Diplomat: Trump's ambassador took steps to 'line the president's pocket'

We're learning quite a bit about what happened when Trump urged an ambassador to try to get British officials to steer a lucrative golf tournament his way.
Image: Donald Trump Opens His New Golf Course At Turnberry
Presumptive Republican nominee for president Donald Trump gives a press conference on the 9th tee at his Trump Turnberry Resort in Ayr, Scotland on June 24, 2016.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images file
By Steve Benen

One of the amazing things about Donald Trump's British Open scandal is its simplicity. Some of the controversies surrounding White House corruption in recent years have been complex, but this isn't one of them.

The New York Times reported last month that the president urged his ambassador to the U.K. to try to get British officials to steer a lucrative golf tournament to the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland, one of the president's struggling businesses. The reporting was easy to believe, not only because of Trump's routine corruption, but also because the ambassador -- billionaire donor Woody Johnson -- apparently told several colleagues about the president's request, which he proceeded to act on.

Last night, Rachel spoke to career diplomat Lewis Lukens, Johnson's deputy in London, about the controversy, and if you missed it, the interview is well worth your time. Right off the bat, the former ambassador confirmed that what we know about the story is true.

"The reporting has been very accurate on this. The New York Times story really got it right, just as you described just now in your recap. The ambassador came back from a meeting at the White House, the very next morning he came to talk to me. He said, 'The president wants me to do this [pressing British officials on moving the British Open], who should I talk to? How should I go about doing this?' And I said, 'You can't, you shouldn't do it, this is unethical, probably illegal.' A couple of weeks later he asked again, and I gave him the same answer. And then he went and had a meeting with the British minister responsible for Scotland and made the request -- or made the suggestion at least -- after which I was informed of that."

Lukens added that this was "a clear example" of using U.S. government resources "to line the president's pocket." When Johnson did as Trump requested, he was looking out for "the president's "financial, personal financial interests. "

Trump has denied the allegations -- though even his denial reeked of corruption -- though Lukens made clear last night that the president's disavowal is not to be believed. He explained on the show, "The officer from the embassy who was in the meeting with the ambassador, and came back to the embassy after that meeting, he came directly to my office and he said, 'You're not going to believe what the ambassador just did. He just asked about having the golf tournament moved to Turnberry, Scotland."

When the former diplomat brought the matter to the State Department's attention, officials did nothing because they saw Woody Johnson as a longtime Trump ally -- as if that alone were enough to excuse corrupt efforts.

And what about the inspector general's office at the State Department, which is the independent watchdog within the agency responsible for oversight on matters such as these? As Lukens described it last night, the IG's office was made aware of the controversy during a roughly-one-month period in which officials from the office were in London last fall. They then returned to D.C. and prepared a report.

And where's that report? Lukens told Rachel, "It should have been released by now under the normal timeframe. It has been an awfully long time, and it's a little surprising that it hasn't come out yet."

It's possible that the delays are related to Trump's decision in May to fire the State Department's inspector general -- his successor resigned yesterday -- though as Lukens asked last night, "[I]t's certainly a good question to wonder: Is there something going on there that's preventing the release of this inspection and if so what exactly is the reason for the delay?"

NBC News reported last month than an IG report "was completed and marked classified as of May." It led Lukens to add last night, "There's sometimes classified annexes reports that deal with things like classified communications or very sensitive issues but the general thrust of the report and the analysis of the post leadership, the morale and how the ambassador is doing is never classified in these investigative reports so that in itself is a red flag if the report was classified."

He added that he doesn't really expect the president or his team to face consequences over the alleged corruption, but it doesn't have to end this way. "At the end of the day, the ethics rules and guidelines were violated," Lukens said, "and it's not for me to say what the consequences should be. The inspector general report will hopefully come out, and then the public and maybe the Congress can take a look at it and they can make up their minds."

Here's hoping some lawmakers with subpoena power were watching.