Brett Kavanaugh, the subject of last week’s hearings in which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified that he sexually assaulted her in high school, has not yet been confirmed to the Supreme Court. But at the White House Gift Shop, you can already preorder a commemorative coin with his name on it. It’s got a 24-karat gold finish, celebrates “constitutionalism,” features a cameo from Neil Gorsuch, and can be yours for the price of $175.
To be clear, the coin doesn’t actually exist yet. But neither does the White House Gift Shop — at least physically.
You might have assumed, as I did, that the gift shop was the last thing you did on one of those guided tours of the White House, the place where you buy, like, a mug with a picture of an American flag on it. Turns out, it’s more like a janky online store run by a rather enigmatic CEO with vague ties to the Secret Service where you can spend hundreds of dollars on large coins that commemorate events that haven’t happened yet.
You might recall hearing about it this past summer. When Donald Trump was scheduled to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in May, the US military released a commemorative “challenge coin” to mark the occasion, despite the fact that occasion in question hadn’t technically happened yet. And it didn’t: Trump canceled the summit abruptly, rendering the coins a rather bizarre artifact of a would-be event. Though the two did meet a month later, in June, the debacle at least led to some decent jokes on Twitter.
All the while, you could — and still can! — buy coins honoring the summit at the White House Gift Shop’s website. It’s seemingly a popular item; in fact, those who call the company to purchase it will be met with an automated message that says, “If you are calling about the Korean summit peace coin, please be advised that we are working to fulfill your order. Due to high demand, shipping has been delayed.”
So where does the money from these very popular coins go? Who designs this sometimes-premature merchandise? Most important, what does the White House Gift Shop have to do with the actual White House? Spoiler: basically nothing!
The White House Gift Shop was founded by the actual government — now it’s run by some guy
President Harry Truman ordered the White House store into existence on September 9, 1946. At first it was called the White House Flower Fund, then the White House Police Benefit Fund, and finally the White House Gift Shop, but in all iterations the mission remained essentially the same: The money made from the sales of presidential memorabilia and souvenirs would go to the families of Secret Service members who were injured or killed while on duty.
That’s where its connection to the actual White House ends. Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall embarked on an investigation into the mystery of the gift shop in May; initially he ended up with more questions than answers. (Was the company still tied to the Secret Service? Was it even a legal corporation?) It wasn’t until he received emails from knowledgeable parties that he discovered that yes, there once was a White House Gift Shop at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, but today’s iteration is a private company that has nothing to do with the government, even as it attempts to create the appearance that it does.
Here’s what happened: As recently as a decade ago, the gift shop appears to have been run by an organization called the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division Benefit Fund, but in 2011 it signed a contract with a company called Giannini Strategic Enterprises to run the shop on the fund’s behalf. When the fund liquidated itself in 2013, the gift shop was wholly transferred to Giannini.
It’s run by a man named Anthony Giannini, who did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. He’s currently the CEO of the White House Gift Shop and runs both businesses out of an office in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. And no, there’s not an actual store, in the White House or anywhere else, where you can buy the stuff shown online.
According to Giannini’s LinkedIn, he’s a graduate of Harvard and the CEO of Strategic Systems Corporation, a company that develops “supercomputer systems for neural network mapping” as well as “intelligence and defense systems modeling.” He also spends a fair bit of his bio discussing his ancestors, which he says include one of the people who funded the original animated Snow White movie, a gardener at President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and a Sistine Chapel art restorer.
So how is Giannini allowed to run a company with the very misleading and official-sounding “White House” in the title? Well, at first, he couldn’t. According to Talking Points Memo, when Giannini first applied to trademark the name at the US Patent Trademark Office, his request was rejected “on the pretty straightforward argument that it gave the false impression that it was part of the White House.”
But in a follow-up application, he argued that because the gift shop was founded by President Harry Truman, that it was indeed tied to the White House. And thus, the Trademark Office issued the trademark, which is why you’ll see a lot of very tiny trademark symbols proudly displayed on the company’s website.
The White House Gift Shop isn’t lying, but it tries hard to make you think it’s official
The White House Gift Shop’s site looks suspiciously like a government-run page, down to the official-looking logo in the precise shade of Presidential seal blue on the top and the giant “USA.gov” sticker on the bottom.
But investigate even a little bit and it’s clear that no government-owned website would contain quite so much grammatical and aesthetic strangeness. Whether you’re on the homepage, the FAQ section, or the shop, it’s likely that you’ll see up to five different fonts at a time, as well as a lot of randomly capitalized letters. Which is all fine, of course. But it’s hard to believe that anyone from a government organization approved it, and they did not.
The merchandise itself is also largely not “official.” Many of the products, which range from Christmas ornaments to gold-plated models of the White House and Capitol Building are labeled as “designed by Giannini.” Indeed, when I called the gift shop about the Kavanaugh coin, the very kind customer service representative explained that the owner, Giannini, creates the coins along with another designer.
Yet there are indeed “official” items, such as one replica of an ornament that was hung on the actual 1992 White House Christmas tree. There are also campaign souvenirs like MAGA hats, Trump bobbleheads, and a section for Obama merch.
The representative also explained that the Kavanaugh-Gorsuch coin hadn’t yet been designed because they were waiting until Kavanaugh’s actual confirmation, and didn’t know whether his face would be on it due to the surrounding controversy. Relatedly, the White House Gift Shop was also reluctant to put Kim Jong Un’s face on one of the coins because they were worried it might be offensive to the South Korean customers whom they said were its primary buyers. (Jong Un does appear on the summit coins.)
So where, exactly, does the money from these commemorative coins go? The same customer service representative during a previous call to the Gift Shop also told me that while the company is privately owned, that it makes many donations to police, fire, and military first responders. The website, however, is a little more specific, and says that it supports firearm training for law enforcement officers in small departments:
Today, The “only original official” White House Gift Shop, Est., 1946 in White House History continues to actively support Law Enforcement Departments or Agencies by funding special advanced firearms training and by purchasing safe and effective arms for departments often in smaller jurisdictions with limited advanced training budgets. If you are a rural or smaller law enforcement entity. for more information about The White House Gift Shop’s programs for arming your department (typically up to 70 officers) and providing world-class advanced LEO firearms training, on-site
So on one hand, no, your money is not going to the White House if you choose to buy a glass statue of the Washington Monument with a picture of the Washington Monument and the words “Washington Monument” on it. It also probably will never be entirely clear exactly where it is going. Much like the products itself — and the design of the Kavanaugh coin — the White House Gift Shop remains somewhat of a mystery.
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