Friday News Roundup — November 16, 2018: President Trump & the President’s Three Hats; Gaza Raid Shakes Israeli Politics; & Stories You May Have Missed
Happy Friday from Washington, D.C., and thank you, again, for joining us for this week’s news roundup. This week Dan Mahaffee covers the three main roles a president plays on the domestic and international stage, and how the past weeks’ events have reflected on how President Trump prioritizes these roles. Michael Stecher looks at the break in the ceasefire in Gaza and what it means for Israeli politics and regional stability. We wrap up with some stories that you may have missed.
Finally, with the Thanksgiving holiday next week, the news roundup will go on a one-week hiatus. We wish you and yours a very pleasant holiday. If watching Dan’s beloved Chicago Bears isn’t enough of a distraction to prevent a tense political discussion at the Thanksgiving table, these six tips for navigating politics at Thanksgiving are a useful resource.
President Donald J. Trump & The President’s Three Hats
Instead of focusing on the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I, the weekend’s events in Paris were dominated by coverage of President Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders and a missed visit to commemorate American war dead. While much of the partisan back-and-forth was over why the President did not attend the ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial near Paris, it also presents an opportunity to examine President Trump’s approach to presidential leadership.
The American presidency, through Constitutional prerogative and historical precedent, creates a unique hybrid of three important roles — head of state, head of government, and, increasingly, head of party. To provide a bit of Comparative Political Science 101, in many countries with parliamentary systems, the head of state and head of government are two separate posts, with a monarch or ceremonial president serving as head of state and a prime minister serving as the head of government. In the United States, and other presidential systems that were modeled after the United States, the president is both the head of state and head of government. The head of a political party is a more variable role from country-to-country, but as the presidential “bully pulpit” grew stronger over the 20th century and the parties became more ideologically coherent, the U.S. presidency took on a de facto role as the leader of the president’s political party.
The events in Paris are yet another reminder that President Trump is very comfortable in the role of leading a Republican Party that is increasingly being reshaped by Trumpism, but he struggles with the role of head of state and head of government. From the campaign rallies, to his post-midterm remarks excoriating retired and defeated Republicans, President Trump focuses on internal and external partisan conflicts facing the GOP.
Even during the 2016 campaign, candidate Trump failed to grasp the importance of the transition process, as planning efforts were sidelined and then quickly cast aside following his election victory. As a result, many in the Trump team were surprised at the scope and range of positions that would need to be filled in a new administration. To this day, of 702 key Executive Branch positions requiring presidential nomination, according to tracking by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, 377 are confirmed, 182 are nominated, 12 await nomination, and 134 still have no nominee.
As the head of state, the president is responsible for the ceremonial representation of the United States. Charles DeGaulle, in creating the French Fifth Republic, believed that the president should embody l’esprit de la nation. However, be it the visit to honor America’s war dead to honor the centenary of their sacrifice, laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in commemoration of Veterans’ Day, or the honoring of America’s cultural icons at the Kennedy Center, the Trump presidency has de-emphasized this role of the president as a national figure. Many of these things may seem trivial — such as throwing out the first pitch of baseball’s opening day or hosting a Ramadan Iftar — but they are roles that only the president can play to unify our nation, console us in times of tragedy, and promote the American spirit to our fellow citizens and the world. Even when he seeks to play this role, it is politicized by the Trump presidency, as GOP campaign donation largesse now seems to merit the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Some of the more gossipy coverage of the White House suggests that much of President Trump’s attitude towards the events in Paris, other presidential appearances, and White House staffing is clouded by his unhappiness with the midterm results. He is far from alone in receiving a setback in Congressional elections, President Bush described the 2006 results as a “thumping” but continued to push his agenda forward; President Obama made good-natured remarks about 2010 being humbled by a “shellacking.” Those presidents compartmentalized their election rebukes and their role as party leader, as they continued to go about their presidencies in a normal fashion. In the Trump White House, it appears that an earlier tone of victory has been clouded by a realization that the suburbs abandoned the GOP and concern of just what a Democratic House will do with its oversight and investigatory powers. It demonstrates yet again that Partisan Trump often supplants President Trump.
Much of the attention will be paid to the advice of aides and security details. That said, if the White House staff and Secret Service are able to manage repeated visits — and the commensurate security contingencies — to Mar-A-Lago, Bedminster, and campaign rallies across the United States, but not to honor those who paid the ultimate price for American and allied freedom, it sends a powerful message about presidential priorities.
Gaza Flare-Up May Lead to Early Elections in Israel
Israel’s southern border erupted in violence this week as a nascent and largely unacknowledged ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas broke down. Under the terms of the ceasefire, Hamas had pledged to keep the border quiet, preventing missile and rocket attacks and limiting the scope of demonstrations that had resulted in the deaths of 170 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier since March. In exchange, Israel and Egypt would reduce the economic isolation that has devastated the Gaza Strip. As part of this deal, Israel allowed Qatar — Hamas’s primary foreign patron — to provide cash infusions to the territory. The first of these payments, $15 million in cash, arrived last week along with fuel for Gaza’s power plant and was earmarked to fund humanitarian assistance programs and pay the salaries of civil servants in the Hamas-controlled enclave. On Sunday, however, a botched intelligence/special operations mission into Gaza led to deadly exchanges of fire. Quiet has returned, but the last few days have highlighted important political rifts inside Israel and throughout the region.
Politics makes strange bedfellows, but the payments to Gazan civil servants is odder than most. The Palestinian Authority (PA), the official representation of the Palestinian people, was ejected from the Gaza Strip in a civil war in 2007, but continued to pay the salaries of PA employees in Gaza until this summer. PA budget cuts stopped these transfers as a means of increasing pressure on Hamas, which prompted Israel to ease that pressure with Qatari money. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government considers quiet on the southern front as essential to their primary strategic goal of preventing Iran and Hezbollah from fortifying the Syrian border.
That makes the result of the raid by Israeli security forces into Gaza on Sunday all the more striking. According to the Israeli Defense Forces, special operations forces entered the Gaza Strip to gather intelligence but were exposed by Hamas forces, leading to a firefight that killed a senior Hamas commander, six other Hamas fighters, and an Israeli officer. Hamas claimed that the raid was designed to assassinate or capture the commander, which Israel denies. In response, Hamas launched hundreds of mortar shells, rockets, and missiles into Israel. These attacks killed a Palestinian man in Ashkelon and saw a military bus along the border hit by an advanced anti-tank missile. This missile strike resulted in only one casualty, which is very fortunate, since a major casualty event would have almost certainly spurred further escalation. In the New York Times, a retired Israeli general speculated that the raid had gone ahead because they are actually very frequent and almost never detected.
By Tuesday evening, calm had returned and the informal truce with Hamas was back in place, but the political battle in Israel was just starting. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the ceasefire “surrendering to terrorism” and resigned from the government. Lieberman’s departure leaves Prime Minister Netanyahu’s unstable coalition with a one vote majority in the Knesset. Netanyahu — the second-longest serving PM in Israeli history — is facing growing political challenges, including corruption investigations targeting him and his immediate family. The leaders of several of the smaller parties, including Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, are jockeying to replace Netanyahu, as are some members of his own party. Bennett has already demanded the Defense portfolio and threatened to pull his party from the coalition if he does not get it. This puts Netanyahu in a difficult bind: if Bennett resigns, it will trigger new elections that could end his premiership; but if he makes Bennett Defense Minister, he will signal that he is susceptible to political blackmail and given an implicit veto over all government business to an ambitious rival. It is hard to see how this ends without early elections.
News You May Have Missed
On Monday, French president Emmanuel Macron announced a six-month partnership with Facebook to investigate moderation techniques and policies that focus on hate speech. While largely overshadowed by yesterday’s New York Times exposé on Facebook’s management and decision-making in response to recent controversies, as part of this deal, Facebook is planning to give the French government unprecedented access to its algorithms for the investigation. This announcement comes after a period of backlash against the company for its inaction towards eliminating misinformation within its platform during events like the 2016 presidential election, or more recently in the genocide in Myanmar.
In a special report from Reuters, their correspondent in Caracas unveils how the Chinese technology giant ZTE has worked with the Venezuelan government by providing the technical support necessary to create an internal control system. The “Fatherland Card,” introduced by the Maduro regime, tracks a range of political and social activities — including voting patterns — to determine access to a range of government resources. At a time when the Venezuelan people are suffering in a humanitarian crisis due to the scarcity of basic staples, the regime is increasingly using this data to allocate food, medicine, and other benefits to its most partisan supporters. At a time when increased attention is being paid to ties between China’s technology companies and the Chinese government, this only fuels concerns that Chinese technology exports, in turn, help export Chinese authoritarianism.
Today, scientists from around the world are meeting in Paris to redefine the kilogram. In recent decades, there has been a move to fix the basic measures we use (distance, time, mass, etc) to fixed, fundamental physical laws and properties. For example, one meter used to be 1 / 10,000,000th of the distance from the North Pole to the equator, but is now the distance that light travels in a vacuum in 1 / 299,792,458th of a second (and a second is now 9,192,631,770 periods of electronic radiation transition of cesium-133 atoms). The kilogram, however, had long resisted this kind of fixing and was still measured as the weight of a cylinder made of platinum and iridium in a vault in Paris. The problem was that Le Grand K, as it is known, was losing atoms (but not weight, because, whatever happened to the object, it still weighed 1 kilogram by definition). After today’s vote, it is expected that the mass of a kilogram will be fixed in relation to a measure in quantum physics known as Planck’s Constant.
Marie Antoinette smuggled her royal jewelry collection to her relatives in Austria during the early days of the French Revolution. They passed down through the House of Bourbon-Parma, a cadet branch of the French royal family who were Dukes of Parma in northern Italy. Her entire extant collection sold at auction at Sotheby’s in Geneva for over $42 million, most of which went towards a single pearl and diamond pendant that sold for $36 million, so there were presumably some bargains further down the lot list. Just a hint for those of you planning an early start on holiday shopping…
The views expressed by contributors are their own, and not the view of the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.