When he first ran for president in 2016, Donald Trump invoked the 9/11 terrorist attacks regularly. The destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 offered a lot of points of political utility for Trump, from his claims about having helped clear rubble at Ground Zero (which appears to be false) to repeatedly using it as an example of the dangers of terrorism. At times, he cast himself as something of a victim, saying he saw people jumping from the building or describing the “hundreds” of friends he lost that day. At others, he touted his generosity in response.
The attacks also offered him another useful political tool. Facing former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Trump repeatedly disparaged the war in Iraq, launched in response to 9/11 by Bush’s brother President George W. Bush. To that end, he highlighted the role of Saudi Arabian actors in the attack, drawing the (accurate) distinction between the involvement of Saudis with the lack of connections to Iraq.
During an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity in May 2016, Trump was asked if he would advocate for the release of material from the official report on the terrorist attacks that was believed to implicate Saudi officials in the attack.
“The answer is yes,” Trump replied. “ … And, you know, we got into a war in Iraq that I was totally opposed to. But Iraq did not knock down the World Trade Center, Sean.”
Hannity had also asked if the families of victims should have the right to sue Saudi Arabia. Trump said they should.
“We have to get to the bottom of it,” he said. “And everybody wants to keep it quiet. Everybody wants to keep it secret. I don’t — I think most people know pretty much what’s on those papers, but people do have the right to sue and they should have the right to sue. They lost their loved ones.”
Trump won — and his relationship with and rhetoric around Saudi Arabia quickly changed. The country was the focus of his first foreign trip; he enjoyed a fawning, over-the-top reception. Saudi officials understood that Trump responded positively to lavish praise and excessive spending, something they demonstrated wherever possible. It worked.
By the time killers believed to have been working on behalf of the Saudi crown prince dismembered Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Trump’s willingness to wave away concerns about the kingdom was well established. He couldn’t take a heavy hand in response to Khashoggi’s killing, he said, because the country bought so many weapons and armaments from the United States. (The dollar figure he commonly offered was wildly overstated.) The Saudis were customers, and businessman Trump knew the customer was always right.
For a while, the Khashoggi killing made Saudi Arabia’s government a global pariah. Apparently as part of an effort to reintroduce themselves into polite society, the Saudis backed an upstart golf league, LIV, that would compete with the U.S.-based PGA. In short order, they found a club willing to buck public opprobrium and host a tournament in the United States: Trump’s facility in Bedminster, N.J.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump discussed his willingness to host LIV. Part of it, obviously, is money, the grease that’s allowed the LIV to rapidly build a stable of competitors and advocates. Trump figured the LIV and PGA would merge at some point, with those who had agreed to work with LIV being no different from those who hadn’t, except that they would “have $200 million in their pocket.”
But there’s also an element of revenge. The PGA of America had scheduled the PGA Championship with PGA Tour players at Bedminster this year, pulling the tournament in the days after the Capitol riot. PGA of America is not enthusiastic about LIV with its CEO earlier this year describing it as being not “good for the game.” Welcoming the LIV allowed Trump not only to generate lost revenue for his club, it allowed him to stick a finger in the eye of one of his perceived enemies. To Trump, that’s as much of a win-win as you’ll get.
Not everyone viewed the decision with such enthusiasm. A group of people who had lost family members in the 9/11 attacks were outraged at Trump’s willingness to play along with the Saudi government so explicitly. They petitioned Trump not to host the tournament, even releasing an ad targeting him (and his base of support).
“I’m never going to forget, never going to forgive the golfers for taking this blood money,” one man says. Another woman asks, “how much money to turn your back on your own country?”
Through an aide, Trump reached out to the families, Politico reported this week. A family member recalled that the aide said that “9/11 is really near and dear to [Trump] and it’s so important to him he is going to remember everyone who signed the letter and he personally told this individual to reach out.”
This did not smooth things over.
To the Journal, Trump expressed somewhat less robust sympathy to the families of those killed.
“I don’t know much about the 9/11 families,” he told the paper. “I don’t know what is the relationship to this, and their very strong feelings, and I can understand their feelings. I can’t really comment on that because I don’t know exactly what they’re saying, and what they’re saying who did what.”
(He also marveled at a question about Khashoggi, saying that the controversy “really seems to have totally died down” and that “nobody has asked me that question in months.”)
Waving away the concerns of families of those killed on 9/11 — including first responders whom Trump has often invoked at political events — in favor of taking money from a regime he once criticized would seem fraught for a normal politician considering a potential presidential run. Trump, though, is unlikely to pay any political price.
Consider: On Thursday, Trump will participate in the LIV tournament’s pro-am (that is, foursomes made up of professionals and amateurs), alongside two professional golfers who had joined the upstart league. During a brief segment on “Fox & Friends” on Thursday morning, a show Trump had blasted only days prior, the hosts marveled not at his flip on Saudi Arabia’s culpability but, instead, at his prowess with the sport and his athleticism.