Wed. Aug 10th, 2022

President Donald Trump meets with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, May 20, 2017. (Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)

President Donald Trump meets with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, May 20, 2017. (Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)

The Saudi royal family bathed Donald Trump and his entourage on his first trip abroad as president with dozens of gifts, including three robes made with white tiger and cheetah and a dagger with a handle that appeared to be ivory.

A little afterward went right.

A White House attorney ruled that possession of the fur and dagger was likely to violate the Endangered Species Act, but the Trump administration stuck to them and failed to pass them on as gifts received from a foreign government.

Sign up for The New York Times’ The Morning Newsletter

On the last full day of Trump’s presidency, the White House handed them over to the General Services Administration – the wrong agency – ahead of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which seized the gifts this summer.

At the time, there was a surprise.

The fur, from an oil-rich family worth billions of dollars, was fake.

“Wildlife inspectors and special agents determined that the clothing was colored to mimic tigers and cheetahs and did not consist of protected species,” said Tyler Cherry, a State Department spokesman who oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Officials at the Saudi embassy in Washington declined to comment.

The story of the fur is just one example of how gift exchanges between the United States and foreign leaders – a highly regulated process aimed at shielding administrations from issues of injustice – turned into sometimes risky destruction during the Trump administration.

The State Department’s inspector general is investigating allegations that Trump’s political nominees left with thousands of dollars worth of gift bags destined for foreign leaders at the Group at the 7th Summit scheduled for Camp David in Maryland in 2020, which was canceled. due to the coronavirus pandemic. The bags contained dozens of items purchased with public funds, including leather portfolios, tin trays and marble ornaments embossed with the presidential seal or the signatures of Trump and his wife, Melania.

The inspector continues to pursue the place for a $ 5,800 bottle of Japanese whiskey given to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo-Pompeo said he never received it — and a 22-carat gold coin given to another State Department official.

There is also a question as to whether former duck lady Karen Pence mistakenly took two gold-toned place card holders from the Prime Minister of Singapore without paying for them.

In addition, the Trump administration never revealed that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top adviser to the White House, received two swords and a dagger from the Saudis, even though he paid $ 47,920 for them along with three other gifts in February after leaving office.

To be sure, Trump’s handling of foreign gifts is not at the top of his critics’ list of administrative misconduct. And there is no evidence that he or Melania took gifts that they were not entitled to.

But ethics experts said the problems reflected major problems with the Trump presidency.

“Whether this was indifference, sloppiness or the Great Train Robbery, it shows such a cavalier attitude to the law and the regular government process,” said Stanley Brand, criminal defense attorney, ethics expert and former House of Representatives top attorney.

The State Department declined to comment on the details of how the Trump administration handled gifts, but said in a statement that it “takes its role seriously in reporting the disposition of certain gifts received by U.S. government employees” and that it “investigates where the gifts have not been accounted for and the circumstances that led to their disappearance. “

This article is based on public documents and others produced by the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act, interviews with current and former officials, and on-the-record answers to questions from multiple government departments and agencies. The documents include an index of gifts Trump and his family received in Saudi Arabia in 2017, which the National Archives provided to two Democratic senators, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

The details of the missing gifts and the other widespread problems with them have not been previously reported. Politico reported in August that the Foreign Ministry inspector general investigated about 20 types of missing gifts.

82 Gifts from the Saudis

The nation’s founders were so concerned that European nobility could co-opt American officials with lavish gifts that they included in the constitution a clause that made it illegal for an official to take anything of value from a foreigner.

In 1966, Congress passed a law describing how a U.S. official could only keep a gift with a relatively minimal value, now limited to $ 415. Subsequent amendments defined gifts as state property and created a standardized process for how officials should deal with them.

To add transparency, the regulations require authorities to annually disclose the gifts that aliens give to U.S. officials and their assessed value. The laws have no criminal sanctions, though legal experts said anyone caught capturing state property could be prosecuted for theft.

The Trump administration’s gift problems stem from the president’s trip in May 2017 to Saudi Arabia, whose leaders cheered that Trump had chosen the kingdom for his first visit abroad and embraced them after years of tension with the Obama administration. The Saudis have a history of giving lavish gifts to U.S. presidents, and Trump and his aides seemed to receive a generous bounty.

The State Department revealed a list of 82 gifts from the Saudis to Trump administration officials on the trip in May 2017 in response to a request for a Freedom of Information Act filed shortly after Trump returned home. The gifts range from ordinary ones, such as sandals and scarves, to animals like furs and daggers.

Nine of the most expensive gifts – the three furs, three swords and three daggers – were sent to White House gifts to be assessed and assessed, but never appeared on any of the Trump State Department’s legally required annual applications for foreign gifts, according to a review of government documents.

It was not until January 19 that the White House sent the nine gifts to the General Services Administration, according to a statement from the agency.

After the New York Times last summer inquired as to why the agency was in possession of objects in violation of the Endangered Species Act, the General Services Administration notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which in July sent an agent to pick up the fur on a government warehouse in Springfield, Virginia. The agent also took the dagger that a visiting Qatar official had given to Trump’s White House in Saudi Arabia.

Inspectors examined the objects and discovered several problems when they found that the fur was colored and was fake. The dagger’s handle “appears to possibly contain tooth or bone of some sort” – the materials from elephant embroidery – “although further laboratory analyzes are required to identify the species,” the Interior Ministry said.

It is unclear whether the Saudis knew about the fake furs or were deceived by a supplier, but Bruce Riedel, a senior colleague at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Saudi-US relations, called the gifts very embarrassing.

“The two most important things for them are to look like they are worldwide actors and are rich and show their wealth,” he said.

A spokesman for Trump did not return any more messages seeking comment.

Disappear gift bags

When Trump’s political appointees in the State Department’s protocol office packed their belongings together in January, career employees saw their outgoing colleagues go with the gift bags intended for foreign leaders at the G-7 summit the year before, the inspector general has learned. The bags had been stored in a large room in the State Department known as the Vault.

When the Biden administration took over, the career authorities began investigating the accounts of foreign gifts, without Trump officials looking over their shoulders.

At the time, career officials discovered that many of the gift bags were missing, just as more than a dozen extra gifts were given to Trump officials. The number was unusual: Government documents from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations show no gifts not given to White House officials, cabinet members, or members of the first families.

In the following months, the Times found many of the gifts, including a bottle of perfume and a Persian silk blanket that the Qataris had given to Steven Mnuchin, the former finance minister. (His gifts should have been sent to the General Services Administration for disposal, but they were in stock at the Treasury.)

The bottle of whiskey for Pompeo remains unaccounted for, as does the 22-carat gold coin and a porcelain bowl from Vietnam to John Bolton, Trump’s third national security adviser, who sent the Times an email exchange with Trump White House showing he never took it and would not have it.

A mystery has been solved: When the Times contacted Karen Pence, a lawyer for the family said she had taken the gold-colored card holders after a White House ethics lawyer told her she could keep them because they had been assessed on less than the minimum threshold, which at the time was $ 390.

But according to information from Trump’s White House to the State Department, she should have paid for the cardholders. According to federal guidelines, if a U.S. official receives multiple gifts in a meeting with a foreign official, the U.S. must pay for them if the total exceeds the minimum threshold. The State Department said Trump White House reported that Karen Pence had received the cardholders along with a framed print and a clutch purse totaling $ 1,200.

Richard Cullen, the lawyer for the Pence family, said the State Department was wrong – that the gifts had been given at various meetings and Karen Pence had refused to keep the print and the link. In response to Cullen’s statement, a State Department spokesman said it stood by its characterization of Karen Pence’s gifts.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.