Is the Churchill Bust Controversy a Total Bust?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

There's been much consternation today at the White House about a bust of Winston Churchill. A quote from conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has ignited a fiery blog post from normally serene White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer.

"Obama started his presidency by returning to the British Embassy the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office," Krauthammer said in a column this week.

Pfeiffer took to the White House blog to fact-check the assertion. "This is 100 percent false," Pfeiffer wrote. "The bust still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room."

Pfeiffer drew upon reports in National Journal in 2010 and the AP from 2011 noting that the busy was (as the National Journal recalled) "relocated to a prominent spot in the residence to make room for Abraham Lincoln, a figure from whom the first African-American occupant of the Oval Office might well draw inspiration in difficult times."

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And just in case that was not enough, Pfeiffer provided a "picture of the president showing off the Churchill bust to Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the White House residence in 2010."

But here's the thing. This was not some random rumor plucked from the ether. The assertion originally came from the British Embassy and from the White House.

In February 2009, the British Embassy told The Telegraph that the bust "sits in the palatial residence of ambassador Sir Nigel Sheinwald … a British Embassy spokesman said: 'The bust of Sir Winston Churchill by Sir Jacob Epstein was uniquely lent to a foreign head of state, President George W. Bush, from the Government Art Collection in the wake of 9/11 as a signal of the strong transatlantic relationship. It was lent for the first term of office of President Bush. When the president was elected for his second and final term, the loan was extended until January 2009.

The new president has decided not to continue this loan and the bust has now been returned. It is on display at the ambassador's residence."

Moreover, White House curator William Allman was quoted in a January 2010 story at seeming to confirm the (allegedly "100% false") information.

"Some Britons took offense when Winston Churchill's bust was replaced with King's," the story read. "But the decision to return the Churchill bust to the British - it had been presented by former Prime Minister Tony Blair to Bush on loan - had been made before Obama even arrived. 'It was already scheduled to go back,' Allman said."

So what gives?

Like a plot twist in a sitcom, IT TURNS OUT THERE ARE TWO CHURCHILL BUSTS!!!!!

The one in the White House residence was a gift to the White House from the British Embassy during the Johnson administration.

The other one was loaned to President George W. Bush by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Greg Mathieson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Says James Barbour, press secretary and head of communications for the British Embassy, "The bust of Sir Winston Churchill, by Sir Jacob Epstein, was lent to the George W. Bush administration from the U.K.'s government art collection, for the duration of the presidency. When that administration came to an end so did the loan; the bust now resides in the British Ambassador's Residence in Washington D.C. The White House collection has its own Epstein bust of Churchill, which President Obama showed to Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the White House in March."

"That's not really what's important here," Barbour said. "Both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have repeatedly underlined that our two countries remain the closest of allies. The Churchill Bust story is a silly diversion - let's get on and focus on seeing who wins most medals in the Olympics."

Obviously, there's a lot of confusion going on here.

How did I figure out what was really going on? I never gave in. Never, never, never never. In nothing great or small, large or petty.

-Jake Tapper