The Trump administration improperly handled presents received from foreign leaders, with several high-profile gifts missing at the end of the former president’s term, the New York Times reported on Monday.
Gift-giving is an established practice between foreign emissaries and heads of state. However, because the line between customary gift-giving and bribery is sometimes difficult to determine, the U.S. government has strict protocols for how gifts should be received. In general, gifts to public servants are understood to be the property of the government, rather than the individual who receives them, and must be reported; if that individual wishes to keep a gift worth more than a certain amount—usually around $400—he or she is usually asked to reimburse the government for them.
Sometimes the exact rules surrounding a gift’s value, and under what circumstances a person is allowed to keep it, can be complicated. For instance, the report detailed that then-Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen Pence, accepted a gift of a pair of golden place-card holders from the prime minister of Singapore. The Second Lady did not pay for the pair; her lawyers claimed that because the two card holders’ value had been appraised at less than $390, the limit at the time, she was not required to reimburse the government. However, according to internal documents, the items should have been paid for, because they came with a series of other gifts, bringing the total to $1,200. Pence maintained that she had not accepted the other gifts.
In some cases, the Trump administration’s departure from protocol was more pronounced. When then-President Donald Trump made a high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of his term, Saudi royals showered him with more than eighty gifts, including an ivory-handled dagger and three robes ostensibly made from cheetah and white tiger fur, two endangered species. The Trump administration disclosed that it had received these gifts on January 19, 2021, the last full day of the Trump presidency—and nearly four years after they had been received. (Although the robes would have run afoul of the Endangered Species Act, subsequent testing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proved that they were fakes.)
Then there is the series of reported but unaccounted for gifts, including a bottle of expensive whiskey given to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and a twenty-two-carat gold coin given to a State Department official. A series of gift bags intended for foreign leaders, who would have attended a G7 summit that was canceled on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, have also disappeared, prompting an investigation.
Editors note: This article originally stated that John Bolton had been the recipient of the twenty-two-carat gold coin. Instead, it was given to a U.S. State Department official. We regret the error.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.