Donald J. Trump has long toyed with becoming a sports baron.
He tried for years to buy an NFL franchise and was a face of a second-tier football league that collapsed. He backed a would-be rival to Major League Baseball that never materialized and briefly put his name on a race for elite cyclists.
Now, after decades of failure and rejection in sports, the former president is embracing an athletic gambit with an urgent craving for credibility: LIV Golf, the invitational series that has upended professional golf and, flush with money from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, is seen as another Saudi effort to use sports as a reputation sanitizer.
Coming as the former president weighs another White House campaign and as diplomats navigate a complex relationship strained by Saudi Arabia’s human rights record — including the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a source of international outrage that Trump has repeatedly played down — the Trump family’s choice to welcome LIV Golf to two of its courses this year carries the starkest geopolitical overtones of any of Trump’s sports forays.
It could also undermine the get-tough message that many Republicans have sounded on Saudi Arabia, and it is making some of the Trump family’s ties to the kingdom decidedly, and defiantly, public.
They roared into view as Trump, who has long been associated with golf and who was critical of Saudi Arabia as a presidential candidate, publicly pressed top athletes to default from the PGA Tour to the LIV series, which has lured top players with offers of millions of dollars in guaranteed money. They will be displayed again this weekend, when the Saudi-backed series will hold a tournament at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in New Jersey. And they are expected to surface again in October, when a Trump course near Miami is scheduled to host the final event of the year.
Like much in Trump’s orbit, the deepening relationship, which could ultimately pose concerns about conflicts of interest if the former president ever returns to public office, is one of mutual convenience and murky provenance. It is not clear how much the Trump Organization will make from hosting the Saudi-financed events.
Beyond any money, though, the company’s portfolio of courses is gaining fresh attention and, crucially to a former president who seeks adulation, a record of hosting some of the world’s finest golfers.
And as Trump takes his place, for the moment, as a figure adjacent to big-time sports, the Saudi fund is picking up a former American president’s imprimatur on a strategy that has sometimes been condemned as “sportswashing.”
“I think it’s money, it’s greed, it’s power,” said Brett Eagleson, the president of 9/11 Justice, which has raised questions about whether any Saudi officials had a role in the 2001 attacks.
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“It’s a nonstarter to have a former president profiting from those who are accused of murdering our family members,” said Eagleson, whose father died at the World Trade Center.
Some Americans with extensive experience in the Middle East see a former president unhesitatingly pursuing money but few hazards to the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“To him, it’s a commercial thing, and I don’t think he’s particularly worried about the image it will give him,” Joseph W. Westphal, an American ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration, said of Trump.
LIV Golf, he added, is “another commercial venture by the Saudis that I’m sure they hope will improve their image.”
Golf is not Saudi Arabia’s only sports interest. Last year, the Public Investment Fund, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman oversees, helped purchase a Premier League soccer team, and it has also put money into boxing and Formula 1 racing.
A spokesman did not make Trump, whose successor, President Biden, met with the crown prince in Saudi Arabia this month, available for an interview. Neither the spokesman nor a Trump Organization representative responded to written questions.
But Trump told The Wall Street Journal on Monday that “LIV has been a great thing for Saudi Arabia, for the image of Saudi Arabia.”
A swelling affection for Saudi Arabia
Trump was not always in love with the Saudi government. As a presidential candidate in 2016, he accused Saudis of a role in Sept. 11, and, grouping Saudi Arabia with Qatar during a debate, he said that the country included “people that push gays” from buildings and “kill women and treat women horribly.”
Upon his arrival in the Oval Office, though, Trump adopted a far more conciliatory tone. His first foreign trip from him as president was to Riyadh, where he revealed in a lavish welcome. In 2018, after American intelligence officials concluded that Prince Mohammed had authorized Khashoggi’s killing, Trump publicly resisted their analysis and accepted the crown prince’s denials of responsibility.
After Trump left his office, his allies, with money to make and clout to keep, turned to Saudi Arabia as a business pipeline. The sovereign wealth fund agreed to invest $2 billion in a firm controlled by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. The Saudi fund also put $1 billion into a firm run by Steven Mnuchin, who had been Trump’s Treasury secretary.
Now the Trump empire has become openly enmeshed with LIV Golf, which says it wants to “modernize and supercharge” the sport by delivering “golf, but not as you know it.” LIV Golf said Wednesday that it would hold 14 events next year, up from eight in 2022, and offer $405 million in purses, an increase from the $255 million that is up for grabs this year.
This weekend’s event at Bedminster, a 54-hole, no-cut competition, will include Phil Mickelson, the six-time major tournament winner, and other winners of major championships like Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio García and Dustin Johnson. The Trump Organization has been openly promoting its affiliation with the series for months, and Trump has urged top golfers to join it.
Although the series has lured stars like Mickelson and Johnson, defying the PGA Tour, which has imposed suspensions on the rebel players, other leading golfers have condemned the breakaway group. Tiger Woods said that defectors had “turned their back on what has allowed them to get to this position.” He also supported the decision of the R&A, the British Open’s organizer, to banish Greg Norman, LIV’s chief executive and a two-time Open victor, from festivities in Scotland this month.
The R&A separately warned that it could change the entry rules for the Open, potentially complicating the pathway for LIV golfers to play in one of the world’s most prestigious events. Other major tournaments could respond similarly.
That may not be all that relevant to the Saudi fund, which surprised some observers with its decision to invest in golf, consuming money that could have gone toward other objectives.
At the very least, Westphal suggested, the Saudis could have chosen a sport with broader appeal.
Sports ties before and after the White House
That Trump would turn to sports for business or attention is not new.
After a failed bid to join the ranks of NFL owners in the 1980s, he controlled a team in the United States Football League, which quickly folded.
As president, I have entered debates over players kneeling during the national anthem and clashed with the soccer star Megan Rapinoe. I have placed a particular focus on college football, attending some games and lobbying the Big Ten Conference to play the 2020 season it had initially canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump went as far as to offer the Big Ten federal support to test athletes and others, the conference’s commissioner has said. The league rejected the offer, but Trump later claimed, without evidence, during a debate, that he had “brought back Big Ten football.”
After leaving the White House, Trump attended a World Series game and, seated far from where former President Jimmy Carter has been spotted in the same stadium, joined Atlanta’s “tomahawk chop” chant, which Native American groups have frequently criticized as racist.
But Trump has had a thorny relationship with golf, his favorite sport and one that overlapped with his pursuit of tax deductions. He won the endorsement of Jack Nicklaus, has hosted stars like Ernie Els and Gary Player for rounds and presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Player, Woods and Annika Sorenstam.
Tournament organizers have kept greater distance. The R&A has not awarded an Open to Turnberry since Trump’s company assumed control of it in 2014, even though the event had been played there four times. (As president, Trump urged his ambassador to London to pressure the British government on the matter.)
The PGA of America, which is separate from the PGA Tour that has battled so harshly with the breakaway golfers, decided before Trump became president that it would host the PGA Championship at Bedminster in 2022. But after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the group abandoned its plan and moved the tournament to Oklahoma. The PGA of America later reached a settlement with the Trump Organization.
Many observers regard the decision to host the Saudi-backed series as an effort at retaliation, if a somewhat misdirected one that could exact a political cost. For Republicans who have pressed Biden to take a hard line against the crown prince, LIV Golf’s presence at Trump’s courses could prove unwelcome distractions, and strategists have worried about how voters could respond this fall.
Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, did not directly criticize Trump, but said in an interview that it was inappropriate to “prop up” the Saudi series “in the shadow of ground zero at Bedminster.” On television later, I questioned whether LIV Golf’s representatives should register with the Justice Department as agents of a foreign government.
“You don’t have to look any further than former President Trump, who in hawking LIV Golf coming to Bedminster, is out saying, oh, hey, this is great publicity for Saudi Arabia,” Roy said on Fox Business.
Some of the fiercest criticism is coming from families of the Sept. 11 victims, who complain that Trump had previously given voice to their misgivings about Saudi Arabia, only to reverse course once his family stood to profit.
“Trump is the former head of state,” said Eagleson, whose group is planning a protest on Friday. “He’s the former most powerful person in the world. You’re supposed to have a set of morals.”
In a statement this week, a LIV Golf spokeswoman, Jane MacNeille, said that the series had been “intent on booking the top courses in top markets” and that “Bedminster was pleased to have LIV.”
On Wednesday morning, Trump said that he had arrived for the tournament. He immediately began promoting the event and, for the players, the money at stake.
Bill Pennington contributed reporting.