a Professional Campaign in 2020...Sort Of
Jun17 Fox News Poll Shows Trump Losing to the Leading Democrats
Jun17 Biden Leads in the Early States
Jun17 Biden Leads Trump by 11 Points in Michigan
Jun17 Four Democrats Court Black Voters in South Carolina
Jun17 Wall Street Has Made Its Choices