Across a photograph of three trays of gold-tipped pens, white text read:
Nancy Pelosi signed the Impeachment Articles with gold pens with her name on them, all on silver platters — paid for by taxpayers. ANGRY YET?
An attached status update from Kolfage read:
Who thinks Nancy Pelosi along with her EGO needs to be IMPEACHED?
Pelosi’s gold pens were the subject of side coverage amid ongoing reporting related to United States President Donald Trump’s impeachment. On January 15 2020, one day before the Facebook post appeared, CNN included a section (“Why there are so many pens at the signing ceremony”) in their live blog solely about the pens:
There’s a lot pens set up for this evening’s [January 15 2020] engrossment ceremony. This is the formal signing and delivery of the [impeachment-related] documents.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s staff said [the depicted] multitudes of pens will be used by the Speaker as she signs the resolution.
Expect her to pick many of them up as she signs the resolution, which appoints House managers and officially transmitting the articles of impeachment.
Why so many? Aides say they will be given to others to signify today’s historic events. House managers may get some of them, but there are a few dozens.
Other portions of the internet debated the quality of Pelosi’s gold pens. Users of 4Chan’s /pol/ forums described them as likely cheap, but at the same time possibly expensive. One user located a very similar pen retailing for $3.12 on AliExpress.
On January 16 2020, the Washington Post published an article about Nancy Pelosi’s gold pens, which at its start mentioned that the use of commemorative pens is common for notable Congressional events. The paper noted that although the practice is quite common, it also appeared to be at odds with Pelosi’s assertions the procedure was “solemn” and serious:
Writing implements used to sign bills or executive orders are often handed out as keepsakes, and Pelosi followed a Washington tradition [on January 15 2020] when she used pen after pen to write tiny portions of her signature on articles of impeachment — then gifted them to members of Congress.
But the moment also raised eyebrows and outraged Trump allies, with many saying the Democratic leader undermined her past efforts to frame impeachment as a solemn constitutional duty rather than a political victory.
The reporting also mentioned controversy over the pens, but not because they were considered extravagant. Objections from fellow politicians and members of the press typically centered around whether the display was appropriately serious:
“We are used to seeing signing ceremonies handing out pens at moments of celebration,” CNN’s chief political correspondent Dana Bash said on the network. But she added that “the House Speaker has bent over backward to say publicly and privately this is a somber, this is not a time for celebration.”
“This is history, and the people who are involved want to mark the moment, but I didn’t expect to see that,” Bash said of the pen handout.
Bash’s fellow political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson agreed in the same segment, calling Pelosi’s distribution of pens “a little jarring.”
“I think it was a little off-message for someone who has tried to set a very serious tone,” she echoed.
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham repeated that criticism on Twitter, objecting not to the expense, but implicit showmanship:
Vox journalist Aaron Rupar tweeted a clip of Fox News personality Greg Gutfeld complaining about the expense of the pens, interspersed with footage of President Trump distributing pens after signing a trade deal with China, and Andrew Feinberg replied with video of Paul Ryan doing the same thing:
An Associated Press article covered Pelosi’s gold pens in the same context, but like the Post, did not address their sourcing or funding. None of the widely reported stories explained who paid for souvenir pens distributed at the signing of important legislation or articles. Coverage typically explained that signing pen “swag” like Pelosi’s gold pens for impeachment articles were a longstanding bipartisan tradition:
On December 22, 2017, in the Oval Office, Trump signed the Republican tax bill into law while Congress was in recess. But Trump’s aides brought some pens, anyway — so he tried to give them out to reporters. Journalists can’t take gifts from the people they cover.
The tradition didn’t start with Trump.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson gave away framed sets of the pens he used to sign his “great society” legislation to fight poverty and racial injustice. Among the recipients were lawmakers and the White House press corps. A complete set still resides in the press work space behind the White House briefing room.
By some accounts, the tradition dated back even further, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Although critics claimed the use of ceremonial pens for the solemn occasion of impeachment constituted poor optics, The Guardian reported that the same use of souvenir pens predated Nancy Pelosi’s gold pen debacle:
Though critics are questioning Pelosi’s choice to use souvenir pens, they’re not entirely unexpected. Souvenir pens were used during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial as well. Back then, Senators who signed an oath book kept their pens even though they were printed with a misspelling: “Untied States Senator”.
A January 12 1999 article from Deseret News covered the Clinton impeachment pens and that then-newsworthy misspelling. That archival reporting contained a relevant detail, comment from the pens’ manufacturer describing Congress as “like any good customer,” and suggesting that the pens are a congressional expense:
Pens used by the 100 senators to pledge impartial justice in President Clinton’s impeachment trial contained this misprint: “Untied States Senator.” The senators got to keep the pens they signed with [in January 199]. Most stuffed the black and silver Parker Vectors in a pocket, another artifact of history. “The Senate is like any good customer of ours, and we will reprint the order and make things right,” said a spokeswoman for the Gillette Co.’s Stationery Products Group in Janesville, Wis.
In early 2017, Trump’s preference for a specific style of pen was the subject of a different AP report. At that early phase in Trump’s administration, ceremonial pens had already made controversial appearances:
Cross pens have been supplied to presidents at least since the Gerald Ford administration, said Boss, whose great-grandfather bought the writing instruments manufacturer a century ago. The company, sold to a private equity firm in 2013, was once a major Rhode Island employer but now makes most of its pens in China. It still tries to put an American imprint on the presidential pens, which are lacquered and engraved in China but go through their final assembly in Rhode Island using a mix of domestic and foreign parts.
Trump’s transition team ordered its first 150 of the black-lacquered pens before the inauguration. The only features distinguishing Trump’s Century II pens from Obama’s are their engraved signatures and their metal plating: gold instead of chrome.
The White House didn’t return emailed requests for comment this week about the cost of the pens and whether it matters to Trump where the pens are made. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $115 per pen, but Boss said it’s sold to the White House through a third-party distributor that is likely to have offered a discount … [Cross representative Andy] Boss said the company hasn’t received much pushback over its work with Trump, who has used Cross pens to sign orders that have temporarily suspended the nation’s refugee program, blocked travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and expanded immigration enforcement, among other things.
Just as Pelosi’s gold pens for the articles of impeachment were emblazoned with her signature, Trump’s ceremonial pens bore his — a common feature of ceremonial signing pens.
As for the silver platters, their origin was unclear. It was possible the platters were purchased to hold the pens, but also possible they were part of already available Congressional ware repurposed to hold Pelosi’s gold pens.
Kolfage’s meme claimed “Nancy Pelosi signed the Impeachment Articles with gold pens with her name on them, all on silver platters — paid for by taxpayers,” and the image was both real and contemporaneous. However, it lacked the context and ubiquity of ceremonial signing pens used by many politicians — including Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama — on high-profile legislation and similar signing procedures. Critics also objected to their use during an impeachment process, neglecting to mention that Republicans used similar ceremonial pens during Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment. Although the photograph was real, it was misleading and lacked context for the use of multiple ceremonial signing pens.