Why Am I Not Surprised That The Trump Administration Didn’t Follow The Law Requiring Reporting On Foreign Gifts?

(It’s a rhetorical question.)

Federal law requires each government department and agency  to submit a list to the State Department of gifts over $415 received from officials of foreign governments. “The measure is intended to ensure that foreign governments do not gain undue influence over American officials,” says the New York Times, but that’s silly: there are a thousand ways that foreign nations can and do try to insert quid pro quos into relations with our government officials that don’t involve jewel-encrusted scimitars, busts of Winston Churchill or pairs of golden marmosets. Gifts are ham-handed way to bribe anyone, but never mind: the law addresses that old “appearance of impropriety” thingy.

So I pronounce myself shocked–shocked!—to learn that the Trump administration left office without providing the State Department with an accounting of the gifts former President  Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials received from foreign governments in 2020. The State Department, now run by Democrats and happy to dish dirt on the Trump years,  said that as a result, it could not account for the gifts officials received. This, the news media wants us to know, makes it hard and even impossible to determine whether anything improper took place. Since it’s Trump, we should assume that something improper did take place. You know, Trump.

I don’t mean to excuse this sloppiness, or arrogance, or incompetence on the part of Trump’s “best people.” There’s no excuse for it. I simply know that the presumption of wrongdoing will apply, because it’s Trump. In my case, I presume incompetence and the fact that Trump, in the immortal words of William Jennings Bryan, doesn’t think about things he doesn’t think about. He also doesn’t care about things he doesn’t care about, and doesn’t care who does care about them.

The department said, in an unusual public disclosure,  that the Office of the Chief of Protocol under a Trump appointee until Jan. 20, 2021, had failed to ask the White House for a list of the gifts it received before the Trumps et al. had cleared out. Then the Biden version of the office tried to catch up, but couldn’t come up with an accounting.“ As a result, the data required to fully compile a complete listing for 2020 is unavailable,” the State Department said in a footnote to its list of gifts government officials received that year.

What is also inexcusable is that in preparing its story about the lack of compliance, the New York Times sought the ethics expertise of Richard Painter, the former top ethics lawyer for George W. Bush’s administration. Painter was once a respected ethics authority, but as car-carrying member of the Bush Administration alumni NeverTrump cabal and a crackpot leader of the “Let’s impeach the bastard before he can take office” loonies, he repeatedly disgraced himself throughout the Trump years until everyone got tired of listening to him. (Personally, I think he killed my favorite legal ethics forum, on which he was a prominent contributor and commenter, by banging his Trump-Hate drum incessantly.)

So with all the government ethics experts available, why would the Times use Painter? (What am I, chopped liver?) That was another rhetorical question, two in fact. They didn’t want an objective opinion, they wanted what they got:

“It’s flagrant and it looks terrible,” said Richard W. Painter, the former top ethics lawyer for George W. Bush’s administration. “Either it was really stupid or really corrupt”…The ethics expert, Mr. Painter, said that by failing to disclose the gifts, the Trump White House violated the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution, which makes it illegal to take gifts from foreigners without permission from Congress. But Mr. Painter said that because the emoluments clause is toothless and has no criminal or civil penalties, it is extremely difficult to hold a former official accountable.

I don’t disagree with Painter at all, but he is simply not an objective guide on anything involving Donald Trump.

[The photo above is of the “Resolute Desk,” which Queen Victoria gave outgoing President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. It was, carved from the timbers of the British ship H.M.S. Resolute. Unlike Trump, the always selfless and proper Hayes didn’t take his gifts with him. The desk has been the centerpiece of the Oval Office ever since,  has been used by all but three Presidents since it was given.]

8 thoughts on “Why Am I Not Surprised That The Trump Administration Didn’t Follow The Law Requiring Reporting On Foreign Gifts?

  1. Irrelevant, I know, but I wonder how many other Presidents have done the same thing. Bill Clinton comes immediately to mind.

  2. If we do not know what gifts were provided how do we know he received anything of value that was not reported?
    If we know that he received something of value why has no one asked him for this accounting
    Based on the behavior of those highly respected others such as Generals Milley, Mattis and others is it not possible that the person responsible for chief protocol officer in charge of accounting for such gifts willfully failed to perform the required tasks to inflict further damage on Trump.
    None of this is to excuse the failure of reporting and yes the buck stops with Trump but if persons who are tasked to do a job and they don’t do it for political reasons Trump’s failure is based on ignorance of the requirements and less on corruption.
    I find it timely that such reports come out now when the Biden scandal is really taking root in the mainstream media. Trump has been out of office for over 13 months and the Biden team is just now telling us of this issue?

    • Trying to read the footnotes in the pdf link proved difficult as they were overlayed by other text. What is interesting is that some items, despite being marked unknown were transferred to the GSA for disposition. Therefore, they cannot be treated as emoluments. It is also interesting that most items are identified as to who received and gave them. So, why did the Office of protocol have lousy record keeping practices for only some of the items? Why does the IG use that (poor record keeping) as a rationale for the unknown items when so many other items were recorded properly? As a someone with no knowledge of the rules I don’t understand how some things are recorded with all the data but things that could be easily assumed to be attributed to the president such as the putter and the pen are not.

  3. Jack, I won’t touch your comment on Mr. Painter, one of whose books I cited 11 years ago an internal turf war within the micro-world of Chicago governmental ethics.

    Anyway, as always, you raise many fine points. A few observations:

    1. I’d posit that the symbolism of high-ranking government officials making public gifts received from foreign dignitaries has value in itself, even if largely symbolic. The analogy at the municipal level is “gifts accepted on behalf of the city,” which must be reported to my agency “”immediately,” and we then post them on our website for whoever is interested (no one is, until they are). The standard in the statute used to be “promptly” and I will ensure it goes back to that, for many good reasons.

    2. Among other things, this makes visiting Presidential Libraries more interesting.

    I hope you comment more on government ethics. I’ve spent nearly 30 years in the field. It is long overdue that I re-read Cicero.


    • I should clarify that our law requires such gifts to be reported “immediately.” That is a silly set up for peccadilloes, which, alas, in politics, become the story! Thereby often obscuring the real stories.

      • Ha! This job is never boring. We’re trying to raise our maximum fine to $20,000 per violation, so that violators do NOT think of us as chopped liver (or the cost of doing business, essentially the same thing).

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