When New York Jets owner Robert “Woody” Johnson was named our new ambassador to Britain by President Trump, the only thing I was fairly certain of was that London was definitely not making it to the Super Bowl any time in the next four years. But beyond that, who could really say? He’s an experienced businessman with the ability to run a large organization (unless the organization’s sole purpose is to win the aforementioned Super Bowl), but we didn’t know much about his diplomatic abilities. Still, he seemed to be doing okay, particularly after Boris Johnson (no relation) took over as Prime Minister.
But now it appears that the press has their hooks into Woody and they’re scrutinizing what he’s been doing on the other side of the pond all this time. The latest alleged sin on his resume is floating the idea of moving the British Open golf tournament to one of President Trump’s golf courses. Prior to that, the British press had reported “concerns” by members of the embassy staff that some of Woody’s more “colorful” remarks weren’t particularly diplomatic. So is Johnson the next scalp the media is trying to collect from team Trump or is he really not doing a good job? (New York Times)
Playing host at a small dinner on Tuesday night in honor of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the American ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, told his guests that the wine was from President Trump’s vineyard in Virginia. He was serving it, he joked, even though it might be ethically improper.
The next day, Mr. Johnson was not making any more jokes about ethics. On Twitter, he insisted he had “followed the ethical rules and requirements of my office at all times” after The New York Times reported that at the president’s request, he had raised with a British official the idea of steering the British Open golf tournament to Mr. Trump’s Turnberry golf resort in Scotland.
In the ranks of the American diplomatic corps, Mr. Johnson’s enthusiasm for pleasing Mr. Trump has raised questions about whether Mr. Johnson — a 73-year-old pharmaceutical heir, N.F.L. team owner and longtime friend of the president’s — has put promoting his boss over his diplomatic duties.
The story about Woody serving wine from one of Trump’s vineyards is pretty much a non-starter. By the admission of everyone involved, Johnson paid for the wine out of his own pocket and made a joke about it during the dinner for Pompeo. Was he trying to make a good impression on behalf of his boss (and old friend) Donald Trump? I’m sure he was, but there wasn’t any ethical issue with that.
The story about the golf course is potentially more serious. Using his influence as ambassador to try to steer the British Open to Turnberry would potentially translate to more money in Trump’s coffers, not to mention the enhanced stature and value of his Scotland property if one of the sport’s oldest and biggest major tournaments were to relocate there. If we’re going to be fair here, that’s a valid question to raise in terms of ethics.
In addition to being ethically questionable, this was a dumb scheme if it really took place as is being described. The Brits are nothing if not wedded to their centuries of traditions with all of the pomp and circumstances that accompany them. The British Open is the oldest recognized golf tournament in the world and it rotates between some of the oldest and most storied golf courses on the planet, including St Andrews, Royal St George’s and others of similar status. The Open actually was held at Turnberry once (in 1977) but hasn’t returned since. It seems fairly clear that the results weren’t well received.
President Trump has gone on the record denying that he asked Johnson to make that pitch and Woody has thus far refused to comment on whether they discussed the matter. So where are these stories coming from? The leaker, in this case, turns out to be Johnson’s former deputy, Lewis A. Lukens who held the post until leaving at the end of 2018. Being Woody’s right-hand man for that long certainly puts him in a position to know the inner workings of the office of the United States Ambassador to the Court of St James (the official title of the office). But he appears to not have departed under the best of terms. I have to wonder if there are some sour grapes involved there.
As to Woody’s rumored “inappropriate” comments, anyone who has followed the history of his football team probably wouldn’t be all that shocked to hear it. He’s made something of a name for himself as one of “those old guys” who never caught up to the concept of social justice or progressive sensibilities in the 21st century. But is all of this enough for him to be given the boot as an ambassador? Unless the Brits formally ask him to retract his papers and depart, I would doubt it. He’s been a loyalist to the President from day one and they are very old friends. Trump values few qualities more than those and I have a hard time imagining him tossing Woody under the bus now.