Fake furs and missing gift bags: A mess of undeclared gifts during Trump's presidency

Former US President Donald Trump meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, on May 20, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Saudi royal family showered Mr Donald Trump and his entourage on his first trip abroad as president with dozens of presents, including three robes made with white tiger and cheetah fur, and a dagger with a handle that appeared to be ivory.

Little that followed went right.

A White House lawyer determined that possession of the furs and dagger most likely violated the Endangered Species Act, but the Trump administration held onto 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 handed them over to the General Services Administration - the wrong agency - rather than the United States 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 the linings of the robes were dyed to mimic tiger and cheetah patterns and were not comprised of protected species," said Mr Tyler Cherry, a spokesman for the Interior Department, which oversees the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

The tale of the furs is but one example of how gift exchanges between the United States and foreign leaders - a highly regulated process intended to shield administrations from questions of impropriety - devolved into sometimes risible shambles during the Trump administration.

The State Department's inspector-general is investigating allegations that Mr Trump's political appointees walked off with gift bags worth thousands of dollars that were meant for foreign leaders at the Group-of-Seven (G-7) summit planned for Camp David in Maryland last year, which was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The bags contained dozens of items purchased with government funds, including leather portfolios, pewter trays and marble trinket boxes emblazoned with the presidential seal or the signatures of Mr Trump and his wife, Melania.

The inspector-general continues to pursue the whereabouts of a US$5,800 (S$7,870) bottle of Japanese whiskey given to then secretary of state Mike Pompeo - Mr Pompeo said he never received it - and a 22-karat gold coin given to another State Department official.

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

In addition, the Trump administration never disclosed that Mr Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's son-in-law and a top White House adviser, received two swords and a dagger from the Saudis, although he paid US$47,920 for them along with three other gifts in February, after he left office.

To be sure, Mr Trump's handling of foreign gifts is not at the top of his critics' list of administration offences. And there is no evidence that he or Mrs Trump took any gifts to which they were not entitled.

But ethics experts said the problems reflected larger issues 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 process of government," said Mr Stanley Brand, a criminal defence lawyer, ethics expert and former top lawyer for the House of Representatives.

The details about the missing gifts and the other widespread problems 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.

The nation's founders were so concerned that European nobility could co-opt US officials with lavish gifts that they included in the Constitution a clause making it illegal for an official to take anything of worth from a foreigner.

In 1966, Congress passed a law detailing how a US official could keep a gift of only relatively minimal value, now capped at US$415.

Subsequent amendments defined gifts as government property and created a standardised process for how officials were to deal with them.

To add transparency, provisions require administrations to annually disclose the gifts given to US officials by foreigners and their appraised value. The laws have no criminal penalties, although legal experts said that anyone caught taking government property could be prosecuted for theft.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (centre) and former US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, on Oct 23, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The Trump administration's gift problems date from the President's trip in May 2017 to Saudi Arabia, whose leaders were jubilant that Mr Trump had chosen the kingdom for his first visit abroad and was embracing them after years of tensions with the Obama administration. The Saudis have a history of giving lavish gifts to American presidents, and Mr Trump and his aides appeared to receive a generous bounty.

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

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

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

A spokesman for Mr Trump did not return several messages seeking comment.

As Trump political appointees in the State Department's protocol office packed up their belongings in January, career officers saw their departing colleagues leave with the gift bags meant for foreign leaders at the G-7 summit the previous year, the inspector-general has learned. The bags had been in storage in a large room at the State Department known as the vault.

Once the Biden administration took over, career officials discovered that many of the gift bags were missing. The bottle of whiskey for Mr Pompeo remains unaccounted for.

One mystery has been solved: When The Times reached out to Mrs Pence, a lawyer for the family said that she had taken the gold-toned place card holders after a White House ethics lawyer told her she could keep them because they had been appraised at less than the minimal threshold, which was US$390 at the time.

But according to the information provided to the State Department by the Trump White House, she should have paid for the place card holders. Under federal guidelines, if a US official is given multiple gifts in a meeting with a foreign official, the American must pay for them if the total exceeds the minimal threshold.

The State Department said the Trump White House reported that Mrs Pence had received the card holders along with a framed print and a clutch purse, which totalled US$1,200.

Mr Richard Cullen, the lawyer for the Pence family, said that the State Department was wrong - that the gifts had been given at different meetings and that Mrs Pence had declined to keep the print and the clutch.

In response to Mr Cullen's explanation, a State Department spokesman said it stood by its characterisation of Mrs Pence's gifts.

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