Trump says he’ll keep Putin’s soccer ball gift

Vernon Silver
Bloomberg News

President Donald Trump made a snap decision about the Adidas AG soccer ball that Russian President Vladimir Putin gave him in Helsinki this week.

“That will go to my son, Barron. We have no question,” Trump said before he tossed the ball to his wife. “In fact, Melania, here you go.”

Seven years ago, another world leader gave then-President Barack Obama’s children Adidas soccer balls. But the first daughters didn’t get to keep them, records of the State Department’s protocol office show.

That’s because U.S. law prohibits the president and his immediate family from keeping presents from foreign governments of more than a minimal value – and the Obamas’ gifts exceeded that threshold, which today is set at $390.

The Obama-era gifting occurred in June 2011 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Washington with Adidas swag for Obama’s daughters, then aged 9 and 12: for each girl, a mini soccer ball, T-shirt, jacket, towel, journal, gym bag and swim goggles. The U.S. government valued the haul at $557 – more than a minimal value and therefore automatically property of the U.S. The gear ended up at the National Archives and Records Administration along with other presidential gifts, not with Sasha and Malia.

Although the brands are the same, Putin’s gift might have a completely different fate – and would depend on the value the government sets for the ball. It’s not yet clear how that value will be set, but the ball’s markings suggest that it’s an official 2018 World Cup match ball, which sells on the Adidas website for $165, far below the threshold.

The U.S. government has put much higher price tags on other sports gear. Argentine President Mauricio Macri gave the Obama family two national soccer team jerseys autographed by Lionel Messi in 2016. Valued at $1,700, they joined Merkel’s Adidas gear at the National Archives.

The White House didn’t respond to questions about how Putin’s soccer ball would be valued. But even if it were cataloged at more than minimal value, there’s another possible route for the ball to make its way to 12-year-old Barron: His father can buy it for him.

Under the rules, the president and other officials can buy back their foreign-sourced gifts from the U.S. government at fair market value. In one example, Hillary Clinton purchased a pearl necklace with gemstones that she received as secretary of state in 2012 from Myanmar’s opposition leader at the time, Aung San Suu Kyi. It was valued at $970.

Of course, the widely speculated notion that the Russians could have planted a listening device in the ball may render the rules on gifts irrelevant. U.S. agents might have already shredded the inflatable orb to bits in search of bugs.