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Trump picks owner of New York Jets as UK ambassador

Donald Trump has chosen Woody Johnson, the billionaire owner of the New York Jets American football team and veteran Republican political donor, as his ambassador to Britain.

Speaking to Republicans at a lunch in Washington ahead of his inauguration on Friday, Mr Trump revealed that he had chosen the owner of the sports team as ambassador, as he kept his penchant for announcing appointments of his team in unorthodox ways.

Mr Johnson, an initial backer of Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential race, is the fourth person Mr Trump has chosen for an ambassadorship. The president-elect has tapped Terry Branstad, the Iowa governor, for ambassador to China, and named Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, as his ambassador to the UN. He picked David Friedman, a lawyer with hardline views on the Israel-Palestine conflict, as ambassador to Israel. Mr Trump is expected to appoint William Hagerty, a businessman, as his diplomatic envoy to Japan.

The appointment of Mr Johnson, who along with other ambassadorial nominees will require Senate approval, comes as Mr Trump faces turbulence getting Congress to back his choice of Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of ExxonMobil, for secretary of state. The Texan oil man has come under scrutiny because of the close ties he cultivated with Russian President Vladimir Putin while serving at the helm of the energy company.

Like many political donors tapped as ambassadors, Mr Johnson has no government experience. But he would not be the first head of an American football team to become a diplomatic envoy. Dan Rooney, chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Ireland from 2009 to 2012.

Mr Johnson is a controversial figure in the US sports world because of his role as owner of the New York Jets. Having failed to win a National Football League championship since 1969, the Jets are known as “gang green” — a joke based on the colour of their uniform and their failures on the field.

In 2012, an article on the Bleacher Report website declared Mr Johnson to be “the worst owner in the entire NFL”. In 2014, Jets supporters grew so unhappy with Mr Johnson’s stewardship that they paid for billboard advertisements urging him to fire the executive he had named as the club’s general manager, John Idzik.

Mr Johnson finally gave into the pressure and installed a new brains trust that guided the Jets to a 5-11 record during the current season. The New York Daily News concluded: “It’s impossible to identify all the culprits who have helped turn the Jets into a losing outfit, but the root of the problem is clear: Woody Johnson.”

“People who have worked for Johnson believe that he can be easily persuaded largely due to his shaky football acumen,” Daily News sports writer Manish Mehta charged. “The key, former employees suggest, is to get in his ear last. The last man in often gets his way. Most of all, Johnson just wants to feel a part of the action.”

Foreign leaders have been jockeying to secure an audience with Mr Trump. While that is always the case with new US presidents, many leaders are keen to understand his foreign policy because of his rhetoric during the election campaign, which suggested that he was less supportive of US allies than his predecessors.

A lack of contact with his team is partly due to most ambassadors focusing on cultivating Hillary Clinton because they believed Mr Trump had little chance of winning.

Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, is the only foreign leader who has met Mr Trump since his election. British diplomats were dismayed that Mr Trump met Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, and Michael Gove, the conservative member of parliament, before meeting Theresa May, the British prime minister.

Mr Trump suggested at one point that the UK should replace its ambassador to Washington with Mr Farage, the leading proponent of the Brexit movement who campaigned with Mr Trump during the presidential race. Mr Farage is hosting an inauguration party at the Hay Adams Hotel across from the White House on Thursday evening.

Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, on Thursday said Mr Trump was not scheduled to meet any world leaders next week, his first as the 45th president of the US.

Via FT