The founding fathers were so concerned that American government officials could be corrupted by the wealth of European monarchs that they included a clause in the Constitution ensuring that the acceptance of any valuable gifts or emoluments from foreign sources would be illegal.
According to a new article in The New York Times, the Trump administration was not exactly scrupulous in its enforcement of the plainly prohibited practice of taking expensive presents from foreign governments.
Moreover, it now seems that some of the gifts showered on Trump when he made his first overseas visit as president to Saudi Arabia in 2017 weren’t quite as valuable as they may have wanted the American president known for his penchant for gold-plated toilets to think they were.
The story of the Saudi gifts and how they were subsequently handled is emblematic of the Trump administration’s avarice, artifice, and incompetence.
During Trump’s inaugural foreign policy excursion — so welcomed by the Saudi royal family after their tenuous relationship with his predecessor, Barack Obama — his hosts presented him with a copious array of lavish gifts, including “three robes made with white tiger and cheetah fur, and a dagger with a handle that appeared to be ivory, according to the newspaper’s account.
“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,” the article states.
The robes and dagger, apparently made with materials that would violate the Endangered Species Act, were problematic from the start.
A White House attorney was worried about the legality of the gift under that legislation and advised that they should be surrendered to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which handles items made from prohibited materials, but “the Trump administration held onto them and failed to disclose them as gifts received from a foreign government,” The New York Times reports.
On the final day of the Trump administration, nearly four years after receiving the Saudi bounty, the gifts were delivered to the General Services Administration, the agency that manages the property of the U.S. government, rather than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which eventually seized the items this summer.
Here’s where things get weird and potentially an embarrassment for the Saudi royal family.
“The furs, from an oil-rich family worth billions of dollars, were fake,” the Times article reveals.
“’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 Tyler Cherry, a spokesman for the Interior Department, which oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
One of the daggers proved to be equally questionable.
“The dagger’s handle ‘appears to possibly contain tooth or bone of some variety’ — the materials of elephant tusk — ‘although additional laboratory analysis would be required to identify the species,’ the Interior Department said,” the article discloses.
While the Saudis should be commended for not slaughtering endangered tigers and cheetahs, the question of their trafficking in banned ivory remains an open question.
Whether they are concerned that their supposedly lavish gifts were revealed to be phony and now cheapen their image in the eyes of a former president with no real power in the foreign policy arena is unknown, since “the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment.”
The New York Times article goes onto detail other issues with foreign emoluments received by members of the Trump administration, including Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the former second lady Karen Pence.
It also reveals that many lavish gift bags created for foreign leaders at the G7 summit last year — a summit that was transformed to an online virtual conference after the COVID pandemic made in-person meetings unwise — mysteriously disappeared from a State Department storage room.
You can read the full account from The New York Times here (paywall, subscription required).
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Vinnie Longobardo is a 35-year veteran of the TV, mobile & internet industries, specializing in start-ups and the international media business. His passions are politics, music and art.