We all know Donald Trump is facing a world of hurt from several quarters. His real estate empire has led to a felony conviction—tax fraud, specifically—and must cough up $1.6 million in fines. He also faces multiple criminal investigations related to his attempts to steal an election that he knew he lost, as well as his conscious decision to abscond with classified documents.
And now a new time bomb could potentially be ticking over Trump’s favorite sport: golf. The legal battle rages on between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, the upstart golf tour fronted by Greg Norman and bankrolled by Saudi Arabia. According to Golfweek, this legal stoush could add to Trump’s legal and political woes if the PGA Tour is able to compel discovery from LIV’s sugar daddy, the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
If the PGA Tour is successful, we could learn information about the relationship between Trump and the fund that both Riyadh and Mar-a-Lago would rather stay hidden.
Last August, 11 golfers who had bolted to LIV Golf filed an anti-trust suit against the PGA Tour, in hopes of overturning the PGA Tour’s decision to rule them ineligible for PGA Tour events while playing in LIV Golf. Later that month, LIV Golf itself joined the suit after four of the original player-plaintiffs pulled out. The PGA Tour then countersued in September, claiming that LIV Golf was trying to get a “free ride” off the PGA Tour’s established fame.
Late last week, Golfweek columnist Eamon Lynch—who doubles as the co-host of Golf Today on the Golf Channel—revealed that the PGA Tour wants to put the fund under the legal equivalent of an electron microscope.
The proceedings have detoured into an intriguing cul-de-sac as the Tour seeks to compel discovery from the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, which is bankrolling LIV, and the Fund’s governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan.
The Tour argues that LIV is owned by the Saudi fund and that Al-Rumayyan is the league’s ultimate authority, making discovery from those parties key to its case. The Saudis have been frantically trying to evade any discovery. The Fund is claiming foreign sovereign immunity as an organ of the Saudi state, while Al-Rumayyan submitted to the court an affidavit saying that he would be exposed to a possible 20-year prison term under Saudi law if he were to disclose classified information.
In Lynch’s mind, this argument is hogwash. His article went live hours after a hearing revealed the fund owns a commanding 93% stake in LIV Golf and foots the bill for all of its costs. As Lynch rightly puts it, it’s “piffle” and “laughable” for the fund to claim that it’s “a mere bystander” in this case. According to sports law expert Jodi Balsam, there’s a “commercial activities” exemption to sovereign immunity. If the fund essentially owns LIV Golf lock, stock, and barrel, it really doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It doesn’t help matters that LIV Golf asked for an expedited hearing and promised cooperation from Riyadh.
Now where does Trump come in? Well, Lynch notes that even a limited discovery process could lead to a closer examination of the relationship between Trump and the fund, which is ultimately controlled by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—also known as Mohammed Bone Sawman. If the fund fell afoul of a longstanding federal ban on foreign governments influencing domestic politics, it will only add to the myriad questions about where Trump’s loyalties laid—and still lie.
Lynch cites another fund investment that could potentially raise red flags about political motives—one that involves former first son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The Public Investment Fund — which is ultimately controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — invested $2 billion in a private equity company owned by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, over the objections of its own advisors. The LIV project was thought inviable by the Fund’s consultants, McKinsey and Company, yet another couple of billion dollars has been torched there. If the Saudi fund is making investments that are economically irrational, discovery might unearth motives that are grounded not in profit nor sportswashing, but in politics.
To be sure, LIV Golf has problems more fundamental than potential sportswashing. For instance, this summer one of the players’ own lawyers admitted that prize money at LIV Golf tournaments is “recouped against the LIV contracts”—raising the appearance that players are essentially competing for nothing. To the mind of USA Today’s Prince Grimes, such a scheme “completely undermines the competitiveness” of LIV Golf events, and makes them “not the type(s) of events” that are worth a wager. Since Lynch’s article published on Jan. 14, at least three senior executives have quit, and the schedule isn’t complete yet.
But now we find ourselves asking if LIV’s de facto owner is trying to illegally put a thumb on our political scale. If the answer to that question is yes, then Trump will have a lot of explaining to do about his ties to LIV Golf and the fund.