Allegations that President Donald Trump’s envoy to Britain made inappropriate remarks about women and minorities and may have violated federal ethics rules are roiling the U.S. Embassy in London.
Current and former U.S. officials say the charges against U.S. Ambassador to the Court of Saint James's Robert “Woody” Johnson surfaced during a routine inspection of operations at the embassy and are to be addressed in a report by the State Department’s inspector general.
Those officials say Johnson is accused of making insensitive remarks that contravene department personnel guidelines. But, perhaps more seriously, Johnson’s former deputy has alleged the ambassador tried to intervene with British government officials at the president’s request to steer the British Open golf tournament to Trump's Turnberry resort in Scotland.
British officials say Johnson made no requests about sporting events during a meeting he had with the former secretary of state for Scotland David Mundell in early 2018, the timeframe in which the subject is alleged to have been raised, and the golf tournament was not awarded to Turnberry.
“No request was made regarding the British Open or any other sporting event," the British government said in a statement, which did not address whether the subject came up at all with Mundell then or in any other conversations Johnson may have had with British officials.
Trump on Wednesday denied he ever asked Johnson to make the case for Turnberry, on Scotland's west coast, and Johnson has dismissed all allegations of inappropriate behavior, which were first reported by The New York Times and CNN.
But Lewis Lukens, a well-respected former two-time U.S. ambassador and retired career foreign service officer who was the No. 2 at the London embassy until Johnson summarily ousted him in January 2019, said he had alerted Johnson and State Department officials in Washington to his concerns about ethics violations over the British Open intervention.
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Now a London-based consultant, Lukens told The Associated Press he warned Johnson that intervening on Trump’s behalf over the venue would run afoul of federal ethics rules. But, he said, Johnson had done it anyway with no apparent pushback from the department.
“He definitely raised it with the government,” Lukens told the AP, citing his conversations with Johnson, colleagues and British officials. “I reported the conversation to Washington, but I don’t believe anyone there talked to him about it.”
Lukens, whom Johnson dismissed from the deputy chief of mission post in London after he made speeches in which he praised the Obama administration, attributed a British government denial of the request to London’s unease over picking a fight with the Trump administration during a particularly sensitive time in negotiation over a post-Brexit free trade agreement with the United States. Lukens also dismissed Trump’s denial of having raised the matter with Johnson as untrue.
Two current U.S. officials told the AP they had witnessed or were aware of behavior by Johnson that colleagues had found to be bullying or demeaning.
One former embassy employee said Johnson’s questionable behavior and comments toward and about women and minorities were not isolated and were witnessed by numerous staffers on a weekly, if not daily, basis. That former employee and the other officials were not authorized to discuss the ongoing inspector general report and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The current and former officials said Johnson had questioned the need for events marking Black History Month, which is traditionally commemorated by U.S. diplomatic missions abroad, had hosted embassy events at a private men-only London club against the advice of embassy colleagues and made disparaging remarks about women's appearances.
On Wednesday, Johnson, a Trump campaign contributor and owner of the New York Jets football team, took to Twitter to defend his reputation, saying the allegations that he made insensitive remarks were “false.”
“I have followed the ethical rules and requirements of my office at all times," he tweeted. “These false claims of insensitive remarks about race and gender are totally inconsistent with my longstanding record and values.”
In a statement provided by the embassy, Johnson added: “It is the honor of a lifetime to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s and to lead the talented, diverse team of the U.S. Mission to the United Kingdom."
“The staff of Embassy London and our three constituent consulates are the best in diplomacy," he said, “and I greatly value the extraordinary work that each and every member of the team does to strengthen and deepen our vital alliance with the United Kingdom and to advance the shared security and prosperity of our two nations.”
Trump, at a White House news conference, denied he had asked Johnson to weigh in on the British Open venue. “No, I never spoke to Woody Johnson about that, about Turnberry,” Trump told reporters. “Turnberry is a highly respected course, as you know, one of the best in the world. I read a story about it today. And I never spoke to Woody Johnson about doing that. No.”
The State Department, meanwhile, defended Johnson in written comments attributed to an unnamed spokesman. “Ambassador Johnson is a valued member of the team who has led Mission UK honorably and professionally,” it said. “We stand by Ambassador Johnson and look forward to him continuing to ensure our special relationship with the UK is strong.”
It was not immediately clear when the inspection of the London embassy, which began in October 2019, would be complete, particularly since the work of the office was disrupted after Trump's abrupt firing in May of Inspector General Steve Linick, who was working on several politically sensitive investigations involving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Even routine inspector general inspector reports on embassy inspections can take months to complete, particularly if there are controversial aspects to them.
Lee reported from Washington.