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Trump's ambassador to U.K. made 'inappropriate' comments on race and gender, watchdog says

The State Department rejected a recommendation to review Woody Johnson's conduct, saying he's aware of "his responsibility to set the right tone."
Robert Wood Johnson, the United States' ambassador to Britain arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May in Downing Street, London
Robert "Woody" Johnson, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, in London in 2017.Hannah Mckay / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's ambassador to Britain, Robert "Woody" Johnson, made inappropriate comments on race, religion or gender to embassy staff and the State Department should investigate whether he violated laws barring discrimination, according to a government watchdog report released Wednesday.

Johnson, the 73-year-old billionaire owner of the NFL's New York Jets and a longtime Republican donor, had already come under scrutiny for suggesting to a British official that the annual British Open be played at the Turnberry golf course in Scotland owned by Trump. Johnson made the request against the advice of his deputy, NBC News has previously reported.

Johnson clashed with the deputy chief of mission during the first months of his tenure after taking over as ambassador to Britain in 2017, according to the report from the State Department's office of inspector general. Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, had no diplomatic experience prior to taking the job.

The clash damaged morale at the embassy, and staff told the inspector general that "when the Ambassador was frustrated with what he interpreted to be excessive staff caution or resistance to suggestions about which he felt strongly, he sometimes questioned their intentions or implied that he might have them replaced," the report said. "This caused staff to grow wary of providing him with their best judgment."

The deputy chief of mission, a career diplomat, was later reassigned and replaced by an official chosen by Johnson, the report said. The ambassador's attitude to the embassy workforce improved after the new deputy took over, it said.

But embassy staff told the inspector general's office that Johnson "sometimes made inappropriate or insensitive comments on topics generally considered Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)-sensitive, such as religion, sex, or color," the report said, citing interviews with staff members.

The inspector general concluded that the State Department should carry out a thorough review as to whether Johnson had violated federal laws barring discrimination in the workplace and take action as needed, the report said.

The State Department, however, rejected the recommendation, saying a formal assessment was not required, according to the report. The department said the ambassador had watched a government video on workplace harassment and instructed senior officials to do the same, and also encouraged staff to take a training course on "mitigating unconscious bias."

The department also said that Johnson "is well aware of his responsibility to set the right tone for his mission and we believe his actions demonstrate that."

Abigail Williams contributed.