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Donald Trump’s trip to Scotland, explained

Donald Trump is in Scotland today for a two-day visit aimed at bolstering his golf business there. Taking a brief foreign trip would be a fairly standard move for a candidate who’s wrapped up the nomination but isn’t yet in intensive prep mode for the convention, the debates, or a final tour of swing states. Except the trip is to Scotland, and its main focus is golf courses and Trump’s private business affairs, not anything related to public policy.

While of course it’s unusual for a candidate for the highest office in the land to take a few days off from the campaign trail in order to advance his side gig as a golf course promoter, there is a lot that’s unusual about Trump. For example, he maintains that his experience developing a golf course in Scotland constitutes crucial preparation for the presidency.

The reality, however, is that Trump’s Scottish play has been a bit of a disaster. The Scottish government agreed the environmental cost was worth it because Trump promised economic development. But he broke those promises, and the result was a golf course that damaged the environment and isn’t even financially successful.

Why is Donald Trump going to Scotland?

The reason is so banal that it’s a little hard to believe, but here it is: Back in 2014, Trump bought an old golf resort in Turnberry, Scotland, and committed to an extensive renovation. The renovation is now complete, so Trump is going to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

That’s it.

There is no larger purpose to the visit, no apparent connection to his campaign, no meeting with foreign political leaders to show off his chops in managing global affairs, nothing.

After all, a European trip focused on burnishing foreign policy credentials would probably have places like London, Paris, and Berlin on the itinerary. Trump is going to Turnberry and then to Aberdeen, where he has another golf course.

So what’s the deal with this golf course?

Way back in 1902, Angus Kennedy, the sixth marquess of Ailsa and scion of the Scottish Clan Kennedy that has been prominent in Scottish nobility since at least the early 15th century, commissioned Willie Fernie to build a golf course on some of the marquess’ land.

The property was used as an air base during World War I and then as a bigger air base (featuring a hospital) during World War II; then it reopened in 1951 with redesigned and refreshed links. It hosted a number of major tournaments over the years and in 1997 was purchased by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which operated it under the Westin brand. (This is the company that also owns the Sheraton, W, Le Méridien, and Aloft brands.)

In the 21st century it became modestly unfashionable for hotel companies to actually own hotels (if that sounds weird, here’s why), so Starwood sold the property to Leisurecorp, a subsidiary of the emirate of Dubai’s state-owned investment firm Dubai World, in 2008. Leisurecorp had Starwood continue to operate the hotel, though the company upgraded it from Starwood’s Westin brand to Starwood’s Luxury Collection brand.

Trump bought it in April 2014 and renamed it the Trump Turnberry, because Trump turns out to enjoy naming things after himself.

Hasn’t the Trump Turnberry been tied up in years of regulatory battles?

No, you are thinking of Trump’s other Scottish golf resort, the Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen.

The Aberdeen resort was built after very a contentious regulatory process involving questions about environmentally sensitive sand dunes and the integrity of private property, as Trump sought various means of removing several houses that he felt would spoil the view from his course.

These battles began way back in 2006 and have continued for a period of years, and suffice it to say the overall impression Trump left on Scotland has not been impressive.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, stripped him of a title as a Scottish business ambassador, says she has her “fingers crossed” that he won’t win the election, called for him to be banned from the UK, and needless to say has declined to meet with him during the current trip.

Alex Salmond, the current member of parliament for the Scottish National Party who was Sturgeon’s predecessor as first minister and worked directly with Trump on the golf project, says Trump “didn’t deliver on his commitments to Scotland,” and that if he were to win election to the White House, “he wouldn’t deliver on his commitments to America either.”

The best overall account of the Trump International Golf Links saga comes, a bit oddly, from a Canadian newspaper, which published Mark MacKinnon’s comprehensive investigation back in May.

Okay, so what happened with the controversial course?

Aberdeen is the center of the Scottish oil industry, which even 10 years ago, before the price of oil’s recent fall, was clearly in a state of decline, as the quantity of crude recoverable from the North Sea was falling.

Along came Trump with a promise for the next big thing — a massive capital investment to take a swath of beautiful but largely empty and fairly remote coastal Scotland and turn it into a major tourist destination. Environmentalists raised concerns about the impact on the local ecology, especially a sensitive series of sand dunes, but ultimately the imperative to develop the local economy prevailed.

As Stephen Holden recounted in a 2012 New York Times story:

The $1.5 billion project involves building two 18-hole golf courses (the first one opened last month), a 450-bedroom luxury hotel, and a complex of apartments and golf villas on the North Sea coast. Environmental protection was pushed aside for economic development, and the government supported the project, which Mr. Trump declared would bring 6,000 jobs to the area.

Trump also promised, naturally, that it would be the greatest golf course in the world. Golf reviewers dispute this, arguing that despite the excellent views it lacks the charm of a traditional Scottish course. Golf Digest regards it as the 54th-best course in the world, which to a normal person would be a good enough achievement. On the other hand, “Trump has also reported to Scottish authorities that he lost millions of dollars on the project — even as he claims on U.S. presidential disclosure forms that the course has been highly profitable.”

Most significantly from the Scottish government’s point of view, the course only employs about 150 people — many of them seasonally — which is nice for them but hardly the engine of economic development that Trump promised.

Did Trump really say a money-losing golf course prepared him to be president?

Yes, this happened. Back in April, Trump somehow found the time to write an op-ed column for a Scottish newspaper called the Press & Journal that primarily serves the lightly populated northern half of the country.

In it, he writes that “when I first arrived on the scene in Aberdeen, the people of Scotland were testing me to see just how serious I was – just like the citizens in the United States have done about my race for the White House.”

As we now know, the Scottish people’s elected representatives reached the conclusion that Trump was a con man who swindled them.

Trump’s view, however, is a bit different:

I saw the tide turn in Aberdeen when it became apparent that I was doing extensive research on environmental concerns and had hired the leading authorities on everything concerning this amazing land.

For example, the 25 acres of sand dunes required the attention of geomorphologists.

We worked with Scottish National Heritage and forged a partnership based on our collective interests.

Any mistrust was replaced by confidence in my ability as well as my dedication.

How is this relevant to the presidency? Well:

When I make an analogy of my work in Scotland to my pursuits in the United States, there are several parallels that are very clear to me.

Passion. Giving Back. Dedication. Results!

In Scotland, we worked together for the best results possible. The results have been spectacular. The course has been touted as the greatest links course in the world.

The actual results have been disappointing, and the course, while good, is not regarded by anyone as the greatest in the world.