White Tiger and Cheetah Furs: A Mess of Trump Gift Exchanges
Gift exchanges between U.S. and foreign leaders, a highly regulated process, devolved into sometimes risible shambles during the Trump administration.President Donald J. Trump met with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh in 2017. The Trump administration’s problems with gifts date from that trip.Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York TimesPublished Oct. 11, 2021Updated Oct. 15, 2021To hear…
The Saudi royal family showered Donald J. 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 U.S. 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 Tyler Cherry, a spokesman for the Interior Department, which oversees the U.S. 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 7 summit planned for Camp David in 2020, which was canceled 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 Trump.
The inspector general continues to pursue the whereabouts of a $5,800 bottle of Japanese whiskey given to 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 the 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 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 $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 offenses. 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 Stanley M. Brand, a criminal defense lawyer, ethics expert and former top lawyer for the House of Representatives.
The State Department declined to address the specifics of how the Trump administration handled gifts but said in a statement that it “takes seriously its role in reporting the disposition of certain gifts received by U.S. government employees” and that it was “investigating the whereabouts of gifts that are unaccounted for and the circumstances that led to their disappearance.”
This article is based on public documents and others produced by the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act, interviews with current and former government officials, and on-the-record responses to questions from several government departments and agencies. The documents include an index of gifts that Mr. Trump and his family received in Saudi Arabia in 2017 that the National Archives provided to two Democratic senators, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.