The framers of our Constitution gave the president important authority over foreign affairs, including the power to nominate ambassadors, negotiate treaties and receive foreign ambassadors. From the earliest days of the Republic, other nations sought to reciprocate their appreciation by giving presents to the American chief magistrate. In 1791, for example, Washington received, accepted and kept a valuable gilt-framed full-length portrait of King Louis XVI from the French ambassador to the United States. Here too, Washington did not seek congressional consent for this gift.

Washington’s conduct was not unique. President Thomas Jefferson received a bust of Czar Alexander I as a diplomatic gift from the Russian government. Likewise, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from their great trek with various diplomatic presents from foreign Indian nations. Jefferson received, accepted and kept these gifts, all absent any congressional consent. Jefferson had fierce political adversaries, but there is no evidence that he was criticized (much less sued or impeached) for continuing the tradition that had been established by Washington.