Trump's request of an ambassador: Get the British Open for me

The Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON (NYTIMES) - The US ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, told multiple colleagues in February 2018 that President Donald 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 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, Mundell said it was "inappropriate" for him to discuss his dealings with Johnson and referred to a British government statement that said 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 Trump bought in 2014, but none of the next four Opens are scheduled to be played there.

Still, the episode left Lukens and other diplomats deeply unsettled. Lukens, who served as the acting ambassador before Johnson arrived in November 2017, emailed officials at the State Department to tell them what had happened, colleagues said. A few months later, Johnson forced out Lukens, a career diplomat who had earlier served as ambassador to Senegal, shortly before his term was to end.

The White House declined to comment on Trump's instructions to Johnson, as did the ambassador and the State Department.

Although Trump, as president, is exempt from a federal conflict-of-interest law that makes it a criminal offence 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 Trump.

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