US Ambassador to the UK Woody Johnson speaks at the US Embassy in London in October 2018.
Trump ambassador investigated for controversial comments
01:50 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success.” His forthcoming book, “The Hunting of Hillary: The Forty-Year Campaign to Destroy Hillary Clinton” is out later this month. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

On Tuesday the public got yet another example of President Donald Trump’s remarkable ability, and willingness, to exploit opportunities for personal gain.

As first reported by The New York Times, President Trump used America’s ambassador to Great Britain, Robert “Woody” Johnson IV, to bring up the idea of Trump’s Turnberry golf resort in Scotland being used to host the British Open – a most lucrative opportunity – in 2018. The ambassador’s deputy, Lewis A. Lukens, advised Johnson against it, but Johnson reportedly complied with Trump’s request and asked the UK’s then-Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, about the possibility.

The Times cited multiple sources, and its report has been confirmed by CNN, which reported Wednesday that Johnson himself came under investigation by the State Department’s inspector general “after allegations that he made racist and sexist comments to staff and sought to use his government position to benefit the President’s personal business in the UK.” In a tweet, Johnson denied making “insensitive” remarks and that he has “followed the ethical rules and requirements of (his) office at all times.”

British officials deny that Johnson made a “request” regarding the British Open. A spokesperson for the State Department told CNN, “We stand by Ambassador Johnson and look forward to him continuing to ensure our special relationship with the UK is strong.” Trump has also denied the claims. I’m inclined to believe that Donald Trump asked the ambassador to make the pitch because it fits his modus operandi.

Last October, Trump apparently wanted to award his struggling Doral resort in Florida, with its ample hotel and meeting space, the honor of hosting the G7 summit. With Doral’s business in decline, the event would have boosted the President’s personal fortunes. This gambit was short-lived as Trump canceled the arrangement amid howls of protest from both Democrats and Republicans.

Before the G7-at-Doral fiasco we saw Vice President Mike Pence go 180 miles out of his way to have his entourage stay at a Trump hotel in Ireland last September. And that month it was reported that last spring US military aircraft stopped at a refueling site near the Turnberry property where crew members stayed as paying customers. It appeared to many that the President was using the Oval Office to line his own pockets.

Not every Trump apparent self-dealing scheme involves the pursuit of money. You’ll recall that the Ukraine scandal that led to the President’s impeachment involved him allegedly using the office of the presidency to seek dirt on a political opponent from a foreign government. This was an effort to gain something of value for himself personally, so it violated certain moral assumptions you would hope a president would hold, but at least he wasn’t going directly after cash. Trump has denied that there was any quid pro quo.

In the British Open case, the money for Trump could be substantial. It is one of golf’s four annual major tournaments. In 2019, Open officials said the contest poured £100 million into the local economy of Northern Ireland, where it was played.

The nearly 200 rooms at Trump’s Turnberry hotel cost about $400 per night, but would likely be priced much higher at tournament time. They would likely be filled for a week. Add food and other niceties and you get a sense of the cash flow. Given that Trump’s Scottish golf properties are losing money, any little bit would help.

But the money would be just part of the benefit for Trump. The four-day tournament is broadcast around the world and watched by millions. Among them are many wealthy avid golfers who have the means to visit his courses to play themselves.

You might find it hard to believe that an American president would so cravenly exploit his government position to benefit his business interests. In the British Open episode at least some in the chain of command recognized the signs of trouble, as Lukens, Johnson’s deputy did. However Johnson reportedly made the pitch to the secretary of state for Scotland anyway. According to The New York Times, Johnson then pushed Lukens out of his job ahead of the end of his term.

Johnson’s role in this sordidness illustrates two aspects of the President’s corruption habit that deserve attention. The first is his uncanny instinct for opportunity. High-level ambassadorships, like the post in London, have long been used to reward a president’s allies.

Many of these envoys have brought limited experience and expertise and have therefore functioned as figurehead who relied on embassy professionals to do the real work. This practice has always seemed a little corrupt and therefore open to the possibility for greater corruption.

The second key to Trump’s exploitation of diplomatic channels involved placing a willing partner in the key post. A billionaire who is one of the owners of the New York Jets football team, Johnson is a low-key but nevertheless Trumpy figure.

Sources have also told CNN that Johnson seems to share Trump’s suspicious attitude toward career officials, and sources have said that he has used the President’s derogatory term “Deep State,” to describe members of the embassy staff.

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    Together Trump and Johnson have been accused of acting as masters-of-the-universe types who see nothing wrong with using their public offices for the President’s private gain. Both men came to government from businesses where they held ultimate power. Perhaps they lack familiarity with the ethical code that should guide them as public servants. Left to make their own decisions, they seem to act as if the rules don’t apply.