The problem with Trump's strange denial in his new golf scandal

Trump appears to have used government personnel to direct foreign money into one of his own struggling businesses. Even his denial reeks of corruption.
Image: Donald Trump gives a press conference on the 9th tee at his Trump Turnberry Resort
Donald Trump gives a press conference on the 9th tee at his Trump Turnberry Resort on June 24, 2016 in Ayr, Scotland.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

Some of Donald Trump's scandals are complex and take time to disentangle. The new British Open scandal is striking in its simplicity.

The New York Times reported this week 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 is very 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 acted on.

In case there were any lingering doubts, career diplomat Lewis Lukens, Johnson's deputy in London, confirmed that he warned the ambassador that pressing British officials to boost Trump's private business would be unethical. (Lukens was later fired.)

Initially, the White House had literally nothing to say about the controversy, which was notable in its own right, but at yesterday's press briefing, a reporter specifically asked the president whether he asked Johnson to do this. Trump replied:

"No, I never spoke to Woody Johnson about that, about Turnberry. Turnberry is a highly respected course, as you know, one of the best in the world. And I read a story about it today and I had never, I never spoke to Woody Johnson about doing that. No."

First, there's ample reason to believe Trump's denial is a lie. After all, there's no reason for Johnson, the president's financial supporter and handpicked ambassador, to make this up.

Second, even the denial reeks of corruption. In response to a question about misusing his office to help his business, the president used the White House podium to praise and promote his business.

What's more, if Trump is under the impression that his denial will help make the questions go away, he's likely to be disappointed. Keep in mind that in the NYT's initial reporting we learned that complaints were raised with the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General last fall. The article added, "The findings were submitted in February, and the complaints are expected to be included, according to one of the investigators. It is not clear why the review has not been made public."

This is a thread worth pulling on. What were those findings? Where's the report? What did the State Department's inspector general conclude? How much of it covers the British Open mess?

NBC News added yesterday than an IG report "was completed and marked classified as of May; an unclassified version has yet to be released."

And while there's plenty of ambiguities about the nature of the report, it also puts a new light on Trump's decision in May to fire the State Department's inspector general -- late on a Friday night, when he often does things he hopes others won't notice.

It appeared the ouster was related to investigations into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but what if IG Steve Linick's removal was also related to his office's examination of Trump's British Open controversy?

I can appreciate that the sheer volume of White House scandals over the last three-and-a-half years can be overwhelming, but in a normal political era, a controversy like this would not only dominate headlines; it would help define a presidency. Trump appears to have used government personnel to direct foreign money into one of his own struggling businesses. If the allegations are true, the president's corruption in this story is both obvious and cartoonish.

If the allegations are not true, the administration could help resolve the matter by releasing the report that's been sitting in the State Department for the past couple of months.