Amid the unfolding, contentious court battle between PGA Golf and upstart LIV Golf , it emerged in last month’s proceedings that Saudi Arabia isn’t just a backer of LIV but, in fact, owns a whopping 93% of the new golf league through its sovereign Public Investment Fund (PIF). These revelations raise important ethical and legal concerns with U.S. national security implications involving LIV Golf’s payments – effectively payments from Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), who controls the $620 billion PIF as its “chairman” – to former President Donald Trump.
More disturbingly, these Saudi payments are just a microcosm of a much larger problem of former senior U.S. officials benefiting from highly lucrative deals with foreign governments very soon after leaving office. Congress needs to do something about it – and it can.
Although the Saudi fund’s payments to Jared Kushner and Stephen Mnuchin soon after they left office were known, its payments to Trump were previously more opaque. While LIV Golf initially made public the fact that PIF was its majority shareholder in its very first press release, media coverage highlighted only PIF’s financial backing of the new league, not its near-total ownership or control. Criticism of LIV Golf focused primarily on its role as a vehicle for Saudi Arabia to “sportswash” its disastrous human rights record with a lucrative, flashy new golf league, embroiling its CEO Greg Norman and prominent golf players in the controversy for their association with the kingdom.
Trump has been an early and important cheerleader for LIV Golf, initially framing the new venture as his opportunity to get back at the PGA Tour for canceling its tournament at Trump’s Doral Resort in 2016 and then the 2022 PGA Championship scheduled for Trump’s Bedminster resort following the January 6 insurrection. Trump has urged PGA players to ignore PGA’s threats and play with LIV Golf, promising massive financial rewards. To date, LIV Golf has hosted several tournaments at Trump’s various resorts, including Doral and Bedminster. Trump has flaunted his support by conspicuously participating in the matches, even politicizing it such that support for LIV Golf is seen as a “litmus test” of support for Trump: events at his resort have featured MAGA hats and t-shirts on wide display, chants of “four more years,” and the appearance of prominent conservatives like Tucker Carlson and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Saudi support for Trump’s political ambitions was on full display when PIF’s governor, senior Saudi official Yasir Al-Rumayyan, sported a MAGA hat next to Trump at a LIV Golf event. (It doesn’t stop with golf either; the New York Times and Washington Post reported this month on the Trump Organization agreement with a Saudi real estate company, Dar Al Arkan, to develop a Trump hotel as part of a $4 billion golf resort in Oman.)
These Saudi payments are just a microcosm of a much larger problem of former senior U.S. officials benefiting from highly lucrative deals with foreign governments very soon after leaving office.
While it’s clear that LIV Golf has been paying Trump’s resorts for hosting its events, it has never been clear how much, and whether Trump is also getting a slice of LIV Golf’s proceeds, or even a share of LIV Golf itself. We know that the Trump Organization reported that LIV Golf paid it $2.8 million for just one event at Trump Bedminster, though club members claimed the figure was $4.5 million. We know that Trump resorts will host three LIV Golf tournaments this year. But there appears to be no other public information about LIV payments to Trump, and Trump officials have refused to provide answers.
That we don’t know just how much the Crown Prince has paid or continues to pay Trump and his golf resorts is clearly a legal problem. Federal law restricts negotiations and communications by federal officials – including a president – for future business while they are in office, so it is important as a matter of law to discover when Trump, the PIF or specifically LIV Golf started planning their business deals.
The ethical problems are much graver, particularly when considering the extraordinary favoritism and protection that Trump while in office afforded the Crown Prince. Trump not only rewarded MBS with his first state visit and twice vetoed legislation that would have barred US arms sales, but even had “saved his ass” (in Trump’s words) by keeping secret MBS’s role in ordering the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, effectively preventing sanctions against Crown Prince. It was disturbing enough when MBS paid Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s Affinity Partners – which Kushner established just a day after leaving office — $2 billion dollars as its near sole investor, and Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s fund $1 billion, after they worked to promote the Crown Prince and the Kingdom during their time in office. But to now learn that MBS, the quasi-head of a foreign dictatorship responsible for grotesque abuses, has been paying undisclosed amounts of money to a former U.S. president, who could be president again in 2025, rises to the level of an urgent national security issue.
The bare minimum Congress and the Justice Department should do is launch a thorough investigation to uncover not only how much and pursuant to what terms the Crown Prince has been paying and will pay Trump via their mutual corporate covers, but also to get to the bottom of when they first started discussions for their business dealings – that is, whether these activities influenced US foreign policy when Trump and Kushner, in particular, held office. Though Senator Elizabeth Warren suggested a Justice Department investigation into PIF’s investment with Kushner, and both the House Oversight Committee and the Senate Finance Committee launched investigations into these various matters last year, there has been no news of any administration or congressional progress. Any investigation should now certainly expand to include payments to the former president.
It may be shocking for Americans to realize that there are no laws barring U.S. officials from working or doing business with foreign governments once out of office, despite the indisputable and very dangerous conflicts of interest that creates. The simple reality is that there are no established safeguards to guarantee that federal officials will make decisions in the interests of the American people when they may be counting their impending paychecks from foreign paymasters the minute their term is up. This is what over 500 former military officials, including senior generals – who have been entrusted with defending American citizens and fighting wars on their behalf – have done, obtaining jobs with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other foreign states with incomes exponentially greater than what they could ever earn on a government salary.
Washington, already awash with Saudi and UAE lobbying money, is more vulnerable than ever to innovative influence peddling where oil-rich sovereign wealth funds funnel money under the guise of non-viable investments where the desired returns are political favors, not financial profits. Congress should, with haste, consider legislation that will bar senior civil and military officials from doing any business or work with foreign governments for at least five years after leaving office, modeled on the same law that now bars intelligence officials from such work. The most important piece of legislation now pending, Senator Warren’s Department of Defense Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act, would require a waiver from the Secretary of State for any former senior official in the White House, Departments of Defense, State, and Treasury seeking work with foreign governments or companies doing work predominantly for them. As the recent revelations about Trump’s business dealings make clear, the law should propose a complete ban, with no possible waiver. Nothing less than the independence of our own government depends on it.