Morning Read 5/3: On Israeli Independence Day, Pence says embassy move is getting “serious consideration”

Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday that the White House is giving "serious consideration" to moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem [Gage Skidmore]
Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday that the White House is giving “serious consideration” to moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem [Gage Skidmore]

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INTERNATIONAL


Pence: Trump giving ‘serious consideration’ to embassy move

WASHINGTON — US Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that the White House was continuing to give “serious consideration” to moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Speaking at an Israeli Independence Day event at the Indian Tea Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the US capital, Pence said the White House “as we speak, is giving serious consideration to moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” a statement he did not elaborate on but which garnered sustained applause from the several dozen guests.

Trump pledged during his campaign to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but as president he’s distanced himself away from the vow while saying it’s still under discussion. Like most countries, the US maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv because Israelis and Palestinians have competing claims to Jerusalem. Israel considers Jerusalem its undivided capital but Palestinians seek East Jerusalem for the capital of a future state.

Among the attendees at Tuesday’s event were US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), and White House aide Sebastian Gorka, who is said to be leaving the White House amid controversy surrounding his alleged ties to a Hungarian anti-Semitic group. [ToI]

TRUMP SEEKS STEPS FROM ABBAS TO PROMOTE PEACE WITH ISRAEL

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump will press Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to end payments to families of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails, according to U.S. officials, one of several actions Washington believes could lead to resumed peace talks with Israel.

Other actions include a Palestinian end to anti-Israel rhetoric and incitement of violence, said officials familiar with planning for the meeting. It will be Trump and Abbas’ first face-to-face discussion.

The issue of stipends for families of Palestinians killed or jailed in the context of the conflict with Israel is sensitive. Israel considers such payments a reward for terrorists, but stopping them seems untenable to Abbas, especially at a time of broad Palestinian support for a mass hunger strike of prisoners held by Israel. American officials said such a request was raised in preparatory talks with Palestinian officials and three Republican senators urged a halt to such payments in a letter to Trump that reflected widespread opinion in Congress.

While Abbas will be challenged on the payments, Trump will also use their meeting to recommit the United States to helping the Palestinians improve their economic conditions, said the U.S. officials, who weren’t authorized to publicly preview the talks and demanded anonymity. They said Trump will reiterate his belief that Israeli settlement construction on land claimed by the Palestinians does not advance peace prospects. [AP]

‘INSTRUMENT OF BLACKMAIL: North Korea could use nukes to influence US to abandon South

North Korea’s nuclear weapons development could be used as “blackmail” to influence the U.S. to abandon its ally in South Korea in order to make it easier for Pyongyang to overtake its archrival, a White House official said Tuesday.

Matt Pottinger, the Asia director on President Trump’s National Security Council, said there might be some truth to the idea that North Korea wants a nuclear deterrent to protect its communist regime, but the country’s robust conventional military has worked as a deterrent for decades.

“They have made no secret in conversations they have had with former American officials, for example, and others that they want to use these weapons as an instrument of blackmail to achieve other goals, even including perhaps coercive reunification of the Korean Peninsula one day,” Pottinger said at a conference in Washington.

Pottinger said North Korea also wants the U.S. “to leave the peninsula and abandon our alliances.” He said the U.S. is not seeking a regime change in North Korea, but the U.S. wants the North to end its nuclear weapons program.

“We really have no choice but to increase pressure on North Korea to diplomatically isolate them, to bring a greater economic pain to bear until they are willing to make concrete steps to start reducing that threat,” he said.

Pottinger’s comments come a day after Trump opened the door slightly to a future meeting with Kim Jong Un, saying he would be “honored” to meet with the dictator under the right circumstances. He also praised Kim as a “pretty smart cookie.” [FOXNEWS]

Trump and Putin Agree to Seek Syria Cease-Fire

WASHINGTON — President Trump reopened direct communications with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Tuesday and sought to reignite what he hoped would be a special relationship by agreeing to work together to broker a cease-fire in war-torn Syria.

In their first telephone conversation since the United States launched a cruise missile strike on Syria’s Moscow-backed military to retaliate for a chemical weapons attack on civilians, Mr. Trump agreed to send a representative to Russian-brokered cease-fire talks that start on Wednesday in Astana, Kazakhstan. He and Mr. Putin also discussed meeting each other in Germany in July.

But American and Russian officials offered divergent accounts of their interest in establishing safe zones in Syria to protect civilians suffering from a relentless, six-year civil war. A White House statement said the two leaders had discussed such zones “to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons.” The Kremlin statement made no mention of safe zones, and Mr. Putin’s spokesman said they had not been discussed in detail.

Still, at the talks in Astana, Mr. Putin’s envoys plan to propose that Russia, Iran and Turkey act as buffer forces separating government and rebel forces in some areas of Syria. The government of President Bashar al-Assad is skeptical of the plan, seeing it as the first step toward a partition of the country, according to diplomats and analysts. [NYT]

Assange lawyer asks Swedish court to tear up detention order

Julian Assange’s lawyer has requested a Swedish court rescind a detention order against the WikiLeaks founder over an alleged case and allow him to go to Ecuador to be safe from extradition to the United States.

Assange, 45, has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012, after taking refuge there to avoid extradition to Sweden over allegations which he denies.

He fears Sweden would in turn hand him over to the United States to face prosecution over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents in one of the largest information leaks in U.S. history.

Lawyer Per Samuelson said the United States had now openly said it wants to arrest Assange. “Given that the U.S. is obviously hunting him now, he has to make use of his political asylum and it is Sweden’s duty to make sure that Sweden is no longer a reason for that fact he has to stay in the embassy,” Samuelson said.

“If they rescind the detention order, there is a possibility he can go to Ecuador and then he can use political asylum in an entire country.”

CIA Director Mike Pompeo last month called WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service”, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, responding to a question about Assange, said the administration was stepping up its efforts against all leaks of sensitive information.

“Whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail,” Sessions said. [REUTERS]

Suicide attack on NATO convoy in Kabul kills eight civilians

A suicide bombing in the Afghan capital Kabul on Wednesday killed eight people and wounded at least 28, officials said, in an attack on a convoy of armored personnel carriers used by the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.

The blast hit the NATO coalition convoy during the morning rush hour in one of the busiest areas of Kabul. Public health officials in the capital said eight civilians were killed and at least 25 wounded, with a number of civilian vehicles that were near the convoy destroyed or badly damaged.

A Resolute Support Spokesman, U.S. Navy Captain Bill Salvin, said three U.S. service members were wounded in the attack. The armored personnel carriers, which are designed to withstand large blasts, were able to return to a coalition base under their own power, he said.

The heavily armored MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles that coalition forces use to travel in Kabul appeared to have suffered only relatively minor external damage, witnesses said.[REUTERS]


NATIONAL


Influential GOP lawmaker latest to say no to revised Republican health care bill

An influential Republican lawmaker who was chairman of one of the House committees that drafted the GOP proposal to repeal and replace ObamaCare dealt the Trump administration a blow Tuesday when he said he could not support the new healthcare legislation being drafted.

“I cannot support the bill with this provision in it,” Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan told a radio station. Upton believes the bill would undermine protections the Affordable Care Act – or ObamaCare – gives people with pre-existing conditions.

Upton’s defection comes as House Speaker Paul Ryan tries once more to make good on campaign promises to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s signature health care overhaul.

Republican leaders are still short of the 216 votes they need to win. President Trump and Ryan are trying to resurrect a revised version of the bill Ryan was forced to pull in March when it became clear they didn’t have the votes needed to secure a win.

Upton told The Associated Press that the bill’s treatment of people with pre-existing illnesses “does not fit” with comments Trump made in an interview last weekend. The president said “Pre-existing conditions are in the bill.”

“Can there be a fix? Maybe, but it is not part of the equation before us,” Upton said.

Upton pointedly noted that the bill’s language on pre-existing conditions was backed by the House Freedom Caucus, most of whose deeply conservative members now support the legislation. [FOXNEWS]

As Complaints Pile Up, North Carolina Rethinks Public-Private Road Project

CORNELIUS, N. C.—When North Carolina brought in a private operator to add toll lanes to a 26-mile stretch of highway north of Charlotte, its goal was to reduce congestion and build a road the state couldn’t otherwise afford.

The hope was that the state’s first public-private partnership for roads would be a model of efficiency and the first of many such projects. But the expansion of Interstate 77 has hit speed bumps, with travel times lengthening and accidents increasing. Now the state is considering paying up to $300 million to get out of the deal and retake control of the roadway.

The controversy comes as the project’s public-private funding model gains momentum, with more than 30 states allowing such partnerships for major road jobs. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report last year said 17 states have closed such deals, often in areas where Republicans hold sway in the state legislature, as in the case in North Carolina. While the approach can work well, with advocates saying companies are able to complete projects faster than those carried out by local and state governments, several toll-road projects around the U.S. have also gone bankrupt.

In North Carolina, Cintra Vice President Patrick Rhode said the company is working closely with state transportation officials to make sure the work zone is safe. Cintra recently agreed to a state request to make lane shifts more clear by the use of newer, more reflective lane-marking material than the one specified in the contract.

He said the project is getting built in three years, which is half the time that might be expected.

Lawmakers and business groups are pushing for the project to be scrapped. The 1,000-member Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce argues the toll lanes are unlikely to reduce congestion because of the cost—as much as $20 round trip during rush hour—and the design, as the asphalt isn’t thick enough to accommodate tractor-trailer trucks. Cintra says the tolls haven’t been determined yet.

“I’m a capitalist, free-market guy,” said Jim Puckett, a GOP Mecklenburg County commissioner. “But sometimes there are solutions that only the public sector can handle.”

A state review of the project last year said the breakup cost could run from $82 million to $300 million. A bipartisan group of legislators came close to breaking the deal last summer, but balked because it risked taking money from other transportation projects.

Newly elected Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has ordered an outside review of options to change or break the Cintra contract, under which the company has the right to toll revenues through 2058. [WSJ]

NSA collected Americans’ phone records despite law change

The U.S. National Security Agency collected more than 151 million records of Americans’ phone calls last year, even after Congress limited its ability to collect bulk phone records, according to an annual report issued on Tuesday by the top U.S. intelligence officer.

The report from the office of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was the first measure of the effects of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which limited the NSA to collecting phone records and contacts of people U.S. and allied intelligence agencies suspect may have ties to terrorism.

It found that the NSA collected the 151 million records even though it had warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court to spy on only 42 terrorism suspects in 2016, in addition to a handful identified the previous year.

The NSA has been gathering a vast quantity of telephone “metadata,” records of callers’ and recipients’ phone numbers and the times and durations of the calls – but not their content – since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The report came as Congress faced a decision on whether to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which permits the NSA to collect foreign intelligence information on non-U.S. persons outside the United States, and is scheduled to expire at the end of this year.

The report did not address how frequently the FBI obtained information about Americans while investigating a foreign intelligence matter, however.

On Friday, the NSA said it had stopped a form of surveillance that allowed it to collect the digital communications of Americans who mentioned a foreign intelligence target in their messages without a warrant.

Because the 151 million would include multiple calls made to or from the same phone numbers, the number of people whose records were collected also would be much smaller, the officials said. They said they had no breakdown of how many individuals’ phone records were among those collected.

Officials said in the report that U.S. intelligence agencies had gone out of their way to make public more information about U.S. electronic eavesdropping.

“This year’s report continues our trajectory toward greater transparency, providing additional statistics beyond what is required by law,” said Office of the Director of National Intelligence spokesman Timothy Barrett. [REUTERS]


LOCAL


De Blasio shows up late for Democratic candidates’ forum

Mayor de Blasio took the stage 25 minutes late for a Democratic candidates’ forum Tuesday night where long-shot rivals criticized him on everything from his handling of homelessness to schools to policing.

De Blasio was scheduled to speak at 8:30 pm at the forum, sponsored by the Village Independent Democrats political club, but arrived at the LGBT Center in the West Village about 18 minutes late.

He took the stage at 8:55 p.m. His campaign announced around noon Tuesday he would be attending the event, but staffers declined to offer an explanation for his tardiness.

De Blasio faced off against four long-shot challengers at the forum: businessman Michael Tolkin, police reform advocate Robert Gangi, former City Councilman Sal Albanese and Kevin Coenen, a retired FDNY firefighter. [NYP]

The city’s ethics board might be trolling Bill de Blasio

The city’s ethics board trolled Mayor de Blasio on Twitter Tuesday in nine separate posts pointing out that city workers who misused their city vehicles were slapped with hefty fines.

The postings came just four days after de Blasio defended Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte for running up 18,500 miles of personal use on his official city vehicle last year in jaunts to Maine and elsewhere, claiming he had gotten bad advice that it OK.

Ponte on Monday agreed to reimburse the city for $1,043 in gas charges as well as $746 in toll charges.

But he has suffered no other consequences, thus far.

Lower-level city workers weren’t as lucky.

Joel Lemaitre, a community and fleet coordinator with the New York City Housing Authority, was slapped with a 10-day suspension that will cost him $2,222, the Conflicts Board announced Tuesday.

Lemaitre’s offense: he used a Housing Authority car to travel to Pier I Imports in Freeport, L.I. on Nov. 27, 2015 so he and his mom could buy a chair.

The Conflicts Board publicized each of the punishments in separate Twitter messages, along with another case where a worker at the Department of Youth and Community Development was fined $1,000 and 4 days pay for using his city computer for an outside business.

Last week, de Blasio defended Ponte as an outstanding jails boss and said he did nothing wrong because he was advised he could use an official vehicle at will. [NYP]

Privacy group sues NYPD for release of facial-recognition documents

A privacy group sued the New York Police Department on Tuesday to demand the release of documents related to its use of facial-recognition technology, which rights groups have criticized as discriminatory and lacking in proper oversight.

The lawsuit is the latest attempt to compel U.S. law enforcement agencies to disclose more about how they rely on searchable facial-recognition databases in criminal investigations.

NYPD has previously produced one document in response to a January 2016 freedom of information request, despite evidence it has frequently used an advanced face-recognition system for more than five years, according to the Center for Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University law school, which filed the suit in New York state court.

“The department’s claim that it cannot find any records

about its use of the technology is deeply troubling,” said David Vladeck, the privacy group’s faculty director. He added that an absence of responsive documents, such as contract and purchasing documents, training materials or audits, would be an indication the police force did not possess controls governing its use of facial-recognition software.

NYPD could not be immediately reached for comment on the suit.

Facial-recognition databases are used by police to help identify possible criminal suspects. They typically work by conducting searches of vast troves of known images, such as mug shots, and algorithmically comparing them with other images, such as those taken form a store’s surveillance cameras, that capture an unidentified person believed to be committing a crime. [REUTERS]

Bayonne Bridge Project to Finish Six Months Early

Supersize container ships could begin calling at New York’s port by July, six months earlier than expected following the accelerated completion of a delayed $1.6 billion project to raise the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who made the bridge-raising project a priority of his administration, announced the sped up timetable Tuesday morning standing on the docks of Maher Terminals in Elizabeth, N.J.

Calling the project “truly an engineering marvel,” Mr. Christie said the raising of the bridge span to 215 feet from 151 feet—while keeping the roadway open to traffic—would be a boon to the region’s economy and to consumers.

The Bayonne Bridge spans the Kill Van Kull, a winding tidal strait between Staten Island, N.Y., and New Jersey that ships must navigate to reach the region’s largest container terminals at Newark, N.J., and Elizabeth.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was supposed to complete the project in time for an influx of supersize container ships following the opening of the newly widened Panama Canal last summer.

But in 2015, the agency pushed its estimated completion date to late 2017, citing harsh weather conditions and engineering difficulties.

The agency opened the new elevated roadway in February and is in the process of dismantling the original span. Mr. Christie said the port will be accessible to the larger class of ships by June 30. [WSJ]

Trump Is Returning to New York City, Just Not to Sleep

New York City this week prepared for the first return of its native-son president since he entered the White House, and the many disruptions sure to appear in his wake, even as the visit earned an asterisk on Tuesday with the disclosure that he would not be staying at Trump Tower, or in the city at all.

Earlier in the week, flight restrictions announced by the Federal Aviation Administration indicated that President Trump would spend Thursday night in the city after a dinner reception aboard the Intrepid aircraft carrier on the West Side of Manhattan. He would then travel the next day to his country house in New Jersey, at the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster.

But new restrictions announced Tuesday showed Mr. Trump heading straight to Bedminster from the Intrepid.

The New York Police Department said it had been advised that Mr. Trump would not be staying in the city. He is expected to stay in Bedminster through the weekend. [NYT]


POLITICS


Echoing Trump, Mike Pence’s Office Says It Will Release His Tax Returns After IRS Audit

Tax Day came and went last month and, as expected, the White House didn’t release President Donald Trump’s tax returns. Nor did it release the 2016 filings of Vice President Mike Pence.

Those will be public – eventually, Mr. Pence’s office said this week.

Mr. Pence will release his return after the mandatory audit that the Internal Revenue Service does on the vice president, said spokesman Marc Lotter.

That is different from White House practice under President Barack Obama. Then, the administration released returns from Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden each year around the April tax-filing deadline for individuals. The Obama White House typically didn’t announce the results of audits.

By pegging his release to the end of an audit, Mr. Pence matches a rationale used on occasion by Mr. Trump for why he has declined to release any returns, either as a candidate or as president. No law prevents Messrs. Trump and Pence from releasing their returns now; public disclosure and discussion might give the IRS ideas for how to audit them.

Lawmakers from both parties have called on Mr. Trump to release his returns and Democrats are pushing legislation to require him to do so.

Mr. Pence’s finances are nowhere near as complex as Mr. Trump’s and the audit required under IRS guidelines shouldn’t be as lengthy. The Internal Revenue Manual calls for an automatic audit of the president and vice president and require they be kept in an orange folder and locked in a secure drawer when not under immediate review.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Pence and his wife Karen released tax returns from 2006 through 2015. In 2015, they reported $113,026 in adjusted gross income, almost all from his salary as governor of Indiana. [WSJ]

Yates to testify she gave White House forceful warning on Flynn: report

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates plans to tell a Senate panel next week that she strongly warned the White House about then-national security adviser Michael Flynn weeks before he was fired, according to a CNN report Tuesday.

According to Yates’ reported testimony, she warned the Trump administration nearly three weeks before Flynn was ousted. Such a testimony would contradict the administration’s account, sources familiar with her version of events told CNN.

Yates reportedly warned White House Counsel Don McGahn in late January that President Trump’s national security adviser had lied publicly and privately about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador concerning U.S. sanctions.

Yates reportedly said that Flynn’s misleading comments could have possibly made him vulnerable to being compromised by Russia, the sources told CNN. [THEHILL]

Trump fires back at Clinton in tweets, says Comey gave her free pass

President Trump on Tuesday fired back at Hillary Clinton in a series of tweets after the former Democratic presidential candidate blamed FBI Director James Comey and Russian interference for ruining her chances at becoming president.

“FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds,” Trump tweeted. “The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?” [FOX]

Clinton says Comey’s letter, Russian hackers cost her the election

Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday she was on the path to victory in the 2016 presidential election until late interference by Russian hackers and FBI Director James Comey scared off some potential supporters.

In her most extensive public comments on the Nov. 8 election, Clinton told a New York conference she was derailed by Comey’s Oct. 28 letter informing Congress the Federal Bureau of Investigation had reopened a probe of her use of a private email server and by the WikiLeaks release of campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, allegedly stolen by Russian hackers.

“If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president,” she told a women’s conference moderated by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

“It wasn’t a perfect campaign, but I was on the way to winning until a combination of Comey’s letter and Russian WikiLeaks,” the Democrat said of the loss to Republican Donald Trump. “The reason why I believe we lost were the intervening events in the last 10 days.”

Clinton, who said she is going through the “painful process” of writing a book dealing in part with the election, also said misogyny played a role in her defeat. Becoming the first woman U.S. president would have been “a really big deal,” she said.

Clinton took personal responsibility for the campaign’s mistakes, but did not question her strategy or her staff. “I was the candidate, I was the person who was on the ballot. I am very aware of the challenges, the problems, the shortfalls that we had,” Clinton said.

She said she had no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to influence the election for Trump, and bluntly criticized the new U.S. president for some of his foreign policy views and for tweeting too much.

“I’m back to being an activist citizen – and part of the resistance,” she said. [REUTERS]

Trump Adviser Kushner’s Undisclosed Partners Include Goldman and Soros

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is currently in business with Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and billionaires George Soros and Peter Thiel, according to people familiar with the matter and securities filings.

The previously undisclosed business relationships with titans of the financial and technology worlds are through a real-estate tech startup called Cadre that Mr. Kushner cofounded and currently partly owns.

Goldman and Messrs. Soros and Thiel, as well as other billionaires’ firms, also have stakes in the company, which is based in a Manhattan building owned by the Kushner family’s company, according to people close to Cadre.

The Cadre stake is one of many interests—and ties to large financial institutions—that Mr. Kushner didn’t identify on his government financial-disclosure form, according to a Wall Street Journal review of securities and other filings. Others include loans totaling at least $1 billion, from more than 20 lenders, to properties and companies part-owned by Mr. Kushner, the Journal found. He has also provided personal guarantees on more than $300 million of the debt, according to the analysis.

In his disclosure form filed earlier this year, Mr. Kushner didn’t identify Cadre as among his hundreds of assets. The Journal identified his Cadre stake through a review of securities and other filings as well as interviews with people familiar with the company and Mr. Kushner’s finances.

Jamie Gorelick, a lawyer representing Mr. Kushner, said in a statement that his stake in Cadre is housed in a company he owns, BFPS Ventures LLC. His ownership of BFPS is reported on his disclosure form, although it doesn’t mention Cadre. [WSJ]


CULTURE


These Hasidic Legos Are Coming to a Death Star Shul Near You

The wonder of Legos is that you’re supposed to be able to build anything you can imagine. While sitting around their Baltimore Shabbos table, Tobey Finkelstein and family decided that what they wanted to build was a Lego construction that reflected their own interests–that is, observant Judaism and Star Wars. Rubber tires became shtreimels. A miniature robot construction site becomes the youth service. And beards become…well, beards.

Their mission: to build Beis Death Star Kochav Chaim, the first intergalactic synagogue.

Don’t worry–Ms. Finkelstein and her kids aren’t building a real Death Star. But their successful Kickstarter campaign just raised over $1500 to support purchasing parts, printing, shipping, and (Finkelstein child) labor to produce their “Brickovickers’” HQ, a Hasidic shul complete with men’s and women’s sections, a rabbi’s seat, a Youth Service, and the one thing that no synagogue in the galaxy can be without: an unfinished basement.

Any synagogue with the name “Death Star” in the title might not be the most, well, welcoming place ever. But this one, “kochav chaim” literally means “star of life,” which takes its deathly inspiration and gives it, well, a new hope.

Lego bricks can be seen as an awesome metaphor for Jewish philosophy–where the pieces are rigid, but can be arranged in any way you choose–and the Finkelsteins have made their Brickovickers project into their own brick masterpiece. [JEWNIVERSE]


FINANCE


U.S. Consumer Spending Rises After Inflation, While Prices Drop in March

WASHINGTON—Americans’ spending grew steadily in March after accounting for inflation, positioning the economy to rebound from another winter slowdown.

But consumer prices fell, a sign of underlying weakness that could give the Federal Reserve pause as it considers further increases in its benchmark interest rate.

Personal consumption, a measure of what households spent on everything from groceries to dental care, rose 0.3% after inflation, the Commerce Department said Monday. That followed two months of declines.

Without accounting for inflation, spending was flat.

The figure, combined with gains in Americans’ incomes, offers early evidence the economy’s first-quarter slowdown may have been a blip and that growth could pick up this spring. Weak consumer spending led U.S. economic output to grow a tepid 0.7%, at an annual rate, in January through March, but Friday’s report hinted at momentum at the end of the quarter.

“The fundamentals on robust consumer spending are in place, such as elevated levels of consumer confidence, rising real disposable income, and increasing household net worth,” IHS Markit economist Chris G. Christopher Jr. said in a note to clients.

Some economists believe temporary factors led to weak spending in the first quarter, including a warm winter that drove down Americans’ heating bills compared with prior years and a delay in tax refunds that gave them less money to spend.

Spending is expected to pick up this spring due largely to rising incomes. Personal income—measuring wages, salaries, investment returns and government assistance—rose 0.2% in March from a month earlier. Real disposable income—or the money left over after inflation and taxes—grew 0.5%, the strongest gain since late 2015.

Americans also appear to have given themselves a bigger financial cushion, with the personal saving rate climbing to 5.9% in March, up more than half a percentage point since December. [WSJ]

Wall Street fears end of boom as automakers’ April U.S. sales drop

Major automakers on Tuesday posted declines in U.S. new vehicle sales for April in a sign the long boom cycle that lifted the American auto industry to record sales last year is losing steam, sending carmaker stocks down.

The drop in sales versus April 2016 came on the heels of a disappointing March, which automakers had shrugged off as just a bad month. But two straight weak months has heightened Wall Street worries the cyclical industry is on a downward swing after a nearly uninterrupted boom since the Great Recession’s end in 2010.

Auto sales were a drag on U.S. first-quarter gross domestic product, with the economy growing at an annual rate of just 0.7 percent according to an advance estimate published by the Commerce Department last Friday.

Excluding the auto sector the GDP growth rate would have been 1.2 percent.

Industry consultant Autodata put the industry’s seasonally adjusted annualized rate of sales at 16.88 million units for April, below the average of 17.2 million units predicted by analysts polled by Reuters. [REUTERS]

Fruchthandler’s FBE buying four-building portfolio for $50M

Abraham Fruchthandler’s FBE Limited is buying a portfolio of four contiguous Upper Manhattan rental buildings for about $50 million, sources told The Real Deal.

The four elevator properties at 60-68 West 107th Street hold a combined 100 rental apartments and 100,600 square feet. The Fruchthandlers are expected to close in the next few weeks on the purchase for about $500 per square foot, sources said.

The buildings haven’t changed hands in more than 45 years. Fort Lee, New Jersey-based real estate investor and contractor Seymour Alpert and his family have owned them since as early as 1969, property records show.

The buildings, located between Columbus and Manhattan avenues in the Manhattan Valley neighborhood, each have 25 rental units.

Fruchthandler, a frequent backer and partner of major landlord Ruby Schron, reportedly has a stake in and manages 25 million square feet of real estate nationwide, including roughly 4,000 residential units.

Fruchthandler is also an investor in the Woolworth Building and Industry City, both with Schron and others. His firm FBE is also acquiring a 10-building portfolio in Brooklyn and Manhattan with former Extell Development acquisitions guru Dov Hertz for north of $125 million. [TRD]

05/03/2017 10:33 AM by David Kinzer
Tags: Morning Read

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