Q: Did Bill and Hillary Clinton return furniture they took from the White House in 2001?
A: Yes. The Clintons returned more than $28,000 worth of items, which, they said, they thought were personal gifts given to them and not to the White House.
Was Hillary Clinton forced to return $20,000 worth of furniture and art after leaving White House?
There was a controversy almost immediately after President Clinton left office over household items and gifts that the first couple took with them from the White House.
Upon leaving office, Bill Clinton reported that he had retained $190,027 worth of gifts that he had received. The Washington Post reported this on Jan. 21, 2001 — a day after President George W. Bush gave his inaugural address.
On Feb. 5, 2001, the Post reported that some of those gifts — $28,000 worth — were intended for the White House, not for the Clintons personally, based on documents the newspaper reviewed and interviews it conducted with donors.
About a week later, the Washington Post reported that the Clintons returned the $28,000 worth of furnishings to the National Park Service. (The Post also reported that the Clintons days earlier had paid the government $86,000 for other items they received as gifts in his last year in office. We’ll get to that later.)
In general, presidents are “free to accept unsolicited personal gifts from the American public,” according to a 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service. Federal law requires that all gifts valued at more than $350 be disclosed in financial disclosure reports each year, but the president is free to keep them after moving out of the White House.
However, gifts from the public given directly to the White House are considered the property of the U.S. government and cannot be taken from the White House by the president or family members when the president leaves office.
As the CRS explained in its report:
CRS, Aug. 16, 2012: Since the President is not flatly prohibited from accepting gifts from the general public, such a gift made to the President personally, and accepted, may be retained by him when he leaves office. Gifts coming to the White House that are not intended for the President or First Lady personally, however, but rather are given with the intent to be made for the “White House,” or otherwise made to the government of the United States, and personal gifts not retained by the President or First Lady, are catalogued, distributed, or disposed of by the United States. “Furnishings,” for example, may be accepted by the National Park Service for use in the White House; “historic material” may be accepted by the Archivist for the Archives or Presidential Libraries; and other gifts for the United States, or ones not retained by the President, may be transferred to the General Services Administration for disposition, storage, or sale.
The Clinton White House furnishings in question, which were donated in 1993, included two sofas, an easy chair and an ottoman, worth $19,900, from Steve Mittman; a kitchen table and four chairs, valued at $3,650, from Lee Ficks; a $2,843 sofa from Brad Noe; $1,170 in lamps from Stuart Schiller; and a $1,000 needlepoint rug from David Martinous, according to the Post.
Mittman, Noe and Joy Ficks, the widow of Lee Ficks, told the Post that their donations were gifts to the White House, not the Clintons. The contributions were intended to complement a 1993 White House redecoration project.
That was apparently news to the Clintons and their transition team, which said that they were not aware that the gifts were not intended to go to them.
“All of these items were considered gifts to us,” Hillary Clinton said in 2001, according the Post. She added, “That’s what the permanent record of the White House showed. … But if there is a different intent, we will certainly honor the intention of the donor.”
Martinous told the Post that he wanted the Clintons to keep the rug he gave to the White House. Schiller couldn’t be reached for comment by the paper, but the lamps he gave were intended as gifts to the Clintons, according to a spokesman for Clinton’s transition team, who told the Post that’s what Schiller told the transition office.
In any case, the $28,000 worth of furniture the Clintons took with them upon leaving the White House was returned in February 2001, according to the National Park Service.
In a statement, the NPS, which oversees the White House as a national park, said: “As a result of questions about the status of certain property donated to the White House during the Clinton administration, the National Park Service will accept the return of the property in question and act as a custodian of such property.”
Although the Clintons were not “forced” to return the gifts, Jim McDaniel, a National Park Service spokesman, said the items returned were indeed property of the federal government. So it is possible that the Clintons would have been forced to return them, if they did not do so voluntarily.
“I feel 99 percent certain that everything that’s been returned to us is government property,” McDaniel was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story.
Prior to returning those gifts, the Clintons also agreed to pay for $86,000 worth of other items that they received in their last year in office.
The Washington Post‘s disclosure that the Clintons took with them more than $190,000 in china, flatware, rugs, sofas and other personal gifts triggered an immediate backlash. The gifts included $7,375 for tables and chairs from Denise Rich, a prominent Democratic fundraiser and the ex-wife of a fugitive financier, Marc Rich, who was pardoned by Clinton on the president’s last day in office. Former President Jimmy Carter called the Rich pardon “disgraceful,” saying “some of the factors in his pardon were attributable to his large gifts.”
As a result of the criticism, the Clintons decided on Feb. 2, 2001, to pay the government for $86,000 worth of items they received in 2000, as reported by the Washington Post.
At the time, former President Clinton said: “As have other presidents and their families before us, we received gifts over the course of our eight years in the White House and followed all of the gift rules. While we gave the vast majority of gifts to the National Archives, we reported those gifts that we were keeping. To eliminate even the slightest question, we are taking the step of paying for gifts given to us in 2000.”
In the end, the Clintons returned or paid for most the items that they took from the White House, although they were able to keep two items that they had returned.
In October 2002, the House Committee on Government Reform reported that a $1,725 easy chair and a $675 ottoman were returned to the Clintons “since neither had been officially accepted by NPS for the White House Residence.” But the committee also said the Clintons underestimated the value of the gifts, placing the total actual value of all the items the Clintons originally kept at $360,000, as reported in 2002 by the New York Times.
Edsall, Thomas B. “Clintons Take Away $190,000 In Gifts.” Washington Post. 21 Jan 2001.
Congressional Research Service. “Gifts to the President of the United States.” 16 Aug 2012.
Lardner, George. “Clintons Shipped Furniture Year Ago.” Washington Post. 10 Feb 2001.
Lardner, George. “Clintons Say They’ll Return Disputed Gifts.” Washington Post. 6 Feb 2001.
Lardner, George. “Gifts Were Not Meant for Clintons, Some Donors Say.” Washington Post. 5 Feb 2001.
DeWitt, Karen. “Redecorating Private Rooms in Political Limelight.” New York Times. 16 Aug 1993.
“Clintons Return White House Furniture.” ABC News. 6 Feb 2001.
Harris, John. “Clintons Will Pay for Half of Gifts; Former First Couple Try to Mend Image.” Washington Post. 3 Feb 2001.
U.S. House of Representatives. Committee on Government Reform. “Problems with the Presidential Gift System.” 28 Oct 2002.
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Kurtz, Howard. “IRS Looking Into Gifts to Reagans.” Washington Post. 5 Dec 1989.
Hernandez, Raymond. “Clintons Accused of a Failure To Disclose Gifts’ True Value.” New York Times. 13 Feb 2002.
“Park Service says gifts Clintons returned were government property.” Associated Press. 8 Feb 2001.