Exclusive: Taxpayers pick up tab for billionaire US ambassador's stay at Donald Trump’s Scottish resort

The billionaire US ambassador to the UK ran up a bill to US taxpayers totalling more than £1,000 in a single day while staying at Donald Trump’s flagship Scottish hotel and golf resort.

Wednesday, 7th October 2020, 10:00 pm
Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to the UK, pictured with Donald Trump during the US president's trip to Britain in July 2018. Picture: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty
Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to the UK, pictured with Donald Trump during the US president's trip to Britain in July 2018. Picture: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

US federal government receipts show that Woody Johnson enjoyed a £426 dinner with his wife during a visit to the US president’s Turnberry property, and spent several hundred pounds on its golf offerings.

One leading ethics watchdog said it was “simply embarrassing” that the “multi-billionaire” diplomat, who is from one of the wealthiest families in America, would play golf at Mr Trump’s course and leave the US public to pay for the privilege.

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The revelation will also reignite the controversy over how the president's privately held businesses are able to generate revenue via his public office at the expense of ordinary US citizens.

The Trump Turnberry receipt itemises the spending by Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to the UK.

As revealed by The Scotsman throughout Mr Trump’s tenure in the White House, his loss making and heavily indebted Turnberry resort - arguably the most prestigious of any of the Trump Organisation’s golf courses around the world - has received tens of thousands of pounds from his own government since he took office.

The new receipts, released by the US State Department under freedom of information legislation, detail the extent of Mr Johnson’s spending during his stay at the property, which coincided with Mr Trump’s own two-night stay there in the summer of 2018.

They show a series of payments made over the course of 14 July that year by Mr Johnson and his wife totalling £1,143.

The bill includes nearly £600 spent on ‘golf retail’, as well as green fees for Turnberry’s Arran golf course, and a series of payments listed as ‘refreshment centre’.

No breakdown of the £426 dinner is provided, but a three-course meal at Turnberry’s 1906 restaurant costs £65 per head. Some mains, such as the Dover sole meuniere, incur an additional £35 supplement. Wine list prices range from £27 to £185 a bottle.

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The receipt was obtained by American Oversight, a non-partisan, non-profit ethics watchdog based in Washington DC, which was forced to file a lawsuit in pursuit of the records.

Austin Evers, the organisation's executive director, told The Scotsman: “That Donald Trump uses his office and American tax dollars to prop up his failing businesses is widely known and shameful.

"That the US ambassador to the UK would use taxpayer money to play golf is simply embarrassing.

"As a multi-billionaire who used his influence to become the chief US diplomat in the UK, the absolute least Americans should be able to expect is that he pay for his own tee-times.”

Patrick Harvie MSP, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, said: “The bombshell New York Times report last week raised a lot of questions about President Trump’s financial interests ahead of an election which he is trying to tamper with.

"We clearly can’t expect Mr Trump to behave ethically, but there are serious questions around how he uses his position as president to boost his businesses in Scotland. Like the US military stayovers at Turnberry, this visit by the US ambassador appears to have seen the US taxpayer pick up the tab, golf clubs and all.”

According to the single page receipt, Mr Johnson checked in at Turnberry on 13 July, the same day Mr Trump arrived from London. However, the receipt indicates that the ambassador did not depart until 16 July, the day after the president had flown out for talks in Helsinki with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

No details of any other expenditure on the three other days of Mr Johnson’s stay at Turnberry have been disclosed by the State Department.

The records also show that the 73-year-old and his wife, Suzanne, a former equity sales manager and actress, booked two rooms, but they do not include the cost of the accommodation itself.

The Scotsman asked the US embassy in London if Mr Johnson had repaid any of the expenditure itemised in the receipt, and why details of any spending during the rest of his Turnberry trip were not included.

Aaron Snipe, a spokesman for the US embassy, said: “Ambassador Johnson has complied with all US government travel regulations.”

The embassy did not provide details of the regulations in question.

The ambassador, best known in his homeland as the owner of the New York Jets American football team, is a fourth generation heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune.

In August, the company struck a deal with the US government worth more than £770m for 100 million doses of its experimental coronavirus vaccine.

During the London leg of Mr Trump’s 2018 visit to the UK, he and the first lady stayed at Winfield House, the grand, neo-Georgian townhouse in Regent’s Park which serves as Mr Johnson’s official residence. It was not known until now that Mr Johnson stayed at Turnberry in the days afterwards.

Mr Trump came to the UK on a working trip instead of an official state visit, and his stay at Turnberry was characterised as a “private visit.” He played at least two rounds of golf and held private meetings during his visit.

The details of Mr Johnson’s Turnberry trip comes just months after he became engulfed in a conflict of interest row surrounding the resort, which has been owned by Mr Trump since 2014.

In July, CNN and the New York Times claimed that Mr Johnson had lobbied David Mundell, the then secretary of state for Scotland, for the prestigious Open championship to be held at Trump’s property, which last hosted the event in 2009.

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

Neither Trump Turnberry nor the Trump Organisation responded to enquiries from The Scotsman about the accommodation costs for Mr Johnson’s stay at the resort.

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