“He's Setting Himself Up as a Shadow President”
Former White House Ethics Czar Richard Painter on why it matters that Donald Trump is reportedly using the presidential seal for the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour
Donald Trump greets Phil Mickelson on the driving range during Day One of the LIV Golf Invitational—Bedminster at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on July 29, 2022. (Photo by Charles Laberge/LIV Golf via Getty Images)
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I’ve been fascinated by the tensions caused by the emergence of the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour, a tournament currently being hosted at Bedminster, one of Donald Trump’s courses. This is partly because Trump’s long-standing feud with the PGA (who broke with him over January 6) is in my reporting wheelhouse, but also simply because I love playing the game of golf.
It’s occurred to me as I’ve read the reporting about the rifts between golfers such as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau—who have reportedly taken individual payments between $90 million and $200 million from LIV Golf (whose major shareholder is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia)—and those who have stuck with the PGA that, if you’re not a golfer, you might not understand the full thorniness of this.
Here’s my luddite explainer (with apologies to the many golfers who might put it much better):
With the exception of Tiger Woods in his prime, it’s very rare for the world’s best golfers to play at the very top of the sport consistently. Think about Jordan Spieth’s debacle on the twelfth tee at Augusta in 2016 or Rory McIlroy’s meltdown, also at Augusta, in 2011. In this sense, golf is unique. Men’s tennis, for example, is very different. It has been dominated by the “Big Four” for the last decade (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray), and a new four is emerging. Tom Brady has dominated football for two decades, and so on. But golf? The reason so many people who have the time become addicted to it is that one day they play so well they feel they could score as well as a pro and the next day they play so badly it looks as though they’ve never picked up a club. And their experience is not much different on the PGA, which is why you can get so many surprise winners, such as Cameron Smith two weeks ago at the British Open in St. Andrews. Eighteen months ago, Smith was pretty much unheard of, and then he took the top prize.
The money in golf has reflected this uncertainty. Top players get sponsorships, but the players with the talent to unseat them—a very real possibility, as showed by Smith—often do not. And don’t get me started on the women! I once was taught by a woman who played on the LPGA, and she described the horror show of sharing nasty hotel rooms in nasty cities…for no money! Small wonder she was teaching me how to hit my sand-wedge instead.
So, part of me does understand why a rookie golfer with oodles of talent and no sponsorship would say to the LIV tour, Thanks so much—I’ll take your money rather than face the financial uncertainty that comes with the PGA and LPGA.
But complicating all this, in the way that only he can complicate things, is Trump. His alliance with LIV and his bad-mouthing of the PGA (after their desertion of his golf courses) has led to accusations of blood-money and complaints from families of victims of 9/11.
And now we have today’s news: Trump has reportedly plastered the presidential seal on towels, on golf carts, and on other items at Bedminster—which the Washington ethics group CREW believes to be a federal crime.
But what does this mean? Will anything happen as a result? Or like so many of the ethics breaches we saw in the Trump administration—and which I reported on—will everyone just carry on as if nothing had happened?
I turned, as usual, to former Bush ethics czar Richard Painter for his opinion. If you read what Painter says closely, you’ll see he says that what matters is who is in attendance at Bedminster. Are there any foreign leaders? If there are, “it’s serious,” says Painter.
What follows is edited and condensed for clarity. Take a read:
PAINTER: What's the criminal statute being cited?
WARD: 18 U.S.C. § 713(a): It is a crime to quote knowingly display “any printed or other likeness of the seal of the president of the United States… or any facsimile thereof, in, or in connection with…any building, monument, or stationery, for the purpose of conveying, or in a manner reasonably calculated to convey, a false impression of sponsorship or approval by the Government of the United States.”
PAINTER: That makes sense. So the Trump golf course is doing this?
WARD: Yes. Right now they're hosting the LIV golf tournament, which is the Saudi-backed golf tournament.
PAINTER: Yeah. Well, this is serious… There's the Logan Act. This came up in 2016 when [Trump] was running for president. And then again during the transition phase where Trump people, including General Flynn and others, were reaching out to the Russians.
Trump was accused of conducting foreign policy on behalf of the United States while President Obama was in office. Now there's some complicated, constitutional issues with trying to enforce the Logan Act because candidates all the time [are] going to reach out to foreign governments, and we can't prevent them from doing that.
WARD: So, would legal action even be enforceable then?
PAINTER: Well, yes, it could be by the Justice Department. And I think that the reason why I'm particularly worried about it [is that] he’s not just promoting his golf course—he is reaching out to foreign governments and the Saudis in particular and purporting to be speaking with the authority of the government [of] the United States. And so this is a clear misuse of the presidential seal because it's part of a pattern that may well be violating the Logan Act where he's purporting to speak up on behalf of the United States government and conducting our policy.
It's a much more serious violation than a situation where he [was] just using the presidential seal to sell golf balls or golf clubs. This is the use of the presidential seal in a tournament apparently where high-ranking Saudi government people are going to be in attendance.
Donald Trump and Yasir al-Rumayyan, head of the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, look on from the second tee during the pro-am prior to the LIV Golf Invitational—Bedminster at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on July 28, 2022. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
He's setting himself up as a shadow president while President Biden is in office. And then you combine that with the fact that he has been running around saying he actually won the election and he is really the rightful president. You put all that together, and it's extremely dangerous what he's doing.
And then to put everything on top of it, he is at the same time accepting enormous amounts of money from the Saudi Arabians.
WARD: How quickly would the Justice Department have to act? I mean, can they turn around and tell Trump to take these seals down?
PAINTER: Well, that's what they ought do. They ought to immediately write him a letter saying to take the seals down. I think one letter went out when I was in the Bush White House. From the White House, we wrote someone a letter. So the White House counsel could send a letter, too. And [they] should say that those seals need to be taken down right away. Because [of] violation of the statute and [because of how] they may be being used, as I said, in connection with conduct that also violates the Logan Act, which makes it that much worse.
WARD:Thank you, Richard. As always, much appreciated.