Trump reportedly pushed diplomat to boost his UK golf resort

Trump pressing an ambassador to get foreign officials to boost one of his failing businesses is an almost cartoonish kind of corruption.
Image: Donald Trump plays a stroke as he officially opens his new multi-million pound Trump International Golf Links course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Donald Trump plays a stroke as he officially opens his new multi-million pound Trump International Golf Links course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on July 10, 2012.Andy Buchanan / AFP/Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

It's no secret that Donald Trump's presidency has featured a staggering number of scandals, many of which would've defined a normal administration. What's less obvious, however, is just how many of these scandals relate to golf.

For example, Trump tried to host a G-7 summit at his Miami-area golf club, which would've forced world leaders to pay his struggling business if they wanted to attend. Around the same time, the public learned that Vice President Mike Pence visited Ireland and stayed several hours away from Dublin, at a golf course owned by Trump. (According to Pence’s office, it was the president himself who “suggested” the arrangement.)

Trump also frequents his own golf courses, creating a dynamic in which taxpayers end up subsidizing properties the president owns and profits from, as the Republican helps promote his businesses. How much of that money ends up in Trump's pocket is unclear, largely because there's no transparency. Similarly, the president routinely uses his office to promote his golf businesses -- even during a pandemic.

But despite these controversies, the New York Times reported overnight on what appears to be the most significant of Trump's many golf-related scandals.

The American ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, told multiple colleagues in February 2018 that President 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.

It's an almost cartoonish kind of corruption. Trump names a wealthy donor to a key diplomatic post, and four months later, the president asked his ambassador to use his position to pressure foreign officials into boosting one of Trump's struggling businesses.

Woody Johnson was told by his deputy, career diplomat Lewis Lukens, that such a lobbying effort would be unethical, but the ambassador apparently followed Trump's directive anyway and broached the subject with the secretary of state for Scotland, David Mundell.

Nothing came of this -- the American president's Scottish business has not hosted the British Open -- though Lukens reportedly felt the need to alert State Department colleagues to the apparent corruption. A few months later, Lukens was ousted from his position.

Or put another way, the only U.S. official in this sordid tale who didn't do anything wrong was the only one who lost his job.

To be sure, there are a variety of different kinds of Trump scandals, but this is among the most pernicious. Indeed, as Rachel noted on last night's show, if the New York Times' reporting is correct, the Republican president used his office to pressure a foreign government to do him a favor, despite warnings from career officials in his own government. This is, oddly enough, roughly a description of the Ukraine extortion scheme that led to Trump's impeachment.

Except in the Ukraine extortion scheme, the favor Trump sought from a foreign government was political assistance: the president wanted to cheat in the 2020 election, and he wanted Kyiv's help. This new controversy is a little different, at least insofar as Trump, in this case, wanted a foreign government to boost one of his failing businesses, indirectly putting money in the American president's pocket.

In other words, in the Ukraine scandal, Trump was focused on campaign dirt. In the British Open scandal, Trump was focused on his wallet.

The damage caused by presidential corruption is multifaceted, but it's important to appreciate the effects stories like these have on U.S. foreign policy. If the basic elements of this controversy are accurate, it means one of our closest international allies realizes that the American ambassador is willing to compromise himself, engaging in unethical behavior on behalf of the American president.

I don't know when Donald Trump will leave office, but I do know his successor will have a lot of cleaning up to do.