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Trump loaded Air Force One with art from Paris envoy’s residence on 2018 trip

Bloomberg News reports US president spent time at ambassador’s residence instead of making cemetery trip, and decided to take artwork for White House

By AFP, September 07, 2020

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump has come under heavy fire for his decision in 2018 not to visit a US military cemetery while in Paris on an official visit.

According to Bloomberg News, instead Trump killed time in the US ambassador’s palatial residence, the Hotel de Pontalba, where he admired several pieces of art — and the following day ordered them loaded onto Air Force One for the return trip to Washington.

That fact was confirmed by a presidential spokesman, Judd Deere, who told AFP that Trump brought the artworks to be “prominently displayed [in the White House].”

But at the time, Bloomberg reported, Trump’s impulsive move raised eyebrows, stunning some of those involved, and sending State Department lawyers scurrying to ensure the move was legal (they ultimately ruled that it was, because the artwork was US government property). President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, left, with first lady Melania Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser Robert O’Brien seated on the couch in the Oval Office of the White House, Jan. 7, 2020, in Washington. According to Bloomberg News, the figurines on the mantel are among the pieces taken from France. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

‘It’s filled with losers’

The incident began during Trump’s November 2018 visit to France for ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

While other foreign dignitaries traveled on November 10 to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, where hundreds of US Marines who died in the bloody Battle of Belleau Wood are buried, Trump’s aides said rainy weather had prevented him from making the short trip in his Marine One helicopter. In this file photo taken on November 10, 2018 grave stones are pictured at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial in Belleau, France (Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

Trump faced scathing criticism at the time — and insisted he wanted to go but was overruled by the Secret Service — but the decision exploded even more dramatically a few days ago when The Atlantic magazine reported that Trump told senior aides at the time: “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.’”

Instead, Bloomberg reported, he spent time in the historic Paris residence of Ambassador Jamie McCourt, where he admired several pieces of fine art — notably a portrait and a bust of Benjamin Franklin, a revered Founding Father and the first US ambassador to France, as well as a set of silver figurines of Greek mythical characters.

‘Displayed in the People’s House’

The next day, while preparing to leave, the president startled McCourt by saying he wanted to take the pieces back with him, quipping to the ambassador that he would get them back in 2024 — at the end of a presumed second Trump term, said the account, which cited several people familiar with the incident. United States ambassador to France Jamie McCourt, left, greets President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump as they arrive in Biarritz, France, Aug. 24, 2019, for a G-7 summit. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The artworks were originally estimated by one person involved to be worth $750,000.

Asked about the episode by AFP, White House spokesman Deere replied, “The president brought these beautiful, historical pieces, which belong to the American people, back to the United States to be prominently displayed in the People’s House.”

Trump has displayed numerous mementos from his various official trips and encounters in his private West Wing dining room, including a pair of shoes from singer Kanye West, Bloomberg said. Rapper Kanye West, second left, stands up as he speaks during a meeting with US President Donald Trump in the Oval office of the White House on October 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. Oliver Contreras – Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

Under US law, presidents are allowed to display personal gifts, including from foreign heads of state, while in office, but must purchase them if they want to keep them upon leaving office.

The silver figurines — later evaluated as “fakes” by one expert — now sit on a fireplace mantel in the Oval Office, Bloomberg said. The bust and portrait of Franklin were also found to be replicas.

Bloomberg said the portrait was discovered to be a copy of an original painted in 1785 by Joseph Siffred Duplessis. When curators later located the original not far from the White House, hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, it was borrowed from the gallery. It now hangs in the Oval Office.

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