This article from The Balance, while describing the personal benefits and responsibilities of the office of the presidency, says this about gifts of clothing:

Presidents and their spouses cannot receive free clothing. If they wear any piece as a gift, they must place it in the National Archives after being worn.

This seems like a strange rule, and although I have been able to find other outlets briefly mentioning it, I am having trouble finding more information. Is this requirement true, and is it a law, or merely a norm? Why does this rule exist--security, anti-corruption, diplomacy, charity?

A strong answer should provide primary or secondary sources to support their claims. As a bonus: are there any interesting cases where this rule has come up?

  • 2
    FYI - Here's a short (9 pgs) report that addresses provisions of federal law and regulation restricting the acceptance of personal gifts by the President of the United States, from the Congressional Research Service.
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 17:33
  • 26
    If they receive as much as a sock, they are free from their servitude and can promptly disapparate out of there.
    – Stian
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 6:02
  • There must be quite a security issue with Presidents wearing donated items... I'd be worrying about drugs, poison, radioactive material, biological agents, tracking devices, video and audio bugs and explosives. Just off the top of my head. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 8:23
  • @OscarBravo - I can't find where I read it, but I believe gifts that are consumable (wine, cigars, etc.) are accepted, but later destroyed and the President doesn't actually get to use them.
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 18:01
  • My understanding is that there is nothing special about clothing here, and that the rules apply the same way to any kind of gift. POTUS can accept it, but must surrender it to the National Archives. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 18:42

1 Answer 1


The US President can receive clothing as a gift. They, along with the Vice President, are pretty much the only federal employees who can accept substantial gifts, even if they come from 'prohibited sources', as long as it comes from a member of the American public; receiving gifts from foreign governments/officials without the consent of Congress is explicitly forbidden by the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

Presidential Exemption

The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations §2635.204(j) states:

Gifts to the President or Vice President. Because of considerations relating to the conduct of their offices, including those of protocol and etiquette, the President or the Vice President may accept any gift on his or her own behalf or on behalf of any family member, provided that such acceptance does not violate §2635.205(a) or (b), 18 U.S.C. 201(b) or 201(c)(3), or the Constitution of the United States.

The linked exceptions relate to the gifts being received in return for, for example, being "influenced in the performance of an official act", or to "do or omit to do any act in violation of the lawful duty" of their office.

General Rules

The rules on gifts from outside sources for federal employees that the above regulation exempts the President and his VP from are set out in the rest of Subpart B. Generally, a federal employee may not accept any gift if it may be seen by a "reasonable person" to question his or her integrity. In addition, gifts may not be accepted if they come from a 'prohibited source'.

A prohibited source is defined in §2635.203(d) as an individual or organization seeking official action by, doing business with, or conducting activities regulated by the employee's agency, or has interests that may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the employee's official duties.

So the rules exist to prohibit both actual corruption and actions that may be seen as corrupt. The President and Vice President are exempt from these regulations, according to the Congressional Research Service, because:

In promulgating its rules and exceptions, the Office of Government Ethics has noted that: “The ceremonial and other public duties of the President and Vice President make it impractical to subject them to standards that require an analysis of every gift offered.”

Although the President and VP may accept gifts of this nature, they are required to report them if they are over a certain amount. The requirements for this are set out in 5 USC App 102: Contents of reports.

Possible Explanation

Let's now look at where this misconception may have come from. An AP article looked at who paid the bills for Michelle Obama's wardrobe while she was First Lady, and includes a quote from her press secretary:

Here's how Joanna Rosholm, press secretary to the first lady, explains it:

"Mrs. Obama pays for her clothing. For official events of public or historic significance, such as a state visit, the first lady's clothes may be given as a gift by a designer and accepted on behalf of the U.S. government. They are then stored by the National Archives."

So we see in this case that the clothes were, in fact, donated to the U.S. Government, not the First Lady herself (via her husband). This means that the gifts are handled differently; according again to the Congressional Research Service:

Since the President is not flatly prohibited from accepting gifts from the general public, such a gift made to the President personally, and accepted, may be retained by him when he leaves office. Gifts coming to the White House that are not intended for the President or First Lady personally, however, but rather are given with the intent to be made for the “White House,” or otherwise made to the government of the United States, and personal gifts not retained by the President or First Lady, are catalogued, distributed, or disposed of by the United States.

The article also states that the First Lady also has to be careful with accepting discounts:

Several designers who have provided clothes for the first lady declined to discuss their arrangements. But given the prestige that comes with dressing Mrs. Obama, it's widely thought that designers are eager to cut the first lady a break. Former White House lawyers said any discounts provided to the first lady would have to be in line with what designers offer other top customers to avoid being considered gifts.

This reinforces the point - the President and the Vice President may accept personal gifts or gifts on behalf of their family members, but the family members themselves receive no such exemption.

In addition, the Congressional Research Service does note that in practice, gifts to the President/VP are screened, categorized, and evaluated by the White House Gift Office, before being distributed.

If personal gifts to the President or First Lady are not to be retained by them, they are generally recorded, tracked, and sent to the National Archives and Records Administration [NARA] for courtesy storage, and possible eventual use and display at a presidential library.


Although the President/Vice President is subject to the general restriction enshrined in the Constitution which means they may not accept gifts from foreign governments without the consent of Congress, they and their family members, are not subject to the general restrictions set out by the Code of Federal Regulations on accepting gifts - unless they are given in return for preferential treatment, or solicited - even if they come from 'prohibited sources'.

The confusion displayed in the articles linked in the question may stem from the fact that in previous instances, clothes have been donated to the U.S. Government for use by the First Lady at public occasions, and have then subsequently been accepted by the National Archives. Finally, the Congressional Research Service includes an overview of the process in the Reagan White House:

While gifts from family and friends go directly from the White House Gift Unit to the first family, it is simply impossible for the President and First Lady to retain, or even view, most of the gifts from the general public. The Gift Unit, therefore, sees to the disposition of most of these items. Some are transferred to the National Archives, and eventually join head of state gifts as part of a presidential library museum collection.

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    Does a First Lady act in some official capacity in the US govt.? Is she even an employee? If not, why would she be subject to any of these restrictions? Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 19:27
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    @UuDdLrLrSs Many of the ECFR guidelines include restrictions which also apply to the Federal Employees' families/partners/guests (depending on context and specific clause). In this case, while the President and Vice-President have been explicitly exempted, their families/partners have not. Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 20:11
  • @UuDdLrLrSs sounds like an excellent question to ask. And consider someday it might be "first gentleman"
    – Criggie
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 3:33
  • The President's not allowed to receive gifts from foreign individuals? What about gifts given as part of a diplomatic exchange? You know, something like "Welcome to our country. Please, have [insert local delicacy] as our gift to you as a symbol of our hospitality."
    – nick012000
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 4:27
  • 1
    @nick012000 See reaganlibrary.gov/sreference/presidential-gifts Congress has allowed Federal employees to retain any gift from a foreign government, as long as the total US retail value of the gifts presented at one occasion does not exceed an amount established by the General Services Administration (GSA).[1] Foreign official gifts over this “minimal value” are considered gifts to the people of the United States, which the recipient must purchase from GSA, at fair market value, in order to retain.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 18:00

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