While President Trump’s golf courses on the British Isles have long served as a nexus for his attempts to enrich himself while in office, a new report from the New York Times details what is perhaps his most brazen effort yet to boost his revenue abroad. In February 2018, the president allegedly pressured the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, to ask the U.K. government to relocate the lucrative British Open tournament to the president’s Turnberry resort in Scotland.
While the ambassador’s deputy Lewis A. Lukens warned Johnson that such a request would be an obvious ethical violation, Johnson reportedly felt pressured to go forward with it, according to three sources familiar with the matter who spoke with the Times. Three weeks after the request, Johnson floated the idea to Scotland’s Secretary of State David Mundell. As is common with State officials who speak out against the president’s requests to foreign players — whether to make money or influence elections — Lukens was forced out of the department months later, after informing higher-ups of the alleged action.
Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets and the billionaire heir of the pharmaceutical giant bearing his name, was awarded the prestigious job after backing Trump in the 2016 election. He had no prior diplomatic experience before his appointment, and in his tony new position, he has reportedly commented on the appearance of female employees, and pushed Lukens out after he made a positive comment in public about President Obama.
Last September, Trump Turnberry was briefly the focus of a scandal when Politico reported that the administration routed Air Force transport planes to a small airport just north of the resort in an apparent effort to spend millions of dollars in fuel costs at a struggling airstrip that was an important hub for affluent travelers visiting the president’s golf course. Air National Guard members also stayed at the resort itself, though their tax payer–funded per diems weren’t enough to cover their meals at Turnberry, let alone its green fees. The president’s Doonbeg resort in Ireland — a ferry ride and an M7 drive away from Trump Turnberry in Scotland — was also the site of self-enrichment last September when he persuaded Mike Pence and his vice-presidential entourage into staying there while in-country.
As president, Trump is immune from a federal statute making conflicts of interest involving “government matters that will affect your own personal financial interest” a crime. He is, however, beholden to the emoluments clause of the Constitution prohibiting federal officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments. As the Times notes, Trump’s alleged push for the British Open would have violated the clause, as “the British or Scottish governments would most likely have to pay for security at the tournament, an event that would profit Mr. Trump.”
While Trump’s golf courses in the the U.K., Ireland, and U.S. are important in helping the public comprehend Trump’s in-office corruption, his British resorts are even more vital to understanding his notoriously murky finances. While the president has been able to obscure his tax returns in the United States, he has not been able to finagle his way out of public financial disclosures abroad, as New York reported last September:
In a 2018 U.S. filing, Trump claimed that his courses in Ayrshire and Aberdeen were each worth over $50 million, but in the U.K., the balance sheets showed that their combined debt exceeded assets by the equivalent of $64.8 million. In a 2018 public financial disclosure filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, he stated that the U.K. golf courses made a profit of $23.8 million, though filings in the U.K. for that same time period showed a loss equal to $6.3 million. In addition, the U.S. disclosure does not mention the $199.5 million in loans Trump has made to his Scottish links, made up of a $54.9 million personal loan to Trump International and $144.6 million from his trust to Trump Turnberry … As recently as 2017, Turnberry turned a seven-figure loss, and Trump has also personally loaned $144.6 million to keep the place afloat.
If the Times report is confirmed, Trump’s effort to pressure the oldest golf tournament in the world into giving him money would represent a clear ethical violation, even if it’s not a direct breach of the federal conflict of interest law. It could also draw unwanted public scrutiny: Last October, Trump offered to host the G7 at his resort in Doral, resulting in a swirl of criticism forcing him to abandon the attempt to combine his extracurricular loves of grift and golf.