President-elect Donald Trump has selected billionaire New York Jets owner and top GOP donor Robert W. “Woody” Johnson to be the next U.S. ambassador to Britain.
The job is all about pomp, circumstance and ceremony, but the announcement from Trump on Thursday was an offhand affair.
Trump introduced Johnson at a luncheon for future Cabinet members and others Thursday as “the ambassador, Woody Johnson, going to Saint James,” a reference to the formal title of Ambassador of the United States to the Court of St. James’s.
Johnson’s selection continues a custom of naming top donors and presidential friends as American envoys to attractive foreign capitals. If confirmed, Johnson would replace Matthew Barzun, who was finance chair for President Obama’s 2012 election campaign.
Johnson, 69, was national finance chairman for Trump rival Jeb Bush during the Republican primaries before backing Trump. After Johnson gave the Bush super PAC Right to Rise $500,000, in addition to maxing out to his campaign, Trump used him as Exhibit A when charging Bush was in the pocket of wealthy special interests.
But Johnson gave the Trump Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee, $100,000 in June 2016, after it was clear that Trump would be the nominee. Johnson also served as an adviser to the campaign.
He also was a top fundraiser for Republican presidential nominees Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and George W. Bush.
Johnson is a scion of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical business, a philanthropist and since 2000 the owner of the Jets. The team has had some on-field success under his ownership, reaching the playoffs in six seasons.
Johnson is expected to step back from the day-to-day operations of the Jets while serving as ambassador. That was the approach taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers when their longtime owner, Dan Rooney, served as ambassador to Ireland during the Obama administration.
Johnson would take on a role that involves promoting U.S. businesses and interests at a time when Britain is disentangling itself from the European Union. Trump supported the Brexit decision and has said he wants a new U.S.-U.K. trade deal.
He also raised eyebrows in Britain by holding congratulatory phone calls with several other foreign leaders before speaking with British Prime Minister Theresa May, and by extending her an oddly casual invitation to the White House. “If you travel to the U.S. you should let me know,” Trump said, according to a leaked transcript of his call with May.
State visits usually require months of detailed planning, and the first meeting of an American and British leader would typically be a lavish affair.
The U.S.-British alliance is fondly called “the special relationship” by both sides, as outgoing State Department spokesman John Kirby said upon learning of Johnson’s selection Thursday.
“It’s a very deep, very long, very strong relationship, and therefore the individual who represents the United States in London also has a special place and special responsibilities,” Kirby said, without commenting on Johnson himself. “It is one of the most consequential ambassadorial posts.”
Kirby probably didn’t mean it literally, but that “special place” is lovely indeed: Winthrop House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence in London, is a magnificent mansion surrounded by acres of parkland that has, during Barzun’s time, included soccer goals for his young children.
The British ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, congratulated his counterpart on Twitter.
“Congrats @WoodyJohnson4 on nomination as US Ambassador to the UK! Surely you can replicate the success of @NYJets in London 2015,” Darroch wrote.
The Jets defeated the Miami Dolphins in a game played at London’s Wembley Stadium that year.
Johnson joins a few other Trump donors and advisers selected as ambassadors, including Gov. Terry Branstad (R-Iowa) as ambassador to China and bankruptcy lawyer and Trump friend David Friedman as ambassador to Israel.
Julie Tate, Anu Narayanswamy and Mark Maske contributed to this report.