WASHINGTON — Throughout 2016, foreign officials showered then-President Barack Obama with gifts seemingly meant for a post-presidential “man cave” — including bottles of Italian wine, an Australian billiards cue, a Jordanian chessboard, a cured ham leg from Spain, and a complete set of William Shakespeare’s works, courtesy of Great Britain.
The gifts appear on a legally required list compiled and released each year by the State Department. The gifts aren’t bribes, and Obama probably won’t even get to enjoy most of them. They may go on display at his future presidential library, but U.S. officials must pay the Treasury fair market value of any presents they want to keep for personal use.
While this happens relatively rarely, the list released on Wednesday shows that former Secretary of State John Kerry bought a $2,200 bronze sculpture of a Mongolian on horseback (gift of Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj). And Kerry also acquired, at a price that could not be immediately determined, a brass-inlaid wooden chest from Kuwait’s foreign affairs minister.
The most expensive package Obama received came from King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, which has been one of the most lavish benefactors of American presidents. Here’s how the State Department describes it:
“Sculpture of a Bedouin group, entitled ‘The Small Caravan,’ including two men and three camels, painted in gold and silver and decorated with precious stones, mounted on green granite. Silver tone letter opener with golden Falcon handle and silver tone Chopard pen.”
At the other end of the spectrum, the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t appear at all. There were no gifts to report in 2015, either, from the Russian leader, who has been accused by the U.S. intelligence community of meddling in the 2016 election. Federal rules require the disclosure of only those gifts valued above roughly $335, so Putin could conceivably have given Obama something inexpensive. But in a year marked by tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and support for Syria’s Bashar Assad, it seems more likely that the American president was just left off Putin’s list.
There was nothing to report from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, either.
Giving expensive gifts with the knowledge that the recipient cannot, or will not, keep them seems absurd. But it’s a traditional way to break the ice and make a diplomatic meeting more memorable. U.S. law permits officials to accept foreign presents under limited circumstances, including if “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and [the] U.S. government.”
Sometimes it’s easy to see a hidden message in the presidential presents. In 2004, as Americans turned against the war in Iraq, the Sultan of Brunei gave George W. Bush a copy of the “Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.”
At other times it’s not totally clear what the foreign official was thinking. In April 2016, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev gave Obama a fountain pen and an 18-by-14-inch framed oil painting of a woman looking at a mushroom cloud, valued together at $3,615.82.
(In 2014, the State Department revealed that Zanzibari President Ali Mohamed Shein gave Obama 20 baseball caps with the American leader’s face on them.)
As for the potential “man cave” gifts: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull bestowed the billiards cue and a carrying case; Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi provided the wine; Jordan’s King Abdullah II gave the chessboard; British Prime Minister David Cameron offered the Shakespeare works; and the “cured hind ham leg with cutting knife” (valued at $733.93) came from Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
The ham was “handled pursuant to U.S. Secret Service policy,” which the agency does not disclose.
The 2016 list also included a bottle of rum and 205 cigars given to Obama by Cuban President Raúl Castro in the previous year. Also catching up on old paperwork, this year’s list included a $450 painting that then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger received from the Soviet ambassador — in 1977.
Obama is not the only official on the list. First lady Michelle Obama also appears. So do Cabinet members, diplomats, Pentagon officials, lawmakers, judges, CIA Director John Brennan, and even anonymous employees of his agency. Three people identified only as “an agency employee” each received $1,000 in cash, which was deposited with the Treasury.
The CIA items don’t always disclose the donor or the recipient. Brennan received a bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII Grande Champagne Cognac valued at $4,000. The donor, like all of the Brennan’s gift-givers, went unnamed.
When it comes to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, neither the donor’s nor the recipient’s name appears. Someone from overseas gave someone at DNI a $1,500 sculpture of Saint George slaying the dragon. Another foreign official gave another person at DNI an 18-by-24-inch portrait of then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “signed and dated, oil on canvas in gold silk brocade covered board box,” valued at $2,500.
Among the lawmakers who got foreign gifts was Sen. John McCain, who received a $990 vase from a Qatari official, while Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky received a $700 silver horse sculpture from Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Sen. Bernie Sanders got a $300 Tiffany silver box from Qatar’s ambassador to Washington. Sen. Lindsey Graham got a ceremonial pistol and ceremonial rug ($1,000 total) from the chief of staff of Pakistan’s army.
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