The Story Behind Gov. Kristi Noem’s Weird Gift to Donald Trump

·5 min read
Photo Courtesy Tom Lawrence
Photo Courtesy Tom Lawrence

SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota—The sculptor Gutzon Borglum put George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem added Donald Trump—to a replica of the massive granite monument that she commissioned and then presented when he delivered a speech at a controversial Mount Rushmore celebration on July 3, 2020.

The piece has never been publicly seen and little was known about it beyond a disclosure filing with the Office of Government Ethics that indicated it cost $1,100, which Noem’s office said was paid for by private donors.

But the Daily Beast has obtained a photo of the replica, which as The New York Times first reported, does indeed depict Trump carved into the Lakota people’s sacred Black Hills, right next to Lincoln’s face.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Donald and Melania Trump at Mount Rushmore on July 3, 2020. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty</div>

Donald and Melania Trump at Mount Rushmore on July 3, 2020.

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty

Trump reportedly wished that his mug could be added to the real thing, but Noem, of course, could not make that happen. Instead she found donors to underwrite the smaller ego-stroking project.

Noem’s staff then contacted Dallerie Davis, a Rapid City art agent and Realtor who serves as a liaison for several sculptors in the state, according to Davis and another person familiar with the inner workings of Noem’s office who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Noem’s camp wanted to know: was it possible to create a Mount Rushmore figurine with Trump attached—and do so in about a month?

Davis told The Daily Beast she thought of Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby, a South Dakota sculpting team with scores of pieces on display in the state and across the Midwest. (They have even been contracted to sculpt a Johnny Carson statue for the late Tonight Show host’s hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska, though sculpting work on that project has yet to begin.)

Leuning and Treeby were good, could work fast and, perhaps best of all, they were Trump supporters, Davis said.

Employing what’s known as “lost wax” casting, an ancient process that uses a clay model, hot wax and molten bronze, the duo grafted a bust of Trump in a suit and tie onto the mini-Rushmore.

Three copies were created, Leuning and Treeby revealed recently, with one going to Trump, and the other two to the unidentified donors—the names of whom are unknown even to them.

The pieces are “bookshelf-sized,” Leuning told the Daily Beast—27 inches wide, 12 inches high, and 8-1/2 inches deep.

The partners, who work out of Bad River Artworks in Aberdeen, said they were asked to remain quiet about the project, and this is the first time their names have been disclosed.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Tom Lawrence</div>
Tom Lawrence

Noem’s communications director, Ian Fury, declined to answer several questions from The Daily Beast about the sculpture, but did provide this statement: “As Governor Noem has said in the past, her philosophy towards giving gifts is to always give the person something that they’ll appreciate, and that’s how she approached this sculpture,” Fury said. “No taxpayer dollars went into this gift—it was paid for by two donors.”

The sculptors said they voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020—he easily carried South Dakota both time—and are still supporters. Treeby said she would vote for him again if he runs in 2024, although Leuning is considering other options.

“I’d vote for Noem or the Florida guy,” he said, referring to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

As he and Treeby see it, when Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited Mount Rushmore, news stories focused on the monument’s historical significance and artistic grandeur.

When Trump came, they complained, the angle was about white supremacy and the use of a mountain on land that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 had been wrongfully taken from the Lakota people.

Critics of Mount Rushmore have zeroed in on that and on certain biographical details about the men it honors: Washington and Jefferson were both slaveholders; Lincoln made comments that cause supporters to cringe today, and he is deeply unpopular among many Native Americans for allowing the execution of 39 Indians after the 1862 Dakota War; Roosevelt has been dinged for his comments about “inferior” races.

Borglum, the sculptor, had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. He worked on Stone Mountain in Georgia, a massive tribute to Confederate leaders Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, before coming to South Dakota. He departed Georgia after a dispute and his work was blasted off the mountain.

In his July 2020 speech, to a mid-pandemic crowd that cheered “USA, USA, USA,” Trump sharply criticized “cancel culture” as he defended the monument named for another wealthy New Yorker, Charles Rushmore.

“This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore,” he said. “They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Today, we will set history and history’s record straight. Before these figures were immortalized in stone, they were American giants in full flesh and blood, gallant men whose intrepid deeds unleashed the greatest leap of human advancement the world has ever known.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Donald Trump and Gov. Kristi Noem at 2018 fundraiser.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Kevin Lamarque/Reuters</div>

Donald Trump and Gov. Kristi Noem at 2018 fundraiser.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

When it comes to the real Mount Rushmore, Leuning and Treeby are firmly on Team Trump.

“It’s a fabulous job,” Leuning said. “It’s an amazing job. There’s not one iota of racism in it.”

They also pointed to the massive impact it has had on South Dakota, where tourism is second only to agriculture in the state’s economy. Mount Rushmore, famous across the globe, has been a driving force for decades.

“We’re working artists,” Leuning said. “We’re prostitutes for art. We do art for money.”

They said they have only one regret about their involvement with the Trump replica: They were not present when Noem gave it to him before the speech.

“We weren’t invited,” Leuning said. “We were told he loved it.”

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