Foreign leaders lavish Obama with gifts he won't keep

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny (L) bestows a gift of an etched bowl filled with traditional shamrocks to President Barack Obama during a St. Patrick's Day reception at the White House in Washington, on March 19, 2013. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The inventory of world leaders’ gifts to President Barack Obama last year reads like the props list from a forthcoming “Hangover” movie. It includes a $2,484 box of chocolates; a 50-inch-tall bronze statue of a cheetah; 12 bottles of pisco, Peru’s national liquor; and 20 white baseball caps with the president’s image on them.

The State Department’s Office of Protocol released the list of presents Tuesday that American government officials received from foreign government officials from late 2012 through 2013.

They’re not bribes. By law, Obama must turn them over to the National Archives or other institutions for storage or display. He can pay fair market value for those he wants to keep  but he appears to have opted not to hold on to any items from his 2013 haul. In each case, under the heading “circumstances justifying acceptance,” the State Department says “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. Government.”

President Barack Obama (L) holds a gift he received from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah during a meeting at the King's farm outside Riyadh on June 3, 2009. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

The baseball caps with Obama’s portrait came from Zanzibar President Ali Mohamed Sheinand appeared to be part of an Obama-themed set. Shein also gave Obama a wooden chest carved with a flower and leaf design holding 20 green kente-style cloths with Obama’s image, 21 blue kente-style cloths with Obama’s image,19 black hats with pins, 18 navy blue polo shirts, 10 white polo shirts, a 56-by-80-inch blue plaid cloth and “one blue cloth with beaded decoration on round beaded tray with bow.” Total estimated value: $1,926.

Obama walked away from the 2013 Group of Eight Summit in Northern Ireland with a far less personalized goodie bag from British Prime Minister David Cameron. It included a framed photo of the G-8 leaders, a “custom USB stick,” a paperback published by the Northern Ireland Tourism Board, a hardcover book entitled “Scenic Ireland: The Province of Ulster,” a CD called “Bestselling British Songs,” two porcelain cups with shamrocks, a wash bag from designer Anya Hindmarch, a monogrammed tan travel bag, “apothecary bath products,” gourmet chocolates from Co Couture, and a bottle of (unnamed) whiskey. Total value: $2,116.27

The most expensive present to Obama came from Qatar’s ambassador to the United States. It was a 26-inch-tall “amber-colored sculpture depicting a falcon perched on a branch looking over its shoulder,” valued at $10,408, according to the State Department report.

That’s not a lot of cash when compared to some of the presents first lady Michelle Obama received, including an 18-carat gold jewelry set with yellow sapphires and diamonds from Queen Pengiran Anak Saleha of Brunei. Estimated value? $71,468. The first lady did not keep the gift.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gives U.S. President Barack Obama a copy of Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina by author Eduardo Galeano during a meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad April 18, 2009. Chavez presented Obama with the book, The Open Veins of Latin America, by left-wing Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Obama accepted the gift with a smile.  (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

At the other end of the price spectrum, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas gave President Obama a painting of the U.S. leader juxtaposed with Abraham Lincoln, a photo album of Obama’s visit to the West bank “bound in green leather with gold accents and emblem of Palestinian Authority,” a photograph of Palestinian-American veterans marching in a parade in Chicago, and an olive-wood carved manger scene. Estimated value: $414.00.

Across the border, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Obama perhaps the smallest gift in the collection, described as “0.04 square millimeters engraved small chip with side-by-side texts of the United States and Israeli Declarations of Independence affixed to a 1″ × 1″ Jerusalem stone, all contained in display box with magnifying view piece.” Price tag: $2,700.

Obama and Vladimir Putin are on the outs over Syria and Ukraine, but the Russian president still gave his American counterpart some modest presents. One entry lists a six-piece porcelain espresso cup set with gold inside and a silver leaf pattern on the outside, valued at $540.

On another occasion, Putin gave the first couple three lavishly decorated porcelain plates, two porcelain tea sets, and a DVD from the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet, all estimated at $1,084.

South African President Jacob Zuma provided the cheetah sculpture as well as four bottles of wine. Price tag: $1,288.03. Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete gave Obama a “full zebra skin mounted on felt” and a "painting of Maasai tribes-people," as well as an undescribed “sculpture.” $4,000.

The curiously costly Godiva chocolates came from Morocco’s King, Mohammed VI, while the pisco was a gift of Peruvian President Ollanta Moises Humala Tasso.

The State Department also lists gifts to other American officials.

A member of the U.S. government staff carries a bust of Mahatma Gandhi, presented as a gift to President Barack Obama, during his trip in New Delhi, on Nov. 8, 2010. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

In late 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received a “black two-strand cushion pearl necklace with gemstones on a copper clasp” from Burma democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, valued at $970. Clinton purchased the necklace.

The report doesn’t say what foreign government officials lavished CIA Director John Brennan with more than $20,000 in gifts last year.

Instead of the giver’s name, the list cites 5 USC 7342 (f)(4), a U.S. law stating that the intelligence community can withhold the identity of the donor if “publication of such information could adversely affect United States intelligence sources or methods.”

Among Brennan’s gifts: a $3,500 silk meditation rug, a double-edged curved dagger valued at $1,500 and a “Lalique frosted and clear glass falcon” estimated to be worth $2,500.

The office of the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lists only one gift  and neither the name of the donor nor the recipient. The present, though, is described as a 6-by-10.5-inch enameled silver processional group of “an elephant with elaborate howdah flanked by a mounted horse and a mounted camel with a seed pearl bridle on a floral enameled and silver chased bottom stand in a fitted red brocade silk case.”A howdah is a seat for riding on the back of an elephant. The estimated value wasn’t classified: It was $500.

But the gift that perhaps cries out the most for an explanation  or at least a bit more detail  went to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His counterpart from Jordan gave Dempsey a dagger and some holy water, valued together at $450.