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In context: The Winston Churchill and MLK busts

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde January 22, 2017

As it usually goes in presidential transitions, the Oval Office had a makeover when President Donald Trump moved in Jan. 20.

Curtains went from crimson to gold, and a golden rug replaced one that featured quotes from past presidents. A symbolic sculpture - the bust of Winston Churchill - is back on display, the Associated Press reported.

Then there was the bust of another famous leader -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Was it in the Oval Office, or wasn’t it?

The confusion started on Inauguration Day after a reporter, Zeke Miller, said that the bust of King was no longer in the main office of the president.

The reporter later apologized and corrected himself by tweeting that the King bust was still there, and that it had just been obscured by an agent and door.

Soon after, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer tweeted a photo of King’s bust, attributing it to Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff.

The reporting apparently angered President Trump. During a visit to the CIA headquarters Jan. 21, Trump said he would never remove King’s bust.

"I would never do that, because I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King," Trump said.

The Churchill bust

The question of busts in the Oval Office has been picked apart on the Internet for years, and this isn’t the first time there’s been wrong information put about a bust.

Obama critics charged that Obama sent a bust of Churchill back to the British Embassy as an affront to America’s closest ally. In 2011, Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and once a presidential hopeful, said that Obama removed the bust because "he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather." He falsely claimed Obama grew up in Kenya, though Obama only visited the country (where his father was born) for the first time when he was in his 20s, the Associated Press reported.

The White House has had at least two Churchill busts, both by British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein.

A July 2012 blog post titled, "Fact check: The Bust of Winston Churchill" by then White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, sought to settle rumors that Obama had snubbed its ally by getting rid of the Churchill bust.

"This is 100% false. The bust (is) still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room," Pfeiffer wrote, adding that news outlets had debunked the claim years before, citing National Journal and AP reports that said the bust was relocated in the residence to make room for Lincoln.

Pfeiffer included a picture in his post of Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron looking at a Churchill bust in the residence in 2010.

The post was written in response to an opinion column by Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post that said, "Obama started his presidency by returning to the British Embassy the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office."

But shortly after, Pfeiffer apologized to Krauthammer and updated the blog saying there were two busts.

One of them has been in the White House since the 1960s -- kept in the residence -- and another -- the one on display at the Oval Office during Bush’s administration --  was lent by Prime Minister Tony Blair to Bush at the start of his presidency in 2001, said the update to the blog post.

"On January 20, 2009 -- Inauguration Day -- all of the art lent specifically for President Bush’s Oval Office was removed by the curator’s office, as is common practice at the end of every presidency," the update said. "The original Churchill bust remained on display in the residence."

The British Embassy told Mediaite in 2012 that it had in its possession the bust lent to Bush, "When that administration came to an end so did the loan; the bust now resides in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington, DC."

As Sir Peter Westmacott ended his time as British ambassador to the United States, he told The Guardian in December 2015 that the Churchill bust in the Oval Office was only on loan as a personal gift from Blair to Bush.

"So, to be honest, we always expected that to leave the Oval Office just like everything else that a president has tends to be changed," Westmacott told The Guardian.

In a CBS News story published January 2010, White House curator William Allman said the decision to give the bust back was made before Obama arrived.

In April 2016, Obama added another piece to the puzzle.

Obama mentioned the bust in the White House residence, outside the door of his private office, called the Treaty Room, during a visit to London at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Cameron.

"I love Winston Churchill. I love the guy. Now, when I was elected as president of the United States, my predecessor had kept a Churchill bust in the Oval Office. There are only so many tables where you can put busts -- otherwise it starts looking a little cluttered," Obama said.

He said he thought it was appropriate that as the first African-American president in the United States, he would have in his office a bust of civil rights leader King, "to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who would somehow allow me to have the privilege of holding this office."

During Obama’s time, the Oval office featured busts of Lincoln and King, as the New York Times reported after Obama’s comment.

And now, for Trump, there’s also Churchill’s.

We reached out to Trump’s team asking if the Churchill bust now in the Oval Office is the one Obama kept outside the Treaty Room, the one that was lent to Bush or a different one. We did not hear back.

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Our Sources, Oval Office history

ABC News, New White House Look: Trump Gives the Oval Office a Makeover, Jan. 20, 2017

PolitiFact, The Trump-O-Meter: Tracking 102 promises made by Donald Trump, Jan. 17, 2017

CBS News, Obama Has Made the Oval Office His Own, Jan. 5, 2010

Obama White House, Remarks by the President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron in Joint Press Conference, April 22, 2016

Obama White House, Fact Check: The Bust of Winston Churchill, July 27, 2012

Obama White House, The Churchill Bust & Charles Krauthammer, July 31, 2012

The Guardian, British ambassador says of US: 'I don't think this is a country in decline at all’, Dec. 26, 2015

CNN, Busted: Two statues amount to one Churchill bust of a controversy, July 27, 2012

The New Yorker, The case of the Two Churchills, Aug. 1, 2012

Mediaite, British Embassy Confirms Krauthammer Right, White House Wrong: Churchill Bust Returned in 2009, July 27, 2012

Twitter, Zeke Miller tweet, tweet, Jan. 20, 2017

Twitter, Sean Spicer tweet, Jan. 20, 2017

The New York Times, No Need for Holmes. Obama Sheds Light on a Winston Churchill Mystery, April 24, 2016

The Washington Post, AP story - FACT CHECK: Huckabee claims Obama grew up in Kenya, March 1, 2011

The Washington Post, Ted Cruz’s claim that one of Obama’s ‘very first acts’ was returning a bust of Churchill, Jan. 27, 2015

The Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer: Why he’s going where he’s going, July 26, 2012

C-SPAN, President Trump Remarks at the Central Intelligence Agency, Jan. 21, 2017

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In context: The Winston Churchill and MLK busts