The top controversies upending both the sporting world and international relations are coming together this week at Donald Trump’s New Jersey golf club, with the former President stepping right in the middle of the drama.
Starting Friday, Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster will host the third event for LIV Golf, the new Saudi-backed professional circuit that has rocked the sport’s main professional organizer, the PGA Tour, by pulling away big-name golfers with larger, guaranteed paydays.
In the run-up to this weekend’s tournament, Trump has promoted the event in interviews and public statements, encouraging golfers to join LIV Golf and disparaging the PGA Tour.
“Just arrived in Bedminster for the big LIV Tour Golf Tournament,” he posted Wednesday on Truth Social, the social media site he created. “Record money to winners, great excitement. Come on out on Friday, Saturday or Sunday to watch the great play by the best players!”
Trump is benefitting from his professional relationship with LIV Golf, especially after officials at PGA of America pulled the 2022 PGA Championship from Bedminster following the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol. In October, LIV Golf will hold its final competition of the year at another Trump property, Trump National Doral in South Florida.
But while activists, media outlets and others have expressed concerns that LIV Golf provides international legitimacy to the ruling regime in Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of human rights violations for years, Trump has brushed aside such criticisms.
During an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, he spoke approvingly about how the golf tour, which is financed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, has already improved the kingdom’s reputation.
“I think LIV has been a great thing for Saudi Arabia, for the image of Saudi Arabia,” Trump told the Journal.
A spokesman for Trump did not respond to questions from CNN.
Human rights groups and media organizations have questioned both LIV Golf’s organizers and players over the tour’s connection to Saudi Arabia. Several of those questions have centered around the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
A US intelligence report released last year determined that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation to capture or kill the Saudi journalist, confirming reports soon after the murder that the CIA had made the same conclusion. During his presidency, however, Trump publicly downplayed allegations that bin Salman was involved as his administration strengthened US ties with the Saudis.
But LIV Golf’s event at Bedminster has also raised the ire of some survivors and families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Speaking on Tuesday at a press conference near Bedminster, Terry Strada, chair of 9/11 Families United, said the group was “appalled” by the “offensive, disrespectful and hurtful” tournament at Trump’s club, which is just 50 miles from the site of the 2001 New York attack. Strada said she was “very disappointed” in Trump, but noted that he was not the main target of the group’s criticism.
In an interview with ESPN at his club Thursday, Trump reiterated that he has been “friends” with people in Saudi Arabia for a “long time.”
“Frankly, what they’re doing for golf is so great. What they’re doing for the players is so great,” the former President said.
Asked what he would say to the families of 9/11 victims who are protesting the LIV Golf event, Trump appeared to question whether there was knowledge of the Saudi involvement in the terrorist attacks.
“Nobody’s gotten to the bottom of 9/11, unfortunately, and they should have, as to the maniacs that did that horrible thing to our city, to our country, to the world,” he said. “So nobody’s really been there. But I can tell you that there are a lot of really great people that are out here today.”
Following Trump’s remarks, Strada told CNN that the former President “knows full well it was the Kingdom. He did everything in his power to protect the kingdom while in office by reneging on a promise he made to 9/11 families he would declassify FBI reports re: Saudis involvement in 9/11.”
The new circuit has drawn criticism from the PGA Tour, which has suspended players who have signed on with LIV Golf, as well as from some of golf’s biggest stars, including Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. The allure of LIV Golf for the sport’s top athletes – including larger purses and guaranteed payouts – threatens the PGA Tour’s dominance and seems to have caught the legacy organization off guard.
Trump himself seems to be relishing the damage to the PGA Tour, with which he’s had a rocky relationship. While his clubs have hosted events for the PGA and other professional golf events in the past, the PGA Tour has not held an event at a Trump property since a March 2016 tournament at Doral. And after stripping Bedminster of the 2022 PGA Championship, the organization has been squarely in Trump’s sights.
“All of those golfers that remain ‘loyal’ to the very disloyal PGA, in all of its different forms, will pay a big price when the inevitable MERGER with LIV comes, and you get nothing but a big ‘thank you’ from PGA officials who are making Millions of Dollars a year,” Trump wrote last week in a post on Truth Social. “If you don’t take the money now, you will get nothing after the merger takes place, and only say how smart the original signees were.”
This is not the first time Trump has spoken out about professional sports since entering politics. During his presidency, he frequently criticized the National Football League for allowing players to protest during the national anthem. And last year, Trump joined other Republicans in calling on Americans to boycott Major League Baseball after the league moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta following a new Georgia election law.
This story has been updated with additional reaction.
CNN’s Jake Tapper contributed to this report.