The Saudi royal family showered Donald J. Trump and his entourage on his first trip abroad as president with dozens of gifts, including three dresses in white tiger and cheetah fur, and a dagger with a handle which appeared to be ivory.
Little that followed went right.
A White House lawyer determined that possession of the furs and the dagger most likely violated endangered species law, but the Trump administration kept them and failed to disclose them as gifts received from a foreign government.
On the last full day of Mr. Trump’s presidency, the White House turned them over to the General Services Administration – the wrong agency – rather than the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which seized the gifts this summer.
At that point, there was a surprise.
The furs, from an oil-rich family worth billions of dollars, were fake.
“Wildlife inspectors and special agents determined that the linings of the dresses were dyed to mimic tiger and cheetah patterns and were not made from protected species,” said Tyler Cherry, a ministry spokesperson. of the Interior, which oversees the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Officials at the Saudi embassy in Washington declined to comment.
The history of furs is just one example of how the gift exchange between the United States and foreign rulers – a highly regulated process meant to protect administrations from matters of impropriety – has evolved into a sometimes laughable mess during the Trump administration.
State Department Inspector General is investigating allegations that those appointed by Mr. Trump left with gift bags worth thousands of dollars intended for foreign leaders at the scheduled Group of 7 summit in Camp David in 2020, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The bags contained dozens of items purchased with government funds, including leather wallets, pewter trays and marble trinket boxes bearing the presidential seal or signatures of Mr. Trump and his wife, Melania Trump.
Inspector General continues to search for the whereabouts of a $ 5,800 bottle of Japanese whiskey handed over to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – Mr Pompeo said he never received it – and a 22-karat gold coin handed over to another State Department official.
The question also arises as to whether the former second lady, Karen Pence, mistakenly took two gold branded card holders from the Prime Minister of Singapore without paying for them.
In addition, the Trump administration never revealed that Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and one of the top White House advisers, had received two swords and a dagger from the Saudis, although he paid. $ 47,920 for them plus three other freebies in February. , after leaving office.
Admittedly, Mr. Trump’s handling of foreign gifts is not at the top of his critics’ list of administrative offenses. And there is no evidence that he or Ms. Trump took any gifts they weren’t entitled to.
But ethics experts said the issues reflected larger issues with the Trump presidency.
“Whether it is indifference, neglect or grand train theft, it shows such a cavalier attitude towards the law and the due process of government,” said Stanley M. Brand, criminal defense attorney, ethics expert and former great lawyer of the Chamber. representatives.
The State Department declined to comment on how the Trump administration handled gifts, but said in a statement it “takes seriously its role in reporting the disposition of certain gifts received by U.S. government employees” and that he was “investigating the fate of the gifts”. missing 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 government officials, and official responses to questions from several government departments and agencies. The documents include an index of gifts Mr. Trump and his family received in Saudi Arabia in 2017 that the National Archives provided to two Democratic senators, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Details of the missing gifts and other widespread issues with them have not been previously reported. Politico reported in August that the State Department’s inspector general was investigating about 20 types of missing gifts.
82 gifts from the Saudis
The nation’s founders were so concerned that European nobility might co-opt American officials with lavish gifts that they included in the Constitution a clause prohibiting an official from taking anything of value from a foreigner.
In 1966, Congress passed a law detailing how an American official could keep a gift of relatively minimal value, now capped at $ 415. Subsequent changes defined gifts as government property and created a standardized process for how officials were to treat them.
For greater transparency, there are provisions requiring administrations to disclose every year gifts given to US officials by foreigners and their estimated value. The laws do not provide for criminal penalties, although legal experts have said anyone caught taking government property could face prosecution for theft.
The Trump administration’s gift problems date back to the president’s May 2017 trip to Saudi Arabia, whose leaders were gloating that Mr. Trump had chosen the kingdom for his first overseas visit and was embracing them after years of tensions with him. the Obama administration. The Saudis are used to giving lavish gifts to US presidents, and Mr. Trump and his aides appeared to be receiving a generous bonus.
The State Department disclosed a list of 82 gifts from the Saudis to Trump administration officials during the May 2017 trip in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed shortly after Mr. Trump at home. The gifts ranged from ordinary gifts like sandals and scarves to expensive gifts like furs and daggers.
Nine of the most expensive gifts – the three furs, three swords, and three daggers – were sent to the White House Gifts Unit for appraisal and appraisal, but never appeared on any of the annual documents legally required by Trump’s State Department for foreign gifts, according to a review of government documents.
It was not until January 19, 2021, 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 asked this summer why the agency was in possession of articles that violated the Endangered Species Act, the General Services Administration alerted the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which sent a agent in July to collect furs in a government office. warehouse in Springfield, Virginia. The agent also took the dagger, which a visiting Qatari official gave to the Trump White House in Saudi Arabia.
Inspectors examined the items, finding other issues when they determined that the furs had been dyed and were fake. The handle of the dagger “appears to possibly contain teeth or bones of some variety” – the elephant tusk material – “although further laboratory analysis is needed to identify the species,” the Ministry of the Interior.
It is not known whether the Saudis were aware of the fake furs or if they were deceived by a supplier, but Bruce Riedel, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution and expert on Saudi-U.S. Relations, called the gifts very embarrassing.
“The two most important things for them are to appear to be global players above everyone else, and to be rich and show their wealth,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Trump did not return multiple messages seeking comment.
Disappearing gift bags
As Trump’s appointees to the State Department’s Office of Protocol packed their bags in January, career officers saw their departing colleagues with the gift bags intended for foreign leaders at the G7 summit the previous year, learned the inspector general. The bags had been stored in a large room in the State Department known as the safe.
Once the Biden administration took over, career officials began reviewing the accounting for foreign gifts without Trump officials looking over their shoulders.
At this point, career managers discovered that many gift bags were missing, as were more than a dozen additional gifts given to Trump officials. The number was unusual: Government documents from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations do not show any unrecorded gifts given to White House officials, cabinet members, or early family members.
In the months that followed, The Times located numerous gifts, including a bottle of perfume and a Persian silk carpet that the Qataris had given to Steven Mnuchin, the former secretary of the Treasury. (His gifts were supposed to have been sent to the General Service Administration for disposal, but they were stored in the Treasury Department.)
Mr Pompeo’s bottle of whiskey has still not been found, as has the 22-karat gold coin and a porcelain bowl from Vietnam for John R. Bolton, Mr Trump’s third national security adviser, who sent the Times an email exchange with Trump. White House showing he never took it and didn’t want it.
A mystery has been solved: When The Times contacted Ms Pence, an attorney for the family said she took the golden trademark card holders after a White House ethics attorney told her she could keep them because they had been evaluated. unless the minimum threshold, which was $ 390 at the time.
But according to information provided to the State Department by the Trump White House, Ms. Pence should have paid for the place card holders. Under federal guidelines, if a U.S. official receives multiple gifts in a meeting with a foreign official, the American must pay them if the total exceeds the minimum threshold. The State Department said the Trump White House reported that Ms. Pence received the card holders along with a framed print and a purse, totaling $ 1,200.
Richard Cullen, the attorney for the Pence family, said the State Department had made a mistake, that the gifts had been offered at various meetings and that Ms Pence had refused to keep the imprint and the cover. In response to Mr Cullen’s explanation, a State Department spokesperson said he was sticking to his characterization of Ms Pence’s gifts.
Matthieu cullen and Marc walker contributed research.