Billionaire BFFs: the conflicts of interest surrounding Donald Trump and his British ambassador

They are both brash, bullish septuagenarian billionaires with no previous experience of public office. One is the president and resort owner; the other is his ambassador and, we now know, his customer, too.
Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to the UK, has been friends with Donald Trump for years. Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP/GettyWoody Johnson, the US ambassador to the UK, has been friends with Donald Trump for years. Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty
Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to the UK, has been friends with Donald Trump for years. Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

The news that Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to the UK, visited Donald Trump’s Turnberry resort at the expense of the American public will raise far reaching questions.

But it is just the latest coming together of the two men, whose ties, forged in elite US conservative circles, stretch back years.

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The two families were friends long before Mr Trump ever gave serious consideration to running for the White House. The Johnsons maintained an apartment in Trump Tower in New York, and the two men own adjacent estates in New Jersey.

In 2005, Mr Johnson was among the guests at Mr Trump’s wedding to Melania, gifting the couple a Loro Piana cashmere blanket. When Mr Johnson married his second wife, Suzanne, four years later, the Trumps were in attendance.

In 2007, the Trumps also attended Mr Johnson’s wig-themed 60th birthday party in New York’s Doubles nightclub. They have also visited home games of the New York Jets, the NFL team Mr Johnson owns.

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If anything differentiated the two men, it was politics - at least to begin with. Mr Johnson has historically favoured more moderate Republicans, and has raised significant sums for John McCain and Mitt Romney.

In 2016, he initially backed Jeb Bush, but endorsed Mr Trump in May that year. He went on to serve as finance chairman on his inaugural committee. Since becoming the latest US emissary to the Court of St James, he has continued to give generously to Republican causes.

US Federal Election Commission records show that in the first six months of 2020, Mr Johnson - whose great-great grandfather founded Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical giant best known for its drugs, medical devices, and eponymous baby shampoo - has given multiple donations, including £780,000 to America First Action, a Trump-supporting super PAC.

But as has frequently been the case throughout Mr Trump’s presidency, questions have been asked about potential conflicts of interests between the private interests and public offices of both men.

Other receipts obtained by American Oversight show that as well as Turnberry, Mr Johnson has frequented Mr Trump’s Washington DC hotel, and last June, the US journalist, Zach Everson, revealed that the New York Jets held a golf outing at the president’s New Jersey golf resort.

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This July, CNN and the New York Times reported that Mr Johnson had approached David Mundell, the former secretary of state for Scotland, to secure the return of the Open championship to Turnberry.

The latter title reported that Mr Johnson told colleagues in February 2018 that Mr Trump had asked him to see if the UK government could help steer the tournament to Turnberry, only for the ambassador’s deputy, Lewis Lukens, to warn it would constitute an unethical use of the presidency for private gain. However, the paper reported that Mr Johnson went to approach Mr Mundell a few weeks later.

Mr Trump has denied speaking to the ambassador about securing the tournament for Turnberry. The UK government also rejected the allegations that Mr Johnson raised the issue with Mr Mundell in their introductory meeting.

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