Trump and the Saudis: Is Jack Smith finally looking at this clear-cut corruption?

Trump's links to the Saudi regime and its LIV Golf tour reek of obvious corruption. Maybe Jack Smith has noticed

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 26, 2023 9:50AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during the pro-am prior to the LIV Golf Invitational - Bedminster at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on July 28, 2022. (Jonathan Ferrey/LIV Golf via Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during the pro-am prior to the LIV Golf Invitational - Bedminster at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on July 28, 2022. (Jonathan Ferrey/LIV Golf via Getty Images)

There's a lot of Trump legal news these days, what with the E. Jean Carroll verdict, the Manhattan hush money indictment, the news that Fulton County, Georgia, D.A. Fani Willis has put local authorities on notice to anticipate "something" coming in August, and a cascade of reporting on special counsel Jack Smith's investigation into the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, with some suggestions evidence that will come to a conclusion very soon.

The possible Jan. 6 case against Donald Trump himself remains more obscure, but with the sentencing of Oath Keeper Stewart Rhodes to 18 years in prison for plotting the insurrection on Thursday, it's hard to see how Trump, who incited the riot, isn't equally implicated in what happened that day. But for some reason one obvious case has gotten very little media attention and, as far as we know, very little attention from investigators: Trump's cozy financial relationship with the Saudi-sponsored Public Investment Fund, the desert kingdom's massive sovereign wealth fund. (Its assets are estimated at more than $620 billion.)

It's not at all surprising that the Republican House isn't looking into this. They're busy trying to find disappearing informants in the Hunter Biden laptop case and digging through the Biden family finances. Why the Democratic-led Senate hasn't bothered is another question. But it's obvious that Trump and his family are deeply financially involved with the Saudi government, and considering the fact that Trump is running for president yet again, it's shocking that nobody seems to care. 

While all the other GOP presidential candidates were busy campaigning on Thursday, USA Today reported that Trump was kicking back at Trump National Golf Course in Virginia, which will soon host a tournament on the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour — the third at a property owned by the former president just this year. (Two more will be scheduled at Trump properties in New Jersey and Florida.) Last year, Trump — in typically obtuse style — even scheduled a tournament at the New Jersey club on Sept. 11, drawing outrage from the families of 9/11 victims. Trump said he didn't know what they were talking about and defended Saudi Arabia, telling ESPN that "nobody has gotten to the bottom of 9/11."

It's unclear how much money has actually changed hands, but Trump admits that he's been paid a fee, which he calls "peanuts," by the sponsoring Public Investment Fund, the same Saudi government entity that "invested" in Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner's business to the tune of $2 billion just a couple of months after he left the White House. (That's a deal that makes Hunter Biden's alleged transgressions look like kids gambling for nickels in the lunchroom.) These tournaments generally bring in millions to the clubs that host them so those are some pretty big peanuts.

According to USA Today, a reporter asked Trump whether his resorts have gotten these tournaments because of his favorable policies toward Saudi Arabia as president. He flippantly replied, "Not at all." Apparently, his defense of the Saudi government's assassination and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi wasn't significant. They just love him, and his golf courses.

Trump extolled the virtues of the LIV Golf tour (a rival to the long-dominant PGA), telling reporters, "They have unlimited money, and they love it. And it's been great publicity for Saudi Arabia. They've been great for golf. The Saudis have been fantastic for golf. And ... inside their country, they're going to do some great courses." Indeed, he has signed at least one development deal to license a golf and hotel complex in the Gulf state of Oman, financed by a Saudi firm.

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LIV Golf is a key part of the Saudi regime's program of "sportswashing," meaning as a nation's attempt to use massive investment in sports to cover up for its human rights abuses. (The Saudi fund also took control of the English soccer club Newcastle United in a controversial 2021 deal.) Even aside from the Khashoggi atrocity, many of those horrors happened during Trump's term, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took control of the ruling family by force, rounding up more than 400 members of the Saudi elite and torturing them.

Trump, as you may recall, was very impressed.

"It's like a revolution in a very positive way," he said. That's the kind of support from a U.S. president that lots of money can buy.

Trump has huge investments in his golf course empire, which has suffered because of his Big Lie and the ripple effects of Jan. 6. The PGA tour pulled out of hosting its championship at Trump's club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and the British Open definitely isn't coming back to Turnberry, Trump's Scottish resort. LIV is the only game in town for Trump these days.

According to Trump, his defense of the Saudi regime's murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was irrelevant. They just love him, and his golf courses.

This kind of corruption has been going on since Trump entered politics. He never divested from his businesses after he was elected president and people currying favor with him spent many millions at his various properties, including the golf resorts. The Trump International Hotel in Washington (which he sold last year and is now a Waldorf Astoria) was the social center of Republican politics, channeling money directly into Trump's pockets. The political press occasionally remarked on how unseemly that was and the Democratic Congress clutched its pearls, but of all Trump's scandals, this one never seemed to bother anyone all that much.

There is some evidence suggesting that special counsel Jack Smith may be looking into Trump's connections to LIV Golf in connection with the Mar-a-Lago case. The New York Times reported this a couple of weeks ago:

One of the previously unreported subpoenas to the Trump Organization sought records pertaining to Mr. Trump's dealings with a Saudi-backed professional golf venture known as LIV Golf, which is holding tournaments at some of Mr. Trump's golf resorts.

Just this week, the Times also reported that the subpoena also asked for the Trump Organization's real estate licensing and development deals in China, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman since 2017, when Trump became president. Most of the D.C. punditocracy has dismissed this as nothing more than Smith "dotting his I's and crossing his T's" before he makes his case. Maybe they're right. But at least someone is finally taking a look at what exactly was going on while Trump was running his business out of the Oval Office.

It's never been easy to separate Trump's financial motivations from his massive ego. He's excessively subject to flattery and that's often enough to gain his support. But his relationship with the Saudis clearly has a major financial component, as does Jared Kushner's, and all of that seems to be tied to their time in the White House.

If Trump were just retiring to his golf resorts and taking advantage of all the contacts he made while president, it might be reasonable just to let it go in the interest of never having to think about him again. But he's the clear frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination and he's openly helping the Saudi regime "sportswash" its human rights record while taking unknown millions from it. 

Let's hope that unlike Robert Mueller, who refused to exceed his mandate and look at Trump's finances, Jack Smith sees this for the blatant corruption it is. Otherwise, we're just accepting that it's perfectly OK for presidents and presidential candidates to do big favors for autocratic foreign governments in exchange for money. Are we really that far gone?

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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