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Monday, December 11, 2023

It’s Massive. It’s Trumpian. And Now It’s Mysteriously Missing.

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It was the commission of a lifetime for this artist, who grew up poor in El Salvador with no formal training: Paint a portrait of the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

His personal mission? Make it larger than life, to show a great man, doing great things, with God on his side. Now, Democrats want it back, but where the eight-foot portrait of the former president is anybody’s guess.

Nearly three years after the painting was delivered to Mr. Trump, the artist says he is honored that the artwork is one of several gifts given to the former president and his family during his presidency that are unaccounted for, according to a report released Friday by Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability.

“I’m flattered that he cherished it. Because he’s a billionaire,” said the artist, Francisco Antonio López Benavides, 59. “He can have a thousand paintings of him. But if he took my painting, it’s because he loves and values the art. I’m happy.”

Other missing gifts include a piece of ornate jewelry gifted by officials in Saudi Arabia and an expensive golf putter from the former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, the report said.

The portrait is one of about 100 gifts worth more than $250,000 that were given to the presidential family, but were never disclosed, according to the Democrats’ report.

Every U.S. government department and agency is required to notify the State Department of gifts received from foreign governments worth more than $415, a measure intended to prevent bribery or undue influence. Officials can keep those gifts if they reimburse the government the appraised value.

Departing presidential administrations are expected to report the gifts they received in their final year to ensure they have followed the law. The Trump White House failed to do this, the report charges, leaving Democrats and watchdogs asking questions about where they ended up.

Mr. López said he does not understand why Democrats want the painting back, a “great gift” from Mr. Trump’s friend, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele.

“If a friend gives you something, it’s yours, right?” Mr. López said.

When Mr. Bukele took office in 2019, he was nicknamed the “Salvadoran Trump” for his willingness to publicly sling mud at adversaries on social media and for a personable attitude that has drawn the admiration of millions of Salvadorans. Mr. Bukele is one of the most popular leaders in the world, with an approval rating of around 85 percent almost four years into his presidency, despite what critics warn are budding autocratic tendencies.

The Salvadoran leader’s persona is what drew him in, Mr. López said, and he decided to paint Mr. Bukele while he was campaigning for the presidential election in 2018, a year before he took office. The portrait was his gift to Mr. Bukele, paid for from his own pocket, and when he delivered it to the Salvadoran president just after his inauguration, they became fast friends.

Mr. López was also commissioned to paint Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1997 by the Salvadoran president at the time. He also created a portrait of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commissioned by Mr. Bukele.

As the U.S. elections neared in 2020, El Salvador’s president commissioned Mr. López to paint Mr. Trump. According to Mr. López, the request was a simple one, with no specific demands.

But for the artist, the painting had to be larger than life — it stands about eight feet tall with the frame, Mr. López said.

It had “to represent the greatness of Donald Trump, do you understand? Mr. López said. “That was my intention to make that size, to capture the greatness of that man in my work.”

Before he got started, Mr. López asked his wife to find several photos of Mr. Trump, combining different features from several pictures to create the portrait.

He began with Mr. Trump’s ear, the right one, then the wrinkles around his eyes and his classic, almost mischievous grin (taken from his presidential headshot).

And the Bible on Mr. Trump’s desk in the portrait?

It was inspired by the very one Mr. Trump held in June 2020, when the police and the National Guard violently dispersed thousands of protesters who had gathered outside the White House to demonstrate against police brutality so the president could walk to St. John’s Church — just across the street from the White House — for a photo session.

“Is that your Bible?” a reporter had yelled at the time.

“It’s a Bible,” Mr. Trump responded, before hoisting the book up for a photo that his fans — many Evangelical Christians, like Mr. López himself — crooned over for months, even though the president was not known as a church goer.

Whether it was Mr. Trump’s Bible or just “a Bible” did not matter to Mr. López. To him, Mr. Trump was a great man, who has God on his side. So in went a Bible into the portrait, right on Mr. Trump’s desk in the Oval Office.

The portrait took about five months to paint, Mr. López said, and was delivered to the White House in fall 2020, just after Mr. Trump lost the U.S. presidential election.

The portrait was delivered to the residence in San Salvador of Ronald Douglas Johnson, then the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, before it was eventually shipped to the White House by the State Department.

“The attention to detail in the painting was absolutely amazing, the frayed pages of the Bible — just beautiful,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview.

He and embassy staff would often stare at the portrait, he said, before it was delivered weeks later to Mr. Trump.

“Someone first said when it was first delivered ‘it is life size,’” Mr. Johnson recounted. “But the more we looked at it, we decided no, it’s bigger than that. It’s truly larger than life.”

Mr. Johnson was visiting Mr. Trump at his residence in Mar-a-Lago last Friday when the portrait came up again.

“We just spoke about how beautiful it was, that was it, real simple,” Mr. Johnson said.

Does he know where the painting is? The Democrats want it.

“I have no idea,” he said. “I had no idea about this whole scandal until I got on the phone with you.”

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