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State Department's Inspector General Probes The U.S. Ambassador To Britain

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump apparently asked his friend, the U.S. ambassador in London, to help land the British Open at one of Trump's golf courses in Scotland. The State Department's inspector general is looking into that claim as part of a routine review of the embassy. The investigation is also looking into claims that the U.S. ambassador Woody Johnson made racist and sexist comments to embassy staff.

NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt is following the story and joins us now. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about the president's golf course. What is the story here?

LANGFITT: Sure. Well, first I want to say CNN and The New York Times broke the story, but their reporting matches a lot of what I'm hearing from sources today. Johnson apparently told a number of colleagues that the president had asked him to seek help from the U.K. government to land The Open for Turnberry, which is a Trump - one of Trump's resorts in Scotland. And one of the people he spoke to was Lewis Lukens, a former second-in-command at the U.S. embassy. I was in touch with Lukens today by text, and he confirmed this and said he advised against it because it was, you know, generally inappropriate and violates government ethics rules. But Johnson apparently went ahead and raised the matter with David Mundell - that was the secretary of state for Scotland at the time - and this is according to a person who is familiar with the conversation.

SHAPIRO: So what are government officials in the U.K. and the U.S. saying about this?

LANGFITT: Well, the U.K. says Mundell did meet with Johnson in early 2018, but Johnson made no request regarding The Open or any sporting event. Johnson has not responded directly to the claim. The State Department says it stands by the ambassador and that he's led the embassy honorably.

SHAPIRO: And those are not the only claims involving the ambassador. There are also these remarks he apparently made to embassy staff. What have those staffers been telling the inspector general's office about Ambassador Johnson?

LANGFITT: Well, I think what they've been saying is there have been these off-the-cuff racial and sexist remarks that really offended some people and affected the atmosphere around the embassy. I'll give you a couple of examples. Ahead of Black History Month, Johnson reportedly seemed agitated and wanted to know if he'd be speaking to a whole bunch of Black people reportedly. Also, there were comments, particularly in large groups, about sort of the general attractiveness of the women that were there. He also hosted official gatherings at a men's only club in London called White's, which, of course, by its nature excluded female diplomats. Now, I want to be clear. I haven't seen anything or heard anything about, you know, really racist or sexist slurs, but these clearly - a lot of this stuff made a lot of people uncomfortable in the embassy.

SHAPIRO: And how is the ambassador responding to all of this?

LANGFITT: Well, again, nothing direct. He's not denying them. He made a statement this afternoon, called leading the embassy the honor of his lifetime and said he greatly valued the work of everybody on the embassy team. And the next step really, Ari, is to see what the release of the inspector general's report, whenever that comes out and what it says.

SHAPIRO: This job often goes to big political and financial supporters of the president. And I know you've met Ambassador Johnson. What's he like? What's his profile?

LANGFITT: He's an interesting guy. His background is very similar to President Trump. He's the billionaire heir to a family fortune, in this case the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. He owns the NFL football team the Jets. And when I've seen him in social occasions, I would describe him as pleasant, mild-mannered, asks lots of questions. But inside the embassy, he's seen as fiercely loyal to President Trump. And I'll give you an example. Lewis Lukens, who I mentioned earlier, he told GQ Magazine last year that when he gave a speech here in the U.K. in which he shared sort of a really positive anecdote about former President Obama's diplomatic skills, afterwards, Johnson fired him.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Hey, you're very welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.