Allegations that US president Donald Trump’s envoy to Britain made inappropriate remarks about women and minorities and may have violated federal ethics rules have unsettled the US Embassy in London.
Current and former US officials say the charges against US 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 Mr Johnson is accused of making insensitive remarks that contravene department personnel guidelines.
But, perhaps more seriously, Mr Johnson’s former deputy has alleged the ambassador tried to intervene with British government officials at the president’s request to steer The Open Championship golf tournament to Mr Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland.
British officials say Mr 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 Mr Mundell then or in any other conversations Mr Johnson may have had with British officials.
Mr Trump on Wednesday denied he ever asked Mr Johnson to make the case for Turnberry, on Scotland’s west coast, and Mr Johnson has dismissed all allegations of inappropriate behaviour, which were first reported by The New York Times and CNN.
But Lewis Lukens, a former two-time US ambassador and retired career foreign service officer who was the number two at the London embassy until Mr Johnson summarily ousted him in January 2019, said he had alerted Mr Johnson and State Department officials in Washington to his concerns about ethics violations over The Open intervention.
Now a London-based consultant, Mr Lukens told The Associated Press he warned Mr Johnson that intervening on Mr Trump’s behalf over the venue would run afoul of federal ethics rules. But, he said, Mr Johnson had done it anyway with no apparent pushback from the department.
“He definitely raised it with the government,” Mr Lukens told the AP, citing his conversations with Mr Johnson, colleagues and British officials.
“I reported the conversation to Washington, but I don’t believe anyone there talked to him about it.”
Mr Lukens, whom Mr 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.
Mr Lukens also dismissed Mr Trump’s denial of having raised the matter with Mr Johnson as untrue.
Two current US officials told the AP they had witnessed or were aware of behaviour by Mr Johnson that colleagues had found to be bullying or demeaning.
One former embassy employee said Mr Johnson’s questionable behaviour and comments towards 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 authorised to discuss the ongoing inspector general report and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The current and former officials said Mr Johnson had questioned the need for events marking Black History Month, which is traditionally commemorated by US 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.
I have followed the ethical rules and requirements of my office at all times. These false claims of insensitive remarks about race and gender are totally inconsistent with my longstanding record and values.— U.S. Ambassador to the UK (@USAmbUK) July 22, 2020
On Wednesday, Mr 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, Mr Johnson added: “It is the honour of a lifetime to serve as US Ambassador to the Court of St James’s and to lead the talented, diverse team of the US 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.”
Mr Trump, at a White House news conference, denied he had asked Mr Johnson to weigh in on The Open venue.
“No, I never spoke to Woody Johnson about that, about Turnberry,” Mr 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 Mr Johnson in written comments attributed to an unnamed spokesman.
“Ambassador Johnson is a valued member of the team who has led Mission UK honourably 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 Mr 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.