GIFTING DIPLOMACY

Trump’s big shiny gift to the pope reveals what he really cares about

US president Donald Trump gave Pope Francis a huge, gold-embossed box set of Martin Luther King’s books. In return, the pope gave him a few sheets of paper.

Trump made his first presidential visit to the Vatican yesterday (May 24). During the private audience, the pope and the president exchanged some literary gifts. In the art of diplomatic gift-giving, gifts often serve as a vehicle for a subtle message, and in some cases, reflect on those receiving the gift.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania meet Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican
A big book with lots of pages. (Reuters/Evan Vucci/Pool)

According to a White House statement provided to pool reporters, Trump gave the pope a box set of five first-edition books written by Dr. Martin Luther King. The statement places a particular emphasis on how exquisite the book cover is: Housed in a “custom, hand-made display case,” “[e]ach book is custom-bound and accented with gold hand-tooling,” and even includes King’s autograph.

In terms of their content, the books “highlight [King’s] powerful and timeless messages of love, understanding, and peace,” the statement says. The gift was chosen because Pope Francis made reference to King’s life during a speech to the US Congress in 2015.

Just like Trump’s “big, beautiful wall,” the box set is also huge, heavy, beautiful, expensive—and emphasizes form over content. It’s certainly a present that represents the billionaire’s taste.

In contrast, photos show Pope Francis’s gifts to Trump include a few sheets of paper, bound by a piece of string.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania meet Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican
A modest gift with just a few pages. (Reuters/Evan Vucci/Pool)

The sheets of paper appear to be a copy of a World Day of Peace message the pope delivered in January 2017, according to a White House pool report. Titled “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace,” the speech runs four and half pages, at about 2,500 words. “I signed it personally for you,” the pope told Trump.

The message condemns what he called a world war of “‘piecemeal’ violence,” which includes wars and organized crime, but also “the abuses suffered by migrants and victims of human trafficking, and the devastation of the environment.” Francis called upon world leaders to be peacemakers who “show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment, or seek to win at any cost.”

Francis’s gifts to Trump also include three books he has written as pope. Bound in red leather covers, the books are usually given to heads of state: Amoris Laetitia—The Joy of Love, Evangelii Gaudium—The Joy of the Gospel, and Laudato Si’—On Care For Our Common Home.

The last title is a 184-page encyclical published in 2015 that discusses climate change. Calling climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” the pope’s writing directly contradicts Trump’s views and actions on climate change (a “hoax”). Many have pointed out that the pope may be sending a not-so-subtle message with the book—but the same book is given to any other nation’s leader who meet with him.

Pope Francis with Donald Trump
(EPA/Osservatore Romano Handout)

The pope’s personalized gift to Trump is therefore just those few pages of paper, enclosed in a beige paper cover. The papal coat of arms on the cover is not even printed in color, but outlined in black. It is a document with no emphasis on presentation. It may literally be a print-out of a text that’s available online.

Pope Francis is also known to have raffled off diplomatic gifts he received or sold them in a shop in the Vatican (link in Italian) to raise money for the poor, with proceeds given to charities. Trump’s box set may soon add to the store’s book collection.

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