Trump embraces LIV golf, supports a new Saudi strategy

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Donald J. Trump has always played his part in becoming a sports baron.

He tried for years to buy the NFL franchise and was the face of the Second Division football league, which collapsed. He backed a potential contender for the never-to-be-realized Major League Baseball and briefly put his name to the elite cyclist race.

Now, after decades of failure and rejection in the sport, the former president is embracing a sporting gambit with a burning passion for credibility: LIV Golf, the charismatic series that has turned professional golf on its head, pouring in with money from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. It is seen as another Saudi effort to use sport as a reputation cleanser.

The former president comes as the former president weighs another campaign in the White House and as diplomats navigate a complex relationship strained by Saudi Arabia’s human rights record — including the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a source An international outcry that Trump has repeatedly downplayed – The Trump family’s choice to welcome LIV Golf at two of its courses this year bears the strongest geopolitical overtones of any of Trump’s sporting travels.

It could also undermine the tough message many Republicans have been sending to Saudi Arabia, and it is making some of the Trump family’s ties to the kingdom categorically and defiantly public.

They have appeared in full view of Trump, who has long been associated with golf and who has been critical of Saudi Arabia as a presidential candidate, publicly pressing top athletes to withdraw from the PGA Tour to the LIV series, which has attracted top players with offers of millions of dollars with guaranteed money. It will air again this weekend, when the Saudi-backed series will be starring at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. It is expected to appear again in October, when the Trump Games near Miami is due to host this year’s final event.

Like much in Trump’s orbit, the deepening relationship, which could eventually raise concerns about a conflict of interest if the former president returns to public office, is one of mutual interest and an ambiguous wellspring. It is not clear how much the Trump Organization will gain by hosting the Saudi-funded events.

Far from any money, the company’s suite of courses is gaining new interest, crucially for a flattering ex-president, a track record of hosting some of the world’s best golfers.

As Trump takes his place, for the time being, as a neighboring figure of big sports, the Saudi fund is picking up a statement by a former US president on a strategy that has sometimes been condemned as “sports laundering.”

“I think it’s money, it’s greed, it’s power,” said Brett Eggelson, the head of 9/11 justice, who has raised questions about whether any Saudi officials had a role in the 2001 attacks.

“It’s pointless to have a former president profit from those accused of killing our family,” said Eggelson, whose father died at the World Trade Center.

Some Americans with extensive experience in the Middle East see a former president as unhesitatingly seeking money but little risk to the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“For him, that’s a business thing, and I don’t think he’s particularly concerned about the image you’re going to give him,” Joseph W. Westphal, the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration, said of Trump.

He added that LIV Golf is “another commercial venture for the Saudis and I’m sure they hope to improve their image.”

Golf is not the only sporting interest in Saudi Arabia. Last year, the Public Investment Fund, which is overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, helped buy a football team from the English Premier League, and also invested money in boxing and Formula 1 racing.

A spokesman for Trump, whose successor, President Biden, met the crown prince in Saudi Arabia this month, was not permitted an interview. Neither the spokesperson nor the Trump Organization representative responded to written questions.

But Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Monday that “life has been a wonderful thing for Saudi Arabia, for the image of Saudi Arabia.”

Trump has not always been infatuated with the Saudi government. As a presidential candidate in 2016, he accused the Saudis of a role on 9/11, rallied Saudi Arabia with Qatar during a debate, and said the country includes “people who push gays” out of buildings and “kill women and treat women. Horrendous.”

But upon arriving in the Oval Office, Trump adopted a more conciliatory tone. His first foreign trip as president was to Riyadh, where he was given a warm welcome. In 2018, after US intelligence officials concluded that Prince Mohammed authorized the killing of Khashoggi, Trump publicly resisted their analysis and accepted the crown prince’s denial of responsibility.

After Trump left office, his allies, with money to earn and influence to keep, turned to Saudi Arabia as a business pipeline. The sovereign wealth fund has agreed to invest $2 billion in a company controlled by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. The Saudi fund also invested $1 billion in a company run by Steven Mnuchin, who was Trump’s Treasury secretary.

The Trump empire is now openly involved with LIV Golf, which says it wants to “modernize and augment” the sport by offering “golf, but not as you know it”. LIV Golf said Wednesday that it will hold 14 events next year, up from eight in 2022, and will provide $405 million in portfolios, up from the $255 million taken this year.

This weekend’s event in Bedminster, a 54-hole, no-cut event will feature six-time Grand Slam winner Phil Mickelson, and other major championship winners such as Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson. The Trump Organization has been publicly touting its affiliation with the chain for months, and Trump has urged top golfers to join in.

Although the series lured stars such as Mickelson and Johnson, defying the PGA Tour, which imposed a suspension on rebellious golfers, other notable golfers condemned the splinter group. Tiger Woods said the defectors “turned their backs on what allowed them to get into this position”. He also backed the decision of R&A, the British Open’s organizer, to remove Greg Norman, LIV chief executive and two-time Open winner, from festivities in Scotland this month.

R&A has separately warned that it may change the rules for entering the Open, which could complicate the path for LIV golfers to play in one of the world’s most iconic events. Other major leagues could respond similarly.

This may not be all about the Saudi fund, which surprised some observers with its decision to invest in golf, and amortizing money that could have gone toward other goals.

At the very least, Westphal suggested, the Saudis could have chosen a sport with a broader appeal.

Trump turning to sports for work or interest is nothing new.

After a failed attempt to join the ranks of the NFL owners in the 1980s, he controlled a team in the United States Soccer League, which soon collapsed.

As president, he got into discussions about players kneeling during the national anthem and clashed with soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Focusing specifically on college football, he attended some games and lobbied the Big Ten Conference to play the 2020 season which it initially called off due to the coronavirus pandemic. The conference commissioner said Trump went so far as to provide federal support for the Big Ten to test athletes and others. The league rejected the offer, but Trump later claimed, without evidence, during a debate, that he had “brought back the big football.”

After leaving the White House, Trump attended a world championship game, sat far from where former President Jimmy Carter was seen in the same stadium, and joined the Atlanta hymn “Tomahawk Chop,” which Native American groups repeatedly criticized as racist.

But Trump has had a thorny relationship with golf, his favorite sport, and the sport that has interfered with his pursuit of tax cuts. He earned the endorsement of Jack Nicklaus, hosted stars such as Ernie Els and Gary Player for tours and presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to player, Woods and Annika Sorenstam.

The tournament organizers kept a greater distance. R&A has not given an Open to Turnberry award since the Trump Corporation took control of it in 2014, even though the event has been held there four times. (As president, Trump urged his ambassador in London to put pressure on the British government on the matter.)

The PGA League of America, separated from the PGA Tour that fought hard with dissident golfers, decided before Trump became president that it would host the PGA Championship in Bedminster in 2022. But after January 6, 2021, they attacked at the Capitol, the group abandoned their plan and moved the tournament to Oklahoma. The US PGA later reached a settlement with the Trump Organization.

Many observers view the decision to host the Saudi-backed series as an attempt to retaliate, if a somewhat wrong decision could lead to a political cost. For Republicans who have pressured Biden to take a hard line against the crown prince, the presence of LIV Golf in Trump sessions may be an unwelcome distraction, and strategists worry about how voters will respond this fall.

Republican Representative Chip Roy, R-Texas, did not directly criticize Trump, but said in an interview that it was inappropriate to “support” the Saudi series “under Ground Zero in Bedminster.” On TV later, he wondered if representatives of LIV Golf should register with the Ministry of Justice as agents of a foreign government.

“You don’t have to look any further than ex-President Trump, who’s out on the LIV Golf to Bedminster and saying, ‘Ah, this is great propaganda for Saudi Arabia,'” Roy said on Fox Business.

Some of the harshest criticism is coming from families of 9/11 victims, who complain that Trump has previously expressed concerns about Saudi Arabia, to reverse course once his family can turn a profit.

“Trump is the former head of state,” said Eggelson, whose group plans to protest on Friday. “He is the most powerful former person in the world. You are supposed to have a set of morals.”

In a statement this week, LIV Golf spokeswoman Jane McNeill said the series was “intent on booking the best courses in major markets” and that “Bedminster was delighted to have LIV”.

Wednesday morning, Trump said he’s made it to the championships. He immediately began promoting the event, and for the players, money is at stake.

Bill Bennington Contribute to the preparation of reports.

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