Former official: Trump pressed ambassador to get British Open held at his golf course

A former State Department official said the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., Woody Johnson, floated the idea to the British government at the president's behest.
President Donald Trump walks with U.S. ambassador to Britain Woody Johnson before boarding Marine One in London on July 13, 2018.
The U.S. ambassador to the U.K. is typically a political appointee with business ties. Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson IV, the billionaire owner of the New York Jets football team, donated $1 million to President Donald Trump's inaugural.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

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By Andrea Mitchell and Abigail Williams

WASHINGTON — The U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, Robert "Woody" Johnson, told multiple colleagues at the U.S. Embassy in London that President Donald Trump had asked him to see whether the British government could help get the British Open played at his Turnberry golf course in Scotland, a former State Department official with firsthand knowledge told NBC News.

The former official said the ambassador’s deputy twice told him not to make the request because it would be unethical but that Johnson raised the issue with the British official responsible for Scotland during a meeting in 2018 anyway. The former official added that it was a waste of political capital because the British government has “zero influence” on where the tournament is played, a decision that lies with the British equivalent of the PGA.

The British golf association had already decided not to host a tournament at the Trump property because of security and political concerns, the former diplomat said of the issue, which was first reported by The New York Times.

A British official told The Times that the ambassador “made no request” regarding the British Open. The former U.S. official said there was no formal “request” — that Johnson was “floating the idea” at the president’s behest.

“The previous Secretary of State for Scotland had an introductory meeting with the US Ambassador in early 2018," the U.K.'s Scotland Office said in a statement. "A number of issues were discussed, reflecting the close cultural and economic ties between Scotland and the USA. Mr. Johnson made no request ... regarding the British Open or any other sporting event.”

A White House official told NBC News that the president had never spoken to Johnson about such a request. Trump himself denied having done so when asked about it during a White House briefing on Thursday. "I never spoke to Woody Johnson about Turnberry. It is a highly respected course, one of the best in the world," he said.

Trump repeatedly promoted his two golf properties in Scotland and one in Ireland for tournaments before he was elected president.

The U.S. military spent almost $200,000 at Trump Turnberry from 2017 to 2019, according to documents the Pentagon sent to Congress. Vice President Mike Pence stayed at Trump’s golf club in Doonbeg, Ireland, for an official taxpayer-funded visit in September, rather than in Dublin, where his meetings were scheduled to take place.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.K. is typically a political appointee with business ties. Johnson, the billionaire owner of the New York Jets football team and a scion of the Johnson & Johnson family, donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration eight months before he was nominated to the diplomatic post in 2017.

The State Department backed the ambassador without directly addressing the allegation. "Ambassador Johnson is a valued member of the team who has led Mission UK honorably and professionally. We stand by Ambassador Johnson and look forward to him continuing to ensure our special relationship with the UK is strong."

The State Department's inspector general's office began formally looking into allegations in October, following a routine inspection visit to the embassy. The report was completed and marked classified as of May; an unclassified version has yet to be released.

Johnson did not respond to requests for comment, but he did send a missionwide email following reports that the inspector general also looked into accusations that Johnson had made sexist and racist comments toward his staff.

"I wanted to share with you what an honor it is for me to serve as U.S. Ambassador and, every bit as importantly, to lead the talented, diverse team at the U.S. Mission to the UK," Johnson wrote Tuesday in the letter, obtained by NBC News. "Please know that I am absolutely committed to a workplace free of discrimination and in which each team member can thrive."

A diversity and inclusion working group was recently formed at the U.S. mission to the U.K., and Johnson also told employees that promoting diversity and inclusion at the U.S. Embassy "is and will remain one of my top priorities."

Inspector General Steve Linick was removed from the office in May after he investigated a Saudi arms deal and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's use of department employees for personal errands, among other investigations. His replacement, Stephen J. Akard, reports directly to Undersecretary of Management Brian Bulatao.

Linick told lawmakers in closed-door testimony last month that Bulatao, Pompeo's longtime friend and confidant, had discouraged the Saudi probe, telling him “that we shouldn't be doing the work because it was a policy matter not within the IG's jurisdiction.”

Kristen Welker contributed.