Jets owner Woody Johnson, the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom who was appointed by President Donald Trump, was investigated by State Department watchdogs following allegations that he made racist and sexist comments to staff and attempted to use his government position to benefit Trump’s personal business in the UK, according to reports from The New York Times and CNN.
As first reported by The Times, Johnson told colleagues in February 2018 that Trump had asked him to see if the UK government could help award the British Open golf tournament to the Trump Turnberry resort, located in Scotland. Johnson’s deputy advised him that doing so would be unethical, but Johnson felt he had to try. Here’s more from The Times:
A few weeks later, he raised the idea of Turnberry playing host to the Open with the secretary of state for Scotland, David Mundell.
In a brief interview last week, Mr. Mundell said it was “inappropriate” for him to discuss his dealings with Mr. Johnson and referred to a British government statement that said Mr. Johnson “made no request of Mr. Mundell regarding the British Open or any other sporting event.” The statement did not address whether the ambassador had broached the issue of Turnberry, which Mr. Trump bought in 2014, but none of the next four Opens are scheduled to be played there.
Still, the episode left [Johnson’s deputy, Lewis A.] Lukens and other diplomats deeply unsettled. Mr. Lukens, who served as the acting ambassador before Mr. Johnson arrived in November 2017, emailed officials at the State Department to tell them what had happened, colleagues said. A few months later, Mr. Johnson forced out Mr. Lukens, a career diplomat who had earlier served as ambassador to Senegal, shortly before his term was to end.
As president, Trump is exempt from a federal conflict of interest law that makes it a criminal offense to participate in government matters that impact one’s own personal finances. However, the United States Constitution prohibits federal officials from accepting emoluments from foreign governments. Trump, as noted by The Times, has attempted to steer business his own way on a number of occasions since his election in 2016. He and his children also have tried to attract professional golf tournaments to the family’s 16 courses for over a decade in hopes of generating television coverage and revenue.
Johnson also was accused of making racist and sexist remarks in complaints made to the State Department inspector general, per CNN’s report:
[Johnson] made racist generalizations about Black men and questioned why the Black community celebrates Black History Month, according to exclusive new information shared with CNN by three sources and a diplomat familiar with the complaints to the State Department inspector general.
His comments about women’s looks have been “cringeworthy,” a source with knowledge of the situation said, and two sources said it was a struggle to get him on board for an event for International Women’s Day.
“He’s said some pretty sexist, racist,” things, the diplomat with knowledge of the complaints made to the IG said of Johnson.
Per The Times, Johnson also allegedly asked a colleague if a candidate to replace Lukens as deputy chief of mission was Jewish. Asked about the allegations reported by CNN, Johnson did not deny them. Per CNN, it is unclear how much investigators focused on Johnson’s comments in comparison to his efforts to promote the president’s business. Per CNN, the “alleged effort on behalf of the president’s family business is a focus of the yet-to-be released report from the Office of the Inspector General.”
Investigators began looking into Johnson in the fall of 2019.
CNN expanded on Johnson’s alleged inappropriate comments. He asked if the audience for a 2018 Black History Month event would be “a whole bunch of black people” and questioned why African Americans would want a Black History Month. He also said that Black fathers abandoning their families was the “real challenge.”
CNN also reported that Johnson attempted to hold official gatherings at a men’s-only club in London, thus excluding the embassy’s female diplomats. Johnson is also accused of frequently objectifying women in his presence, commenting on their appearance and dress. He is said to have indicated that he prefers working with women because they are cheaper and work harder than men. Similar to the Black History Month event, Johnson allegedly resisted participating in an International Women’s Day event, asking why he had to do “a feminist event.” Johnson is also accused of saying he was not interested in a gender-based violence event because he is “not a woman.”
In addition to racist and sexist remarks, CNN reported that Johnson also trafficked in “Deep State” conspiracies, thus echoing the president’s common distrust of government. Lukens told GQ Magazine in 2019 that he was dismissed by Johnson and viewed as “a traitor” after the former deputy applauded former President Barack Obama’s handling of an issue between the United States and Senegal in remarks to British students in 2018.
The allegations against Johnson come at a time when the NFL is reckoning with its handling of racial and social injustice and sexual harassment against women. In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, the league has announced donations meant to combat systemic racism. The Washington football team successfully was pressured into retiring its nickname, a racist slur for Native Americans. That organization, however, also has since come under fire for allegations of sexual harassment from 15 women, thus sparking an industry-wide discussion of how female employees are treated in the world of sports.
The Jets issued a statement on social and racial injustice in early June saying that they hoped to create “positive change” within their communities, though the statement did not address specific plans on how the organization would do so.
A Republican donor with deep pockets, Johnson, 73, initially backed Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican presidential primary before shifting his support to Trump. The billionaire heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune has been the ambassador to the UK since November 2017, at which point he relinquished day-to-day operations of the Jets to his younger brother, Christopher. Johnson had no prior diplomatic experience.
The Jets have yet to issue a statement on the allegations against Johnson. Per the Daily News’ Manish Mehta, an NFL spokesperson deferred the matter to the State Department.
Per CNN, a State Department spokesperson said Johnson is “a valued member of the team who has led Mission U.K. honorably and professionally.
“We stand by Ambassador Johnson and look forward to him continuing to ensure our special relationship with the U.K. is strong.”
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