Request of an Ambassador: Get the British Open for Me
Woody Johnson, Trump donor and ambassador to Britain, was warned not to get involved in trying to move the tournament to a Trump resort in Scotland, but he raised the idea anyway — and he failed.
The American ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, told multiple colleagues in February 2018 that President Trump had asked him to see if the British government could help steer the world-famous and lucrative British Open golf tournament to the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland, according to three people with knowledge of the episode.
The ambassador’s deputy, Lewis A. Lukens, advised him not to do it, warning that it would be an unethical use of the presidency for private gain, these people said. But Mr. Johnson apparently felt pressured to try. A few weeks later, he raised the idea of Turnberry playing host to the Open with the secretary of state for Scotland, David Mundell.
In a brief interview last week, Mr. Mundell said it was “inappropriate” for him to discuss his dealings with Mr. Johnson and referred to a British government statement that said Mr. Johnson “made no request of Mr. Mundell regarding the British Open or any other sporting event.” The statement did not address whether the ambassador had broached the issue of Turnberry, which Mr. Trump bought in 2014, but none of the next four Opens are scheduled to be played there.
Still, the episode left Mr. Lukens and other diplomats deeply unsettled. Mr. Lukens, who served as the acting ambassador before Mr. Johnson arrived in November 2017, emailed officials at the State Department to tell them what had happened, colleagues said. A few months later, Mr. Johnson forced out Mr. Lukens, a career diplomat who had earlier served as ambassador to Senegal, shortly before his term was to end.
Although Mr. Trump, as president, is exempt from a federal conflict of interest law that makes it a criminal offense to take part in “government matters that will affect your own personal financial interest,” the Constitution prohibits federal officials from accepting gifts, or “emoluments,” from foreign governments.
Experts on government ethics pointed to one potential violation of the emoluments clause that still may have been triggered by the president’s actions: The British or Scottish governments would most likely have to pay for security at the tournament, an event that would profit Mr. Trump.
It was not the first time the president tried to steer business to one of his properties. Last year, the White House chose the Trump National Doral resort in Miami as the site of a Group of 7 meeting. Mr. Trump backed off after it ignited a political storm, moving the meeting to Camp David before canceling it because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Trump also urged Vice President Mike Pence to stay at his family’s golf resort in Doonbeg, Ireland, last year during a visit, even though the vice president’s official business was on the other side of the country. That trip generated headlines for the golf club, but also controversy. And Mr. Trump has visited his family-owned golf courses more than 275 times since he took office, bringing reporters with him each time, ensuring that the resorts get ample news coverage.
The Trump International Hotel in Washington has done a brisk trade in guests, foreign and domestic, who are in town to lobby the federal government. Turnberry itself drew attention when the Pentagon acknowledged it had been sending troops to the resort while they were on overnight layovers at the nearby Glasgow Prestwick Airport.
But Mr. Trump and his children have struggled for more than a decade to attract professional golf tournaments to the family’s 16 golf courses, knowing those events draw global television audiences and help drive traffic. They own most of the courses outright — as opposed to simply selling the family name, as is the case with several of their hotels and residential towers — and the courses generate about a third of the family’s revenue, with tournaments seen as a crucial way to publicize them.
This has been particularly important for the two Trump resorts in Scotland and one in Ireland, which have been losing money under Mr. Trump’s ownership. Mr. Trump himself was intensely involved in promoting them before he was elected, regularly pushing golf writers and the editors of golf magazines to play with him, often after whisking them to Scotland on his private jet.
The losses at the British resorts have come even after the family made costly investments to build or upgrade their courses, including $150 million at Turnberry. The most recent annual report for Turnberry shows it lost nearly $1 million, on $19 million in sales, in 2018.
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