There are countless more important, substantive subjects today in politics and policy — the grinding Taliban advance in Afghanistan, the scandal engulfing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, dire climate-crisis symptoms like droughts and wildfires, and soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, to name a few.
But let’s talk for a minute about foreign gifts to American officeholders.
No, not the umpteen hundreds of thousands of dollars embassies and governments pumped into former president Donald Trump’s properties, and therefore his pockets, in an apparent effort to curry favor with his administration.
The gifts at the center of today’s column are part of a gloriously ridiculous diplomatic tradition: foreign dignitaries showering U.S. officials with presents they can’t legally keep, unless they pay government-estimated fair market value for them. (Only a minuscule proportion of the recipients opt to do so.)
The reason for the restrictions is obvious: They limit the ability of foreign governments to influence American officials with lavish donations.
Wednesday, the State Department met its legal obligation to periodically disclose who gave what, of what dollar value, to whom, and what happened to the gift. (Thanks for flagging, Reuters reporter David Shepardson!)
But what caught several reporters’ eyes, including mine was this: notes related to a bottle of Japanese whisky, intended for then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and officially received on June 24, 2019, valued at $5,800.
The State Department reported it doesn’t know what happened to the bottle but “is looking into the matter and has an ongoing inquiry.”
The New York Times’s Michael S. Schmidt reported “According to two people briefed on the matter, the U.S. government was never paid for the bottle and the department has asked its inspector general to determine what happened to it.”
Pompeo is widely thought to be considering a presidential run in 2024. There’s precedent for a foreign gift to make a cameo in the race for the White House: Back in 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump mischaracterized a present Hillary Clinton got when she was secretary of state to accuse her of corruption.
But Schmidt and the Associated Press’s indefatigable Matthew Lee cited Pompeo’s lawyer, William A. Burck, as saying the former top diplomat “has no idea” what happened to the whisky.
There’s a strong likelihood we’ll never have any idea, either.
Carpets, rifles, flags, books, maps, jewelry, paintings, dishes — all of those kinds of gifts get logged then generally make their way to federal storage before heading to presidential libraries. That’s not the case for food and other perishables, perfume or alcohol, which are disposed of.
Historically, alcoholic beverages given to the president are “handled pursuant to Secret Service policy” (you can see some examples here if you search for “bottle”). I’ve never secured an on-the-record explanation of what that means.
The State Department’s Office of Protocol has never confirmed for me what happens to pricey bottles of alcohol given to U.S. diplomats. (One year, a very senior official on John Kerry’s team told me they were essentially stockpiled and then doled out to various offices for winter holiday parties.)
Perhaps the best fate for any liquor befell a bottle of “Tequila Reserva de la Familia Extra Anejo 100% de Agave Jose Cuervo Hecho en Mexico” given to then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as part of a gift package that also included a sword and a chess set. The official disposition? The “OSD [Office of Secretary of Defense] vault.”
By historical standards, there were no major eyebrow-raisers among the gifts to Trump.
Though Matt noted this: “At least three foreign leaders — from Australia, Egypt and Vietnam — presented Trump with photographs or portraits of himself that collectively were valued at more than $10,000.”
“Trump received a painting of himself on ‘dual pane glass’ from then-Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong that was worth an estimated $5,250, according to the filing. It also says Trump got a ‘large double frame carved from black stone with image of President Donald J. Trump in precious metal on one side and the coat of arms of Egypt on the reverse’ worth $4,450 from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave Trump a framed photo of himself and his wife worth $470.”
This seems perhaps less weird when you consider Zanzibar President Ali Mohamed Shein in 2013 gave then-President Barack Obama a lot of Obama-themed presents, including more than 40 kente cloths and 20 white baseball caps with his image on them. Obama did not buy the gifts, which met the fate of most foreign presents to the commander in chief: a transfer to the National Archives and Records Administration, official way station on their journey to his future presidential library.
And for past meaningful-but-over-the-top gifts, consider Mongolia’s habit of presenting its famed horses (Barron Trump in 2019, then-Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretaries Chuck Hagel and Donald Rumsfeld in previous years). Sri Lanka’s president gave Ronald Reagan a baby elephant in 1984. Bulgaria’s president gave George W. Bush a puppy.
And the Indonesian government’s answer to “what do you get the world’s most powerful man?” in 1990 was … a pair of Komodo dragons for George H.W. Bush.
What’s happening now
The New York State Assembly’s impeachment inquiry into Gov. Andrew Cuomo is “nearing completion” and the body will soon consider “potential articles of impeachment” against him, the Times’s Michael Gold and Luis Ferré-Sadurní report. “Charles D. Lavine, who leads the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, said that lawyers hired by the judiciary committee had directed Mr. Cuomo and his legal team to submit any evidence in the governor’s defense by next Friday. The lawyers had previously issued a subpoena for relevant documents. The move was the latest and most vivid indication yet that the Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, was moving quickly to impeach Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat.”
“Lawmakers in the Assembly could impeach Mr. Cuomo with a simple majority vote. A trial would then be held in the State Senate, where Democrats are also in the majority. If convicted, Mr. Cuomo would be removed from office and potentially barred permanently from seeking statewide political office. The lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, would replace him as governor.”
Moderna says its vaccine is 93 percent effective six months after full immunization.
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Lunchtime reads from The Post
- “Mexico sues U.S.-based gunmakers over flow of arms across border,” by Mary Beth Sheridan and Kevin Sieff: “The Mexican government sued several major U.S.-based gun manufacturers Wednesday, alleging that lax controls contribute to the illegal flow of weapons over the border. The unusual suit — filed in U.S. federal court in Boston — seeks unspecified financial compensation from the companies but does not target the U.S. government. Mexican authorities argue that American-made weapons have fueled an explosion in homicides in this nation over the past decade. Around 2.5 million illicit American guns have poured across the border during that period, according to a Mexican government study released last year. Legal gun sales in Mexico are tightly restricted.”
- “Israel’s gymnastics champion tumbles into marriage controversy,” by Steve Hendrix: “When gymnast Artem Dolgopyat stepped off the podium as only the second Israeli to win an Olympic gold medal, he triggered one of Israel’s many cultural tripwires: It quickly emerged that the country’s newest sports hero is banned from marrying his fiancee here because he is not considered Jewish enough by the rabbis who control Israel’s marriage law.”
… and beyond
- “In string of wins, ‘Biden Democrats’ see a reality check for the left,” by the New York Times’s Alexander Burns: “Nina Turner, the hard-punching Bernie Sanders ally who lost a special election for Congress in Ohio this week, had unique political flaws from the start. A far-left former state legislator, Ms. Turner declined to endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald J. Trump in 2016. Last year, she described voting for President Biden as a grossly unpalatable option. There were obvious reasons Democratic voters might view her with distrust. Yet Ms. Turner’s unexpectedly wide defeat on Tuesday marked more than the demise of a social-media flamethrower who had hurled one belittling insult too many. Instead, it was an exclamation mark in a season of electoral setbacks for the left and victories for traditional Democratic Party leaders.”
- “The implications of Scarlett Johansson’s Marvel lawsuit,” by the American Prospect’s David Dayen: “When Johansson unleashed a lawsuit last week against the Walt Disney Company over her compensation for the movie Black Widow, opinion-havers on the internet immediately dismissed it as millionaires fighting billionaires. But virtually everyone who works to create the TV shows and movies you watch could have a stake in the case’s outcome. As films and television shows migrate from theaters and broadcast networks to streaming services owned by the same large companies that produce the content, the way in which above-the-line talent (A-list actors, but also some writers and directors and producers) has traditionally gotten paid will be upended.”
The Biden agenda
Biden told his chief of staff Ron Klain to seek Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe’s guidance, which led to the reversal on evictions.
- “The private phone call between Klain and Tribe — held Sunday amid a national outcry over the expiring moratorium — set in motion a rapid reversal of the administration’s legal position that it could not extend the eviction ban. Tribe suggested to Klain and White House Counsel Dana Remus that the administration could impose a new and different moratorium, rather than try to extend the existing ban in potential defiance of a warning from Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, the person said,” Jeff Stein reports.
- “Senior White House officials Gene Sperling, Brian Deese and Susan Rice had the week before raised internally whether the moratorium could be extended, only to be rebuffed by the White House counsel. But Remus got behind the new strategy after consulting with Tribe and proved instrumental in the effort, working late Monday night to push the measure through, the person said.”
- “The behind-the-scenes story of the White House’s sharp pivot reveals how a Biden administration that prides itself on steering clear of drama found itself swept up in a public relations fiasco and tried to limit the fallout. And Biden’s personal involvement showed that he recognized the implications of failing to act on an issue that had the potential to escalate into a national crisis.”
Real estate and landlord groups filed a legal salvo to stop the Biden administration’s new eviction moratorium.
- “Only one day after the Biden administration issued a new policy protecting renters from eviction, a series of real estate and landlord groups is trying to invalidate it — setting up another legal showdown over a moratorium that Democrats say is essential to keeping Americans in their homes,” Tony Romm reports.
- “The petition arrived Wednesday from groups including the Alabama Association of Realtors and its counterpart in Georgia, arguing the latest eviction order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeds the agency’s authority. The group asked a federal judge in D.C. to halt the new protections.”
Biden is calling for half of new cars to be electric or plug-in hybrids by 2030.
- “Biden is set to unveil a far-reaching, multipronged plan to make U.S. cars and light trucks more fuel-efficient and to begin a shift to electric vehicles over the coming decade. The move marks one of the administration’s most consequential pushes so far to combat climate change and tackle the nation’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions,” Dino Grandoni and Brady Dennis report.
- "The move comes with political risks for Biden, who has faced pressure from activists and industry representatives alike, but represents a key part of his promise to try to slow rising global temperatures and propel the country toward a future in which the vehicles on roads and highways rely on little or no gasoline.”
- “But it remains to be seen whether Biden’s call to action will be enough to get the auto industry to shift gears to cleaner cars quickly enough as part of a broader effort to tackle global warming.”
- “The president is set to sign an executive order calling for half of new car sales to be of electric vehicles powered by batteries and fuel cells or plug-in electric hybrids by the end of the decade. ... In the near term, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department were also set Thursday to propose new requirements on greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency for cars, SUVs and pickup trucks through model year 2026.”
The United States is developing a plan to require foreign visitors to be vaccinated.
- A White House official told Reuters’s David Shepardson that the administration is “developing a plan to require nearly all foreign visitors to the United States to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as part of eventually lifting travel restrictions that bar much of the world from entering the United States.”
- “The White House wants to re-open travel, which would boost business for the airlines and tourism industry, but is not ready to immediately lift restrictions because of the rising COVID-19 case load and highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant.”
- “The Biden administration has interagency working groups working ‘to have a new system ready for when we can reopen travel,’ the official said, adding it includes ‘a phased approach that over time will mean, with limited exceptions, that foreign nationals traveling to the United States (from all countries) need to be fully vaccinated.’”
On the Hill
The Senate infrastructure bill sets the stage for a massive effort to make broadband more available and affordable.
- “Senate Democrats and Republicans are inching closer to adopting more than $14 billion to help Americans who are struggling to pay for high-speed Internet, part of a package of digital initiatives that together amount to the largest one-time investment in broadband in U.S. history,” Tony Romm and Cat Zakrzewski report.
- “The bipartisan measure sets aside $65 billion total to expand Internet access, a pot of money meant to build out connectivity to unserved parts of the country while helping low-income families afford their bills. ... The affordability program, in particular, marks an expansion of the U.S. government’s existing efforts to help Americans who cannot afford reliable, speedy Web connectivity.”
- “The infrastructure proposal extends that assistance, and potentially expands the number of Americans who are eligible for it, ahead of what would have been its expiration in a few months once its coffers ran dry. If adopted, the new measure would enable eligible Americans to take advantage of a discount up to $30 per month, less than the $50 that participants receive today.”
- “Passage of the infrastructure bill would add another $65 billion to efforts to close the digital divide, the persistent gap between those who have access to high-speed Internet and those who do not. ... But the money still may fall short of President Biden’s ambitious goal of ensuring every American has access to high-speed Internet.”
With the eviction victory in hand, congressional Democrats are turning their attention to student loans.
- “The current student loan freeze temporarily spares many students from having to make their typical monthly payments and sets their interest rates at zero percent. The policy dates back to the earliest days of the pandemic, but it is set to conclude at the end of September — meaning students could see bills again starting October 1,” Romm reports. “Fearing some people with student loan debt still may be in dire financial straits, many liberal-leaning lawmakers in the House and Senate are urging President Biden to continue the deferral period.”
- “In recent weeks, the Biden administration has signaled it is at least considering another freeze on federal student loan payments. Without a final decision, however, lawmakers have ramped up their advocacy — hoping to ward off the same financial cliff that had threatened millions of renters until Tuesday.”
And liberals are looking to build off the successful eviction moratorium effort to shape Democrats’ agenda in the coming months.
- “The lawmakers who called on the administration to extend the moratorium, after the White House insisted it did not have the legal authority to do so, said the lesson they took away from the experience is that their activist backgrounds and methods can achieve results even as they now fight their battles from inside the government,” Marianna Sotomayor, Sean Sullivan and Romm report. “‘Activists are in Congress, so let’s be clear: Expect for things to be different than maybe what people are used to. We don’t have the same eyes, the same background or agenda as some others,’ Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who slept on the steps of the Capitol to draw attention to the moratorium’s lapse, said.”
- “But forcing the administration’s hand on an eviction ban tied to the coronavirus pandemic may be an easier task than ensuring their priorities do not get shortchanged during the upcoming legislative fights, with Democratic moderates in both chambers wary of the amount of spending liberals are advocating.”
Democrats are preparing to rope the GOP into a political cliff dive over the debt limit.
- “There will be no language on raising or suspending the debt ceiling in the budget measure Senate Democrats expect to unveil within days to advance a $3.5 trillion spate of liberal spending plans without Republican buy-in, according to a Democratic aide close to budget talks,” Politico’s Caitlin Emma and Jennifer Scholtes report. “Instead, the party is looking to a short-term funding bill designed to avert a government shutdown at the end of September as the next opportunity for debt limit action, one top lawmaker said — an approach that would require Republican support.”
- “The omission of debt limit language from the budget, while seemingly minor, could prove one of the most salient decisions that Democrats make all year. Addressing the debt limit alongside a government funding vote would change the power dynamics in other major negotiations for months to come, including in the battle over boosting military spending.”
Hot on the left
Cuomo's office sought help from prominent liberal advocates to discredit an accuser. “Attorney Roberta Kaplan, a co-founder of Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, and Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, are now facing questions about their role in Cuomo’s aggressive effort to fight back against his accusers,” Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey report. “Jill Basinger, an attorney for [Cuomo accuser Lindsey] Boylan, said in an interview Wednesday that she and her client were stunned to read in the attorney general’s report that Cuomo’s office consulted with the advocates as they sought to undermine Boylan’s account. ...
“Kaplan is described in the attorney general’s report as conferring with Time’s Up President Tina Tchen at the request of a Cuomo adviser about the appropriateness of the letter Cuomo’s aides were preparing to release that pushed back on Boylan by, among other things, attacking her political motivations and denying the legitimacy of her claims. … David — a onetime lawyer in the governor’s office who called for his former boss to resign this week — suggested changes to the never-released Boylan letter, which was later leaked to reporters, according to the investigation. He later made an effort to get signatures for it, even though he told Cuomo advisers he would not sign it himself, David told investigators.”
More on the Cuomo investigation:
Quote of the day
“He’s not the kind of guy who will just resign,” said one person close to Cuomo, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. “It’s over, but he won’t admit that yet.”
Hot on the right
“Tennessee could withhold millions from schools found to violate guidelines on teaching critical race theory,” Andrew Jeong reports. “The potential penalties were listed in guidance recently released by state education officials, which are open for public comment through Aug. 11. If the rules are imposed as stated, the state education department could withhold the lesser of $1 million or 2 percent of state funds allocated to schools deemed to have knowingly violated the state law, while failing to take ‘corrective action.’ Repeat offenders could forfeit $5 million, or forgo 10 percent of annual state funds, whichever is less. Authorities may also revoke, suspend or deny the licenses of individual teachers.”
The battle over the once-a-decade realignment of legislative and congressional districts is underway across the country even before new maps have been drawn, with lawsuits filed in nearly a dozen states, signaling how intense the fight for partisan power in the states and Congress will be in the coming year.
Today in Washington
Biden and Vice President Harris are meeting with Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander civil rights leaders. At 3 p.m., the president will deliver remarks on his clean cars and trucks plan. At 4:30 p.m., he will sign an act awarding four Congressional Gold Medals to the Capitol Police and those who protected the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Kevin Durant led the U.S. men’s basketball team back to a gold medal game. “At these Tokyo Olympics, Team USA has been either horrid or ‘holy cow,’ with nothing in between. That familiar script played out again in a 97-78 victory over Australia on Thursday in the semifinals at Saitama Super Arena, where Team USA missed its first 10 three-pointers and made a litany of mistakes in an unsightly first half. Yet the Americans, led by Kevin Durant, responded by cranking it up with a 12-0 run to start the second half to cruise past one of their biggest threats at these Games,” Ben Golliver reports. “With the win, the United States advanced to face France in Saturday’s gold medal game.”