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Trump officials being investigated for stealing diplomatic gifts did more than embarrass us

It’s not just the bottle of whiskey and swag they allegedly took. They sullied the honor and integrity of our diplomats.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga prepare to hold talks in Washington on May 9, 2019.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga prepare to hold talks in Washington on May 9, 2019.Kyodo via AP file

It’s not for you. That lesson was made pretty darn clear when I started out as an American diplomat two decades ago. We were told in orientation courses to expect many invitations to fancy events with important people during our careers. There would also be gifts — a lot of them. They are for the country, not our own personal use.

As young diplomats, it was drilled into us that we were neither as funny nor good-looking as the interest we received abroad would indicate.

Many of the senior officials in the Trump administration evidently skipped that portion of the protocol class. The State Department’s Inspector General is now looking into how a large number of gifts, namely items with Trump’s name engraved on them and a $5,800 bottle of rare Japanese whisky, went missing over the last couple years. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, under whose watch this occurred, blamed the “incompetence” of a staff he so ably led. Pompeo himself says he has no recollection of receiving the whiskey.

These are meant to be perfunctory items for presentation. They have always been exchanged as more symbolic gestures than meant to be taken home. The United States is known the world over for giving particularly bad gifts. Secretary of State John Kerry once handed over two large Idaho potatoes to his Russian counterpart.

But there is a real national security danger in the secretary or his staff possibly making off with alcohol or other assorted gifts received from foreign countries and the gifts American taxpayers bought to advance our foreign policy. If gifts are purloined by the individuals in charge, they can quickly become a powerful means of exerting personal persuasion on policy matters. Breaking the taboo on keeping these items will inevitably lead nations, particularly those subjected to greater pressure on issues like human rights from Washington, to expand their efforts to use gifts to entice or elicit favors from our officials.

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From my first days at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center as a young diplomat, it was drilled into us that we were neither as funny nor good-looking as the interest we received abroad would indicate. Instead, it was important to understand that most people wanted something from us. Therefore, it was critical that our diplomats not find ourselves in anything that could be portrayed as a compromising scenario.

So, if you got a gift, it was handed over. That was a hard and fast rule. Anything over $25 in value was to be turned in to our administrative officer at the embassy where we were stationed. They would send it back to Washington for processing. It would either get stored in some warehouse or sold off. If I wanted to keep something, then there was a long form and a way to pay Uncle Sam fair market value. I never opted to do so.

Instead, I now have a home office filled with cheap knick-knacks from my time serving abroad. A poster from the Liberian election that saw the rise of Africa’s first female president and a cup from a Venezuelan television station. Most of the small-value items from my overseas tours I ended up donating to the National Museum of American Diplomacy.

There was one gift I was allowed to keep, however. A concert was held at the MTV of Madagascar in honor of my departure as a public affairs officer, during which I ran communications and cultural programs. A lot of the celebrities and media figures I had worked with during my three years on the island attended. During the celebration, the head of the country’s largest English school emotionally presented me with a wooden map of the world. We had worked very closely together to reopen an American cultural center in the capital, Antananarivo.

Following the rulebook, it was promptly walked over that very evening to the head of the management section at the Embassy. “Want to take it now?” I asked. The official’s response surprised me: Keep it. You clearly developed such a close relationship that we’ll consider it a personal rather than an official gift. As I was leaving the post, it was not considered an effort to curry favor.

Concerns about corruption or exerting undue influence on diplomats also extends to gifts given at home. There’s a general rule that if what’s on offer can be eaten, especially at an event, then restrictions are looser, as meals and entertaining are obviously integral to diplomacy. Yet at the highest levels of our government, where Pompeo and his team served, this rule is supposed to be even tighter because the stakes are so much greater.

I’ll never forget the almost humorous guidance that came down from the White House lawyers when I was on the National Security Council in the Obama administration and had received an invitation to attend a breakfast: Stick to the bagels. Their determination was that, while the meeting was important to attend, I should avoid taking anything of “significant value.” That meant no eggs or sausage, just carbs.

That’s why these allegations of blatant violations of the gift rules under the Trump administration sting especially badly for those of us who try really really hard to follow the rules and represent our country honorably. It is another reminder of the self-serving nature of Pompeo and many who worked alongside him. The former secretary shamelessly used taxpayer-funded trips to seemingly further his political ambitions in states like Kansas, where he once served as a U.S. representative. (Pompeo later called an investigation into the travel “hackery” and said he had been cleared by those looking into it.) He hosted lavish dinners with rich executives and even a NASCAR driver who had no connection to foreign policy. (Of course, they could be very useful as donors to a political campaign.)

It’s about much more than the bottle and swag they allegedly took. They sullied the honor and integrity of our diplomats. They weakened our efforts to promote good governance and transparency abroad. They forgot that public service and especially foreign service on the world stage is fundamentally not about personal interests. It’s always about what’s in our national interest.