Herman: How presidents make believe they accept gifts from foreigners


Your nation calls on you to help us save face on the world scene. No, we don’t need you to apologize for our current president. Well maybe we do. But that’s not today’s assignment.

This involves international diplomacy and the socially challenged practice known as re-gifting.

So, for example, if you happen to run into His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzadin Waddaulah (the one who is the sultan and yang di-pertuan of Brunei Darussalam), please, please do not tell him that silver box and four cups he gave to then-President Barack Obama on Feb. 15, 2016, was — gulp — re-gifted by Obama.

I know. Embarrassing, right? And it gets worse.

In a violation of everything your mother taught you about gifts, Obama had somebody check on the price of the gift, which, in this case, was an estimated $1,150.

We know about this gift — and others on a recently released 108-page list — thanks to an annual treasure known as the report on “Gifts to Federal Employees from Federal Government Sources Reported to Employing Agencies.” This list is for 2016. We’ll get the 2017 list early in 2018.

The State Department’s Office of the Chief of Protocol notes it’s illegal for federal workers — including the president — to accept gifts from foreign government sources. But, also as your mother taught you, it’s kind of rude to turn down a well-intentioned gift.

So, for example, the silver box-and-cups set given to Obama by this particular His Majesty has this notation on the list under the “Circumstances justifying acceptance” heading:

“Non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. Government.”

In fact, that’s what’s listed for everything on the 108-page list. So, technically and for diplomatic purposes, the gifts were accepted. But the recipients didn’t get to keep them unless they bought them from the U.S. government.

It is quite a list, showing the estimated value of each gift, topping out at $101,200 for jewelry and a “gold clutch with an intricate design and clasp with diamonds and emeralds” from Mohammed VI, King of Morocco given to the Obama family, down to $100 for a silver frames, rugs and teapots given to Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Chris Coons, D-Delaware.

The list also shows where the gifts wound up. Many given to the president, like the sultan’s gift of silver, go to the National Archives and Records Administration, which displays some and warehouses others.

The list also shows which gifts were purchased from the feds by the recipient. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry liked the five neckties given to him by His Excellency Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, Kuwait’s minister of foreign affairs, whose haberdashery taste apparently overlaps with Kerry’s. (We don’t know how much Kerry paid, because the tie value was bundled in with other gifts from His Excellency.)

Personalized though it was, John Forbes Kerry did not buy the “Silver model of Omani sailing vessel engraved ‘From YA to JFK’” given to him by Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman’s foreign affairs minister. Probably a good call on Kerry’s part. It’s easy to imagine, years from now, him struggling to answer this question from wife Teresa Heinz: “Honey, who’s YA?”

Let’s see who else and what else is on the gift list. Cuban President Raul Castro gave Obama a “Bust of Abraham Lincoln, hand carved from wood, clothed in double-breasted jacket and bow tie, cut roughly at the base as if from a tree and gradual smoothing to a polished sculpting at the top of his head.”

But wait, there’s more from Castro: “Cigar humidor made of wood in the shape of a house entitled ‘La Case de Tabaco.’ Bottle of rum. 205 cigars. Cigar cutter. Two books, title: ‘Raul Castro.’ Music CD.”

Impressive, right? Maybe. The value of the whole gift is listed at $384.79. And there’s this note: “Cigars and rum handled pursuant to U.S. Secret Service policy.”

President Mauricio Macri of Argentina gave Obama an “electronic bicycle made of black metal” valued at $1,499 and turned over to the archives.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan gave Obama a fountain pen and a “framed oil painting depicting a woman looking at a mushroom cloud.” Hmm. There also was a “gift basket of food.” Total value: $3,615.82. “Perishable items handled pursuant to U.S. Secret Service police.”

President Mariano Rajoy of Spain gave Obama a “cured hind ham leg with cutting knife” valued at $733.93. “Ham handled pursuant to U.S. Secret Service policy.” (The U.S. Secret Service has a ham policy?)

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi gave Obama a tie and “four bottles of Italian wine.” The tie went to the archives. The wine was “transferred to Residence Cellar,” probably before it could be handled pursuant to U.S. Secret Service policy.

The aforementioned sultan of Brunei (please don’t make me type his full name again) also gave Obama a gift pack with glass champagne bucket, silver frame, card and dice game, wooden box with Susan B. Anthony quote, a pennant-shaped lapel pin, a candle in a candle holder and two books, “Taste and Technique” and “Sinatra.”

Total value: $2,734.96. Seems low.

The generous sultan also gave two White House staffers a book titled (oh no! I’m going to have to type it again), “His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah - Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam.”

Must be a nice book. It was valued at $450.

Some foreign gifters want their gifts to remind Obama of the giver. Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö gave a watch, a lamp and a “framed inscribed photograph of President Niinistö and his spouse.”

Some gifts are less personal. The United Arab Emirates government’s gift to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Stuart E. Jones is listed as “iPhone 7.”

And there are gift givers who must remain anonymous. The list does not include the source of gifts to CIA and other intelligence officials. Somebody gave then-CIA Director John Brennan a bottle of “Remy Martin Louis XIII Grande Champagne Cognac” valued at $4,000.

An oddity on the list is an “oil painting depicting flowers in a blue and white vase.” It’s valued at $450 and has been “retained for official display.” It came from the ambassador from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Remember the U.S.S.R.?

The gift was given on Feb. 2, 1977, to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It’s one of several that should have shown up on a list prior to this year.

“These (older) gifts are being reported in 2016 as the Office of the Chief of Protocol, Department of State, did not receive the relevant information to include them in earlier reports,” we’re told.

Makes you wonder whether Kissinger ever sent a thank-you note.



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