Michelle Obama Received $244,000 in Foreign Gifts

The first lady has more in gifts from foreign nations than any other government official.


In 2009, President Obama received a $6,000 handcarved ebony wooden sculpture from the President of Tanzania, Michelle Obama received a $14,200 pearl necklace from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and the President and his staff collectively received 20 pairs of cufflinks from various foreign dignitaries. But these lucky recipients didn't get to keep their presents. Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution states that "no Person holding any Office...shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State." But that doesn't stop foreign dignitaries from bestowing expensive gifts upon federal officials. The State Department recently released the annual list of foreign gifts given to U.S. federal officials by foreign government sources. The data shows that, in calendar year 2009, federal officials reported receiving nearly $950,000 in foreign gifts, with leaders from the Middle East among the most generous.

[See a slide show of foreign gifts throughout history.]

Though government officials may not keep their presents, they often accept such gifts, citing that "non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. government" on the requisite reporting paperwork. For the most part, foreign presents are turned over to the federal government; the Obama and Biden families' gifts go to the National Archives, and presents to other officials are generally turned over to their employing agencies and reported to the General Services Administration. However, some gifts are retained "for official use only." Many of these are decorative items, like a rug given to Vice President Biden by Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and an imperial china set given to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi. Federal rules also allow federal employees to purchase their gifts back from the government, which employees only chose to do in five cases in 2009. [See editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Below are the 10 federal government officials who reported receiving the most valuable gifts from foreign sources in 2009.

Recipient Title Total Gift Value
Michelle Obama First Lady $244,266
Barack Obama President 165,808
Hillary Clinton Secretary of State 41,715
Gamal Helal Senior Diplomatic Interpreter 23,400
Eric Holder Attorney General 20,881
Joseph LeBaron U.S. Ambassador to Qatar 20,848
Joe Biden Vice President 18,860
Marvin Nicholson White House Trip Director 18,580
Barack and Michelle Obama President and First Lady 15,542
Major General Robert Caslen  Commanding General, 25th Infantry Division, Multi-National Division-North Iraq (former)  13,350

First lady Michelle Obama led all other recipients (her husband included) in total gift value, receiving 25 gifts valued at nearly $244,266 altogether. A ruby-and-diamond jewelry set from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia valued at $132,000 accounts for more than half of this total. President Obama received more gifts, at 54, but with a lower overall value of nearly $166,000.

The pricey jewelry set given to the first lady was just one gift that helped Saudi Arabia to far outpace all other countries in 2009 giving, with King Abdullah and his fellow Saudi dignitaries giving out over $342,000 in loot that year. The country's gift list also includes $3,500 jewelry sets to Sasha and Malia Obama, as well as cufflinks, watches, and jewelry presented to top White House aides like Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Senior Advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. Saudi Arabia is one of the four Middle Eastern countries represented in the top 10, which also includes four European states and Ghana.

Country Total Gift Value
Saudi Arabia $342,164
Qatar 73,408
Ghana 50,000
Italy 47,864
Iraq 39,200
China 38,162
United Kingdom 18,920
Turkey 18,852
Jordan 16,615
Germany 15,535