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President Obama looks at a mug presented to him at the 134th Commencement Exercises of the United States Coast Guard Academy. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Obama often receives curious gifts from foreign dignitaries. There was the time he got 20 baseball caps with his face on them from Zanzibari President Ali Mohamed Shein. And that other time Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk gifted a $500 deluxe package of items related to the video game “Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.”
But when the State Department published its annual accounting of gifts from foreign notables to American government officials on Wednesday, what stood out wasn’t so much the “What the heck is that?!?” as the “Wait, they gave how much?!?”
That’s because, throughout 2014, Saudi King Abdullah and top kingdom officials spent a fortune on gifts for Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters — roughly $1.35 million on the list.
The accounting was made public the day before Thanksgiving, with Americans poised to dive into the gift-buying season.
The first thing to know is that these gifts aren’t bribes. If Obama wants to keep anything he gets from another world leader, he has to pay fair market value for it and take it with him when he leaves office. Otherwise, U.S. law stipulates that the president must turn over everything to the National Archives or other institutions for storage or display. A quick look through this year’s list suggests he did not opt to hold on to any presents.
Obama is wealthy — book sales and investments, on top of a $400,000 annual salary, have made the onetime college professor financially quite comfortable. But it’s hard to imagine him putting up the cash to keep the “gold and silver men’s wristwatch with leather band,” valued at $18,400, that he received from the Saudi king on Jan. 14, 2014. Or the $67,000 needed to own another timepiece, a “white gold men’s wristwatch with leather band,” that the monarch gave him on April 15, 2014 (no word on whether it was inscribed “happy tax day”). And then there was the “48-inch gold-plated brass replica of the Makkah Clock Tower on marble base,” presented March 28, 2014, and coming in at a cool $57,000, roughly what a median American family earns in a year.
Impressive? Not when compared to the gifts the Saudi king, who died in 2015, gave Michelle Obama.
On Jan. 14, 2014, Barack Obama might have been admiring the watch he wasn’t going to keep, but the first lady got a “diamond and emerald jewelry set including necklace, earrings, ring and bracelet.” Value? $560,000.
On April 15, 2014, she received an identically described set, but this one was worth $570,000.
Malia and Sasha weren’t left off the Saudi king’s list. On Jan. 14, 2014, they received “diamond and emerald jewelry set including earrings, necklace, ring, brooch, and wristwatch. Diamond and ruby jewelry set including earrings, necklace, ring, brooch, and wristwatch.” Price tag: $80,000.
It may seem odd to give away items that the recipient almost certainly won’t keep, but presents like these apparently play a small but not insignificant role in global diplomacy. In each case, under the heading “circumstances justifying acceptance,” the State Department says “nonacceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. government.”
Later in 2014, the Saudi minister of the National Guard, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, gave the first family a lavish care package of sorts that included a 10-inch model palm tree made of silver and gold, set on a green marble base, a number of robes and “two bottles of perfume named for the King of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The State Department estimated its worth at $39,915.
The perfume, like alcoholic beverages given to the president, was “handled pursuant to the United States Secret Service policy.” The Secret Service did not immediately return a Yahoo News request to describe that policy.
On March 28, 2014, the Saudi king had gifts for several senior Obama aides, who likewise cannot keep such things. The one woman in the group, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, received a “white gold wristwatch with link bracelet” estimated at $5,370. The men, all senior National Security Council aides, received gifts with the same description but each carrying a $8,170 price tag.
Gifts from dignitaries aren’t always eyebrow-raisingly pricey. A senior Iraqi lawmaker gave Obama a “metallic gold-tone vase with red gemstones,” valued at $430.
Wine has been a staple of presidential gifting, but in 2014 Obama received only 30 bottles or so, plus one cognac valued at $615.
Haitian President Michel Joseph Martelly gave Obama a $500 mahogany sculpture called Le Negre Marron. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s package of presents included a 2.2-pound pure silver coin engraved with an image of painter Frida Kahlo. And Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave Obama a 9'5" surfboard “with friendship flags and the presidential seal,” valued at $2,371.
The list does not document Obama’s reaction when Myanmar President Thein Sein gave him a 29"x35" “framed painting of the head and shoulders of President Obama, wearing a suit and gazing upward,” estimated at $2,925. Or, for that matter, what Obama thought when the United Kingdom’s Prince William gave him a “framed, matted, and signed photographic portrait of Prince William.” The State Department estimated that gift at $888.
Vice President Joe Biden received one of the coolest gifts on the list, courtesy of Jordan’s King Abdullah II. It’s a “silver canister inlaid with tile mosaic of a tree, said to contain holy water from the River Jordan, in custom box,” apparently worth $1,950.
The State Department list reminds readers that world leaders get swag bags when they attend summits. The British government gave those who attended the 2014 NATO gathering at the Celtic Manor resort in Wales a $736.31 package that the State Department describes this way:
Limited-edition print, title: Celtic Approach. Cufflinks of the Celtic Manor Resort. 9"x14"x14" basket of woven wood. Book, title: “Collected Poems 1934-1953” by Dylan Thomas. Package of sea salt. 8"x6" fabric personal journal. Computer USB accessory. 88"x68" blanket with red and black peony pattern. Four coasters, black with four gray symbols.
CIA Director John Brennan’s haul didn’t reach Obama levels, but it wasn’t shabby either. None of his donors’ names are public, however, because “such information could adversely affect United States intelligence sources or methods.”
So the person who gave Brennan an Omega men’s watch valued at $10,000 on Dec. 19, 2013, is anonymous.
The list also identifies some CIA gift recipients only as “an agency employee.” We’ll never know who gave, or received, an iPad air on July 7, 2014.
The biggest mystery among the gifts given to CIA officials is a “children’s book series,” valued at $832.13. Seems a touch expensive, sure, but the odd part is what happened to that present: “Disposition — Retained for official use.” Just what is the CIA getting out of a children’s book series?
The annual State Department list also includes a handful of lawmakers. Rwandan President Paul Kagame gave each member of a bipartisan delegation to his country “expenses to visit Volcanoes National Park and mountain gorillas,” packages individually valued at $750. Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and independent Senator Angus King each got a “98 million-year-old fish fossil” from the mayor of the Lebanese city of Byblos. Neither lawmaker appears to have kept the $400 gift.
Two presidential aspirants also made the list. Republican Sen. Rand Paul, his son Duncan and three aides received “government-provided lodging and transportation via patrolled SUV,” value unknown, from the Guatemalan government. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and two aides got helicopter travel inside Colombia, also without a price tag, from that country’s government.
And the Israeli government gave one Democratic senator who had quite a bit of presidential buzz, Elizabeth Warren, and her husband transportation inside that country “via small aircraft.” The cost of that travel was also unlisted.