Trump Leaves His Mark on a Presidential Keepsake
Posted June 24, 2018 6:24 p.m. EDT
Updated June 24, 2018 6:32 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Since Bill Clinton occupied the White House, the commemorative medallions known as challenge coins have been stately symbols of the presidency coveted by the military, law enforcement personnel and a small circle of collectors.
Then came Donald Trump.
His presidency has yielded more — and more elaborate — coins that are shinier, flashier and even bigger, setting off a boom for coin manufacturers, counterfeiters and collectors, with one official Trump challenge coin recently fetching $1,000 on eBay.
Among those produced in recent months by members of a White House military unit is a coin featuring Trump’s private Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, on the front, and the presidential seal, the White House and Air Force One on the back. Another has Pope Francis on one side and the president’s face set against the White House on the other.
And Trump’s aides have commissioned multiple versions of an official challenge coin, for which the president himself has reviewed several proposals, according to people familiar with the process.
One such design, which was approved by Trump and paid for by the Republican National Committee, is thicker, wider and more gold than those of preceding presidents, and bears his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” as well as his name — emblazoned three times. Missing was a traditional staple of presidential challenge coins: the presidential seal with the national motto, E pluribus unum, or “Out of many, one.”
The break from tradition comes against larger debates over Trump’s fascination with the trappings of power, and his blurring of the lines between his presidency and both his campaign and business operations.
And, though challenge coins seem relatively trivial, the shift has caused headaches for the Trump White House.
Concerned about running afoul of rules barring government resources from being used for partisan political purposes, the White House Counsel’s Office warned staff members not to display the Republican National Committee’s challenge coin, or any paraphernalia with Trump’s campaign slogan, in government buildings.
Outside ethics watchdogs say the “Make America Great Again” coins shouldn’t be distributed to military personnel — a traditional use of presidential challenge coins — since the military is supposed to be walled off from politics.
And those watchdogs warn that coins featuring Trump’s properties, such as Mar-a-Lago, should not be produced using government resources — including funds, work hours or even phone calls and emails — since federal ethics laws prohibit the use of public resources to promote private businesses.
The Mar-a-Lago coins are akin to “a metallic tourist brochure,” said Norman L. Eisen, a former ethics lawyer in President Barack Obama’s White House and the chairman of a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Lindsay Walters, a White House deputy press secretary, said those laws didn’t apply to the Mar-a-Lago coins, because “no public funds were used” in their design or creation.
Instead, Walters said, individual personnel assigned to the White House Communications Agency, a military unit that provides technological support for the president and his staff, used their own private funds to pay for the coins.
But Karen Brazell, chief of staff for the White House Military Office, which oversees the communications agency, declined to comment on whether other agency resources were used for the coins.
After The New York Times inquired about the coins, agency personnel abruptly canceled plans for a coin featuring the president’s signature Trump Tower in Manhattan and his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey.
The coins, which are usually slightly larger than a silver dollar, are intended to represent trips taken by the president and vice president, and are collected or traded by the staff members involved in facilitating those trips. Only “a limited number” are purchased for each trip, Brazell said, and sold to her office’s employees to benefit what she described as a “private morale organization.”
Any profit beyond the design and production costs goes to that fund for team-building activities like ceremonies and retirement gifts, Walters said, stressing that neither Trump nor his staff “had any involvement in the creation, design, distribution or funding” of the agency’s coins.
She acknowledged, though, that the president “is involved in the selection and design of his official presidential challenge coins,” which have been funded partly by the Republican National Committee. People who have traveled with Trump say he has become enthralled by challenge coins, attributing his interest to his appreciation for military traditions and might, as well as his attraction to gaudy displays of gilded excess. That fascination grew during the presidential campaign, when he would receive coins from law enforcement and military personnel whom he encountered at stops.
It wasn’t long before coins bearing the campaign logo and slogan began circulating among his campaign team. Traveling aides usually kept a supply on hand to distribute to dignitaries and military and law enforcement personnel. Even the campaign’s private security detail, made up of former FBI agents and New York City police officers, jumped in on the act. The group — which was accused of using heavy-handed tactics — produced a coin featuring the phrase “Have Gun, Will Travel.”
After Trump was sworn in, he had a sampling of his challenge coin collection displayed on a credenza behind his desk in the Oval Office, where it is visible in photographs alongside a Frederic Remington sculpture of a cowboy riding a rearing bronco.
The numismatic side of Trump’s presidency elicited unwanted headlines after images of two coins — the Republican National Committee’s “Make America Great Again” coin, and one issued before Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — were published.
“Replacing the nation’s motto with his campaign slogan is kind of tacky,” comedian Stephen Colbert said, riffing on the Republican National Committee coin on his CBS late-night show. But he quipped, “It beat the first choice — ‘good for one free drink.'”
The North Korea coin, ordered by White House Communications Agency personnel, drew umbrage across the political spectrum for a different reason. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urged the administration to remove Kim’s likeness. “He is a brutal dictator and something like the Peace House would be much more appropriate,” Schumer wrote on Twitter, referring to the site used for negotiations between North and South Korea, in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two nations.
But the coin incited a surge of interest in challenge coins like nothing that collectors could recall, spawning a host of knockoffs and creating an opportunity for a private company based in central Pennsylvania, the White House Gift Shop.
The shop, which was once affiliated with the federal government, quickly ordered nearly 100,000 copies of a version of the coin from the company that had designed and produced the original, Challenge Design.
Consumers seeking to buy the coins crashed the White House Gift Shop’s website and jammed its phone lines. The coin, which differs substantially from the original, is listed for $49 on the company’s website.
The White House Gift Shop plans to sell two additional North Korea coins in what it bills as a “historic art coin series.” The second coin will have a side showing Trump flanked by Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in front of their nations’ flags with a dove holding an olive branch in its beak. The reverse side is essentially a paean to the Singapore summit meeting, depicting the resort at which it was held and a banner that lists the date and the words “Diplomatic History.”
The third coin will seek to capture the outcome of the talks, possibly including the Nobel Prize, should Trump or Kim win it, said Mary H. Harms, owner and creative director of Challenge Design.
“What we try to do with our coins is tell stories,” said Harms, whose company also makes coins for an array of military units, as well as private sector clients like musicians. Those worlds sometimes collide, as with a coin she produced for the band 3 Doors Down, which commemorated its performance during Trump’s inaugural festivities. It featured the band’s logo and the American flag on one side, and the seals of the president and vice president against the Lincoln Memorial on the other.
In some ways, the proliferation of splashy presidential coins under Trump is emblematic of his convention-defying presidency, said John Wertman, a former Clinton White House aide who is a leading expert on challenge coins.
His collection includes the official presidential challenge coins of Clinton and Obama, muted bronze affairs that have the presidential seal on one side and the White House and the president’s signature on the other. (The two coins made for Vice President Mike Pence by the Republican National Committee are equally understated, and the one for the first lady, Melania Trump, while gold, is much less ornate than her husband’s.)
Wertman was one of the few to receive a copy of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” Republican National Committee coin, which was largely removed from circulation after the round of mocking by the media. He said he was surprised by its thickness and lack of the presidential seal, but not necessarily its hue.
“If you look at what he did with the design of the White House drapes and his general inclination toward gold, that’s his personal preference,” Wertman said of Trump.