TURNBERRY, SCOTLAND— Air Force officers who have earned medals for their tours of combat theaters can pick up some more brass with a short pitstop in Southwest Scotland.
As part of its relationship with the Air Force, President Donald Trump’s Turnberry resort occasionally gifts high-ranking officers a version of its “Pride Pin,” a lapel pin featuring the property’s iconic lighthouse — an honor reserved for VIPs — upon their arrival, according a resort staffer familiar with the practice.
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Rank-and-file members can expect a more basic welcome package in their rooms, featuring goodies like Scottish shortbread.
A five-day visit to Turnberry and the surrounding region revealed that the regular visits from Air Force crews on layovers from Prestwick Airport have become a major facet of the life of the resort. It also revealed that, rather than being restricted to single-night refueling stops, some visits last multiple nights, expanding the known dimensions of the relationship between the president’s luxury resort and the U.S. military.
One reason for the multi-night stays, which were described by a half-dozen staffers, is inclement weather that prevents the crews from taking off from the airport 40 minutes up the road. In at least one instance earlier this year, a crew was laid up for multiple nights while their plane underwent repairs, allowing them to hit the links on Turnberry’s world-class course and purchase mementos from the pro shop, where a child’s golf shirt runs 55 British pounds, about $68 at the current exchange rate.
A Trump Organization spokeswoman, Amanda Miller, did not respond to an email requesting comment.
The extended contact has allowed service members to bond with staff, who are tickled that the airmen sometimes address them as “sir” or “ma’am,” rather than vice versa. Occasionally friendships continue on social media.
While crews were spotted here this summer, one longtime staffer said that they more frequently show up in the winter low season, and stay at the lodges — more spacious, freestanding structures downhill of the main hotel, which looks out over the seashore. They usually show up in uniform and at night, sometimes pulling up to the ornate stone fountain fronting the lobby entrance as late as 2 a.m.
Earlier this month, POLITICO reported that the Air Force had been putting up flight crews at the resort, prompting widespread scrutiny of the relationship between Trump’s private business, the U.S. military, and the Scottish government-owned Prestwick Airport, which has struggled for years to achieve commercial viability.
On Friday morning at 10 a.m., the airport’s spacious terminal was empty save for a few staff, and a WHSmith bookstore stood closed. Prestwick Aviation Services, the office that books the Turnberry stays on behalf of the military, referred a reporter to the airport information desk, which in turn referred to airport spokeswoman Nicola Taylor-Barr, who declined to answer questions.
News about the airport has put the Scottish government on the defensive over its relationship with a president who is unpopular in the country.
Philippa Whitford, a member of Scotland’s ruling Scottish National Party who represents the area around Prestwick in the British parliament, sought to deflect scrutiny to the other side of the Atlantic, citing a statement from the airport that it only books Turnberry when the military requests it or other accommodations are not available.
“I understand the disquiet of Air Force people staying over at Turnberry,” she said. “I’m just not really sure in what way Prestwick is to blame.”
Instead, Whitford said, it is the U.S. military that should face further questions about the arrangement. “What are crew being told? Are they being told, ‘Ask for Turnberry’? Are they being told, ‘You may ask for Turnberry’?”
At 20 miles distant, Turnberry is further from Prestwick than most of the other hotels used to house airmen and significantly more opulent. But staff at several of the hotels near the airport shrugged at the business being sent to their competitor.
“It’s not unusual at all,” said Robert Muir, a manager at the Adamton House in Monkton, a rambling, 265-room country estate little more than a stone’s throw from Prestwick. Muir said the hotel had last turned down an Air Force booking request from Prestwick for lack of space the week before. He said the airport regularly books Air Force crews at the Glasgow Marriott, which he described as the largest hotel in the region, and which, like Turnberry, is also a 40-minute drive from Prestwick.
At the Mercure Hotel in Ayr, a town four miles from the airport, a receptionist said the hotel, which is regularly used by the Air Force, too, was often full.
Prestwick has hosted U.S. military flights for decades — Adamton House displays a 2004 thank you note from the 187th Airborne Infantry Division — but it struck a deal meant to increase flight traffic at the end of the Obama administration, not long after it reached an arrangement with the Trump Organization to send more guests to Turnberry. The Air Force has said its crews have made roughly 40 stays at Turnberry since 2015, but has not specified how many of those have occurred since Trump took office in January 2017. The resort was closed for renovations from September 2015 to June 2016.
The House Oversight Committee began probing the Air Force’s use of the resort earlier this year. Following POLITICO’s report, the Air Force opened its own internal review of the matter.
While staying at Turnberry, the crews mostly stay on resort grounds. Aside from servers at the Balkenna Tea Room, a mile from the resort, who said they had served uniformed service members of unknown nationality within the past week, staffers at the handful of establishments in the resort’s vicinity said they were unaware of a regular military presence there.
Occasionally, Air Force members in civilian clothes venture into the nearby countryside to visit Culzean Castle, where Dwight Eisenhower was once given permanent use of an apartment, or to dine on Indian food in the nearby town of Girvan.
They are not the resort’s only conspicuous guests. Earlier this summer, according to a staffer, a group of Saudi royals stayed at the resort for about a week at the tail end of extended travel, bringing a party of 25 people and more than a hundred pieces of luggage.
Despite the controversy around the stays, and Trump’s generally strained relationship with the country, locals near both Prestwick and Turnberry mostly expressed gratitude for the jobs and investment he has brought to the region.
“I appreciate the fact he gets local tradesmen in,” said Gloria Miller, who has worked as a baker for half a century in Girvan. She said Trump has been the best caretaker of the storied resort that she has seen yet.
Though Trump has put his ownership interest in the Trump Organization into a trust, which is managed by his sons Don Jr. and Eric, the president can withdraw money from it any time.
For his part, Trump, amid all the controversy over the business steered to his company by U.S. officials, political allies and foreign governments, has maintained that he is no longer involved in running the Trump Organization.
And at Turnberry, there were at least some signs of the operation’s independence from its namesake owner.
While Trump’s campaign has made hay over its opposition to paper straws, painting them as liberal nonsense, Turnberry introduced them over the summer, phasing out plastic ones. At the snack bar inside the course’s trademark lighthouse, they have also recently instituted bamboo cutlery, marketed as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic. The move has drawn complaints from customers, especially when they try to eat soup.
Natasha Bertrand and Bryan Bender contributed to this report.