President Obama pulled in his usual haul of lavish but thoroughly impractical foreign gifts in 2015, including a Saudi package valued at $522,972 and his first-ever presents from Cuba’s government, the State Department disclosed on Wednesday. Two top aides also got unprecedented goodies from Iran’s government, while Russia appears to have put the entire administration on its naughty list, giving nothing to any U.S. officials.
The first thing to know is that these are not bribes. Obama has to pay fair market value for any gifts he wants to retain for his personal use, though he’ll be able to keep all of them for display at his presidential library once he leaves office. Other officials virtually never pony up the cash required to keep foreign presents. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, for instance, appears to have kept just two of the many offerings she got as secretary of state.
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, the offerings seem like in-jokes. Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah gave then President George W. Bush a copy of the “Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook” in 2004, as the U.S. public turned increasingly opposed to the Iraq War.
Still, it’s easy to read too much diplomatic meaning into the annual disclosures. What was Zanzibari President Ali Mohamed Shein trying to tell Obama the year he delivered 20 baseball caps with the American leader’s face on them? What, apart from patriotic pride, was Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk looking to convey in 2011, when he gave Obama a $500 deluxe package of items related to the Polish-made video game “Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings?”
That said, this year’s disclosures clearly reflect some of the seismic changes Obama has brought about in world affairs, notably his outreach to Cuba and his nuclear deal with Iran, as well as escalating tensions with the Kremlin.
The president, who made a historic trip to Havana in March, received his first-ever gifts from Cuba in 2015. In December, he got seven boxes of cigars, valued by U.S. government appraisers at $4,158. Obama, a recovering smoker, appears not to have kept them: The record states that they were “Handled pursuant to United States Secret Service policy.” (Over the past four years, the Secret Service has never answered Yahoo News questions about what that means.)
In April, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama had received a package of gifts from Cuban President Raul Castro, described as “Ten CDs of Cuban music with CD rack. Long-sleeved button-down linen Guayabera shirt. Four bottles of spirits. Box of cigars with lighter. Wooden humidor. Four bottles of floral fragrances.” Overall value: $1,193.57. The music and garments went straight into storage, while “liquids, cigars, lighter, and humidor [were] handled pursuant to United States Secret Service policy.”
The Obamas weren’t the only ones on Cuba’s list. In August, Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla presented Secretary of State John Kerry with a box of Montecristo cigars, as well as matches, a humidor and a cigar cutter — all told, a $450 value. The items were retained “for official display.”
The list of gifts also reflected Obama’s diplomacy towards Iran. For the first time since he took office in January 2009, some top aides received presents from the government in Tehran.
In January 2015, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave Kerry a book, “Mahmoud Farshchian,” valued at $400. Farschian is a famous Iranian artist.
A key figure in the Iran nuclear negotiations, former Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman received a “framed rug depicting a gold vase with multicolored flowers” and a “large beige rug with pastel flowers,” valued at $1,100 and $1,150 respectively, courtesy of senior Iranian officials.
If the list of gifts reflected improved relations with Cuba and Iran, it also showcased the cooling of relations between the U.S. and Russia.
In 2013, the annual disclosures included presents from Russian President Vladimir Putin. In June of that year, the Russian leader gave Obama a six-piece porcelain espresso cup set “with gold inside and silver leaf pattern on outside,” valued at $540. In September, he gave Obama a package that included a set of decorated porcelain plates and a tea set, and a DVD of a ballet performance, for a total of $1,084.
In 2014, a few officials, including Sherman and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, received Russian gifts, though nothing from Putin.
In 2015, however, Russian officials appear to have ended their diplomatic largesse entirely, amid tensions over Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine and help to Syria’s Bashar Assad. The list records no gifts last year at any level.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Saudis appear to have been the most generous, as they have been in the past In September, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud presented Obama with a package valued at $522,972.
Here is the official description:
“26″ x 22″ hand-made and specially commissioned bronze sculpture depicting two horses, one rearing and unsaddled and one standing and saddled, made with gold-plated sterling silver, diamonds, tsavorites, yellow sapphires, rubies, and obsidian mounted on a piano black lacquer rotating base. Chronometer shaped like a large winch from wooden sail ships with gold-plated casing, brass dial, crystal glass, and detail along the sides naming celebrated ships that made significant voyages. Set of ten golf irons. Leather golf bag with white stitching.”
The king gave Vice President Biden a Thomas Mercer clock in a presentation box, valued at $160,070, while White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough got a silver- and gold-plated sculpture of three Bedouin figures and a tent among palm trees, set on polished green malachite, having an estimated worth of $52,000. Defense Secretary Ash Carter received an ornate model flintlock rifle priced at $12,900.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud gave Obama a 36-inch sword with a handle made of mother-of-pearl and gold, with a sheath of ruby-encrusted gold and handmade silver details. Price tag? $87,9000.
The crown prince also gave Biden a $48,500 gift described this way:
“Prologue Arabian horse head in bronze with black ruthenium finish, a gold-plated mane, sterling silver bridle and reins, gold-plated tassels, and cabochon blue sapphire on a rotating red crocodile leather base with hand-chased sterling silver arabesque elements with gold-plated buckles.”
Kerry wasn’t left out. The crown prince gave him a gold- and silver-plated horse on top of a green malachite base housing a brass clock, valued at $45,000.
In May, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh ikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, gave the president one of the most intriguing items on the list, a nine-inch gold-plated mechanical bird “that tweets, turns, and flaps its wings once per hour.” Value? $110,000. It must have been a hit, because the emir gave Michelle Obama the same thing in November.
Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, gave Obama a 24″ x 15″ silver-coated resin sculpture of camels and Bedouin on a green marble base valued at $42,000. And the president received a $10,556 package that included a hunter-green hardcover book of William Butler Yeats poetry and a crystal bowl featuring Yeats quotes and decorative shamrocks, courtesy of Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Obama’s gifts weren’t all mechanical birds, crystal bowls and elaborate swords. From German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he got a watercolor of men playing basketball valued at $440. Panama President Juan Carlos Varela gave Obama two glass display panels and a “shirt of sheer white cotton,” a package estimated at $384.79.
Michelle Obama’s presents likewise spanned a broad range, including a $73,200 jewelry set from the queen of Brunei, and framed drawings of herself and of the president from a Cambodian lawmaker, valued at $390.
Jordan’s king gave Kerry “assorted beef including Wagyu burgers, sirloin steaks, and rib-eye steaks. Two terrine [sic] de foie gras” worth $420. And the director of the Cricova winery gave the top U.S. diplomat a “personalized honorary storage cubby,” estimated at $545.10.
The Supreme Court wasn’t entirely left out. Chief Justice John Roberts got a jewelry box from his Japanese counterpart, a gift valued at $674.49. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was gifted round-trip airfare to Korea, at an estimated cost of $7,222.
The donors or recipients on the list are sometimes anonymous, especially when either party is connected to intelligence agencies.
So the world may never know who gave CIA director John Brennan either of the portraits of himself that he got in March or April of 2015. Each was valued at $1,500.
Likewise, no one will know who gave or received gifts that went to the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Officials there received a range of gifts, including a framed photograph of two ravens in flight ($500), a Ferragamo leather money clip and bottle of Opus One red wine ($650), and a package grouping a luxury Chopard men’s watch, an Allegro pen, Chopard cufflinks and a “single strand of yellow plastic prayer beads,” estimated at $13,000.
The disclosure list also includes some lawmakers. Months before he resigned as House speaker and retired from Congress, John Boehner received a $399 barbecue grill from Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and a $1,800 watch from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Boehner kept neither item, according to the State Department.
And world leaders are looking at their last opportunity to give Obama gifts before he too heads for the exits. The 2016 list will most likely not be public until next year around this time.
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