- On Wednesday, the Internet stumbled upon what looked like the White House selling decorative coins commemorating the US’ coronavirus response for the price of $100 each, promising to “donate” the proceeds.
- Almost immediately, thousands of angry tweeters accused the White House of profiting off the deadly coronavirus crisis, including Sen. Bernie Sanders.
- But the supposed “White House Gift Shop” coins aren’t made by the White House at all, but by a private, for-profit company that has no connection at all to the federal government.
- Talking Points Memo found in 2018 that the White House Gift Shop was initially created in 1946 and run by the Secret Service Uniformed Division Benefit Fund.
- When the fund shut down in 2013, it transferred ownership of the shop to Gianni Strategic Enterprises, a private company incorporated in Pennsylvania and not affiliated with the White House.
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On Wednesday, much of the Internet stumbled upon what looked like the White House selling decorative coins commemorating the US’ coronavirus response for the price of $100 each.
A website called whitehousegiftshop.com is currently selling two commemorative coins celebrating “everyday heroes” on the White House coronavirus task force and promising to donate the proceeds to “five major COVID-19 research hospitals.”
Almost immediately, thousands of angry tweeters accused the White House of profiting off the deadly coronavirus crisis, including multiple accounts belonging to prominent people with hundreds of thousands of followers.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes, for example, re-tweeted a post from Democratic strategist Travis Akers claiming “The White House gift shop is selling Coronavirus commemorative coins for $125. No, this is not a joke,” to his 2.1 million followers (Akers later acknowledged his mistake and posted a correction).
Even Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted a link to the Daily Beast story about the coins from his official Senate account, writing, “If the White House Gift Shop is going to produce $100 COVID-19 coins, Trump can sure as hell utilize the Defense Production Act to manufacture the gloves, gowns, and masks our medical workers desperately need.”
—Rafranz ⁷ (@RafranzDavis) April 29, 2020
—Mark Elliott (@markmobility) April 29, 2020
The “Gift Shop” was transferred to a private company years ago
But as it turns out, the supposed “White House Gift Shop” coins aren’t made by the White House at all, but by a private, for-profit company incorporated in Lancaster, Pennsylvania which has no connection at all to the federal government.
To be sure, the website “whitehousegiftshop.com” looks pretty convincing. At first glance, it isn’t clear that the site, which sells a wide variety of official-looking merchandise, isn’t affiliated with the real White House.
The site has a White House logo right at the top of the page, uses a similar navy-blue and white color scheme as the actual White House website, and even has what appears to be a legitimate-looking “USA.gov” seal at the bottom of the site.
In May 2018, Josh Marshall, the editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo, did a deep-dive investigating who is really behind the mysterious site after it sold similar commemorative coins for the 2018 US-North Korea summit. In the process, he obtained and published a paper trail of documents tracing its history.
The entity behind the White House Gift Shop was originally created as part of the federal government under President Harry Truman in 1946. For decades, it was operated by the US States Secret Service Uniformed Division Benefit Fund, with the proceeds going to the Secret Service fund.
But Marshall found that in December 2011, the Uniformed Division Benefit Fund contracted a private firm called Giannini Strategic Enterprises (GSE), based in Pennsylvania and run by a man named Tony Giannini, to essentially run all of its operations, including both the online and physical store at 301 Front Street in Lititz, Pennsylvania, also the address at which GSE is incorporated.
Two years later in 2013, Sean Lynch, Vice Chairman of the Uniformed Division Benefit Fund sent a letter to Giannini informing him that the UDBF would be “shutting down in the near future,” and then fully transferred ownership of the White House Gift Shop to Giannini Strategic Enterprises (GSE) in documents Marshall published.
The shop was granted a trademark request despite no affiliation with the White House
At that point, Giannini filed to trademark the White House Gift Shop name with the US Patent and Trademark Office. The Office rejected Giannini’s first request to trademark the name because of how similar it is to the actual White House, which GSE has no connection to.
But in subsequent filings with the Office, Giannini argued that GSE should be able to trademark the phrase because the Shop was initially affiliated with the White House and the Secret Service.
“In addition, applicant GSE has paid the previous users of the mark substantial sums of money for the mark White House Gift Shop,” Giannini wrote in one filing highlighted by Marshall. “These facts clearly show a commercial endorsement and sponsorship of GSE’s services, which in turn, show a commercial connection between GSE and the previous owners of the mark.”
In the end, the Patent and Trademark Office granted GSE the trademark to use White House Gift Shop, which Marshall reported appears to be “the only trademark in existence specifically referencing a relationship to the White House.”
In addition to selling very realistic merchandise, the White House gift shop’s website says that the organization, which claims to be “the ‘only original official’ White House Gift Shop … 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.”