Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump has come under heavy fire for his decision in 2018 not to visit a US military cemetery while in Paris on an official visit.
What did he do instead?
According to Bloomberg News, he killed time in the US ambassador's palatial residence, the Hotel de Pontalba, where he admired several pieces of art... and the following day ordered them loaded onto Air Force One for the return trip to Washington.
That fact was confirmed by a presidential spokesman, Judd Deere, who told AFP that Trump brought the artworks to be "prominently displayed in the People's House" -- the White House.
But at the time, Bloomberg reported, Trump's impulsive move raised eyebrows, stunning some of those involved, and sending State Department lawyers scurrying to ensure the move was legal (they ultimately ruled that it was, because the artwork was US government property).
'It's filled with losers'
The incident began during Trump's November 2018 visit to France for ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
While other foreign dignitaries traveled on November 10 to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, where hundreds of US Marines who died in the bloody Battle of Belleau Wood are buried, Trump's aides said rainy weather had prevented him from making the short trip in his Marine One helicopter.
Trump faced scathing criticism at the time -- and insisted he wanted to go but was overruled by the Secret Service -- but the decision exploded even more dramatically a few days ago when The Atlantic magazine reported that Trump told senior aides at the time: "Why should I go to that cemetery? It's filled with losers.'"
Instead, Bloomberg reported, he spent time in the historic Paris residence of Ambassador Jamie McCourt, where he admired several pieces of fine art -- notably a portrait and a bust of Benjamin Franklin, a revered Founding Father and the first US ambassador to France, as well as a set of silver figurines of Greek mythical characters.
'Displayed in the People's House'
The next day, while preparing to leave, the president startled McCourt by saying he wanted to take the pieces back with him, quipping to the ambassador that he would get them back in 2024 -- at the end of a presumed second Trump term, said the account, which cited several people familiar with the incident.
The artworks were originally estimated by one person involved to be worth $750,000.
Asked about the episode by AFP, White House spokesman Deere replied, "The president brought these beautiful, historical pieces, which belong to the American people, back to the United States to be prominently displayed in the People's House."
Trump has displayed numerous mementos from his various official trips and encounters in his private West Wing dining room, including a pair of shoes from singer Kanye West, Bloomberg said.
Under US law, presidents are allowed to display personal gifts, including from foreign heads of state, while in office, but must purchase them if they want to keep them upon leaving office.
The silver figurines -- later evaluated as "fakes" by one expert -- now sit on a fireplace mantel in the Oval Office, Bloomberg said. The bust and portrait of Franklin were also found to be replicas.
Bloomberg said the portrait was a copy of an original painted in 1785 by Joseph Siffred Duplessis.
When curators later located the original not far from the White House, hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, it was borrowed from the gallery.
It now hangs in the Oval Office.