“Total disrespect for Biden captured in gift exchange,” Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, tweeted.
The reality, however, is more complicated.
To start, the State Department paid $1,800 for the bike, Bilenky Cycle Works told The Washington Post. The small Philadelphia-based company typically charges $6,000 for a similar lightweight model. And the custom Union Jack graphics, matching helmet, bronze and silver badge displaying intersecting British and American flags on the head tube, and tip fees would have brought the total cost to $10,000 in normal circumstances.
The State Department initially proposed a budget of $1,500, said company owner Stephen Bilenky. On his website, he recalls initially thinking he had been scammed when he received an ‘encrypted’ email asking if he could produce a handmade bicycle for an unnamed foreign dignitary. in less than two weeks, a feat that required working 14-hour days. He received some clues – the foreign leader was 5-8 years old and from a country with a red, white and blue flag – but didn’t learn the gift would be for Johnson until he had already accepted to build the bike at a heavily discounted price.
“When your country calls, you answer!” Bilenky wrote.
The gift was meant to commemorate Biden and Johnson’s shared enthusiasm for cycling, the White House said. But if Johnson wants to use the bike, he’ll likely have to pay. The UK Ministerial Code allows government ministers to accept gifts worth less than 140 pounds, the equivalent of around $200. If they want to keep a more expensive gift, they have to pay the difference, which means Johnson could either pay around $1,600 for a bike he didn’t choose himself or lose it.
As for the idea that Johnson handed Biden a framed print of Wikipedia? That’s not the whole story either.
British Foreign Office officials have come across a photo that appears on Frederick Douglass’ Wikipedia page, showing a mural of the famous abolitionist painted on a street in Edinburgh. Melissa Highton, who took the photo, told the Washington Post that the State Department contacted her and asked her permission to use it as a gift for Biden, who invoked Douglass in his speeches.
“I agreed and gave them a higher resolution version of the image so it would be a higher quality print,” Highton wrote in an email. “I don’t know how they printed it, but, yeah, I guess they got a high quality print on quality paper and a nice frame. I haven’t seen the finished article.
Highton, director of learning, teaching and web services at the University of Edinburgh, had uploaded the photo to Wikimedia Commons under a license saying it was free to use, and she did not ask payment to the government. She however urged the Foreign Office to get in touch with Ross Blair, the artist who had painted the mural. He was equally enthusiastic, telling the BBC he saw it as “a great honor and a massive global platform”.
The fact that the print could soon hang in the White House “just goes to show that serendipitous things happen when you share openly,” Highton wrote. She noted on her blog that she held dual US-British citizenship and how that seemed like an “added bonus” to the symbolism of the gift, which highlights Douglass’ influence in Britain and his repeated trips to Scotland. .
Downing Street did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the cost of the gift, but professional printing and framing work could cost hundreds of dollars. US presidents are not permitted to accept personal gifts from world leaders worth more than $415, and items over this limit are generally sent directly to the National Archives.
Although some in the United States interpreted the less costly gift as an affront, there is no indication that the Bidens feel snubbed. First lady Jill Biden also received a first edition of a novel by British author Daphne du Maurier, whose work is often set in Cornwall, while Johnson’s wife Carrie reportedly received a silk scarf and a leather tote bag made by military wives.
And, if nothing else, the swap marks a reversal of the awkwardness that ensued in 2009 when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave President Barack Obama a penholder made from the timbers of the same ship whose the wood was used to construct the Resolute Desk in the Oval Bureau. Obama gave Brown a DVD set.
Amy B Wang and Karla Adam contributed to this report.