As the Senate investigates Saudi Arabia’s business interest in professional golf, one possible future senator is revealing little about his own financial ties to the Saudis: David McCormick, the Republican businessman who is widely expected to challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania.
McCormick is the former CEO of Bridgewater Associates, an investment firm that works with sovereign wealth funds like the one maintained by Saudi Arabia. He reportedly pushed for Bridgewater to demonstrate loyalty to the Saudis amid international outrage over Saudi agents’ murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And he is married to a fellow financier, Dina Powell McCormick, a longtime Goldman Sachs executive who is known for her links to Saudi officials and recently took a new job partly focused on sovereign wealth funds.
The web of relationships could pose a political liability for McCormick as he seeks office ― and an ethical challenge if he is ultimately elected.
Last month’s announcement of a deal between the U.S.-based PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) to create a new golfing behemoth has sparked new concern about Washington’s already controversial relationship with Riyadh. In addition to scrutiny from the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, the merger is under investigation by the Justice Department.
The agreement “is not one that I can …in good conscience support,” former PGA Tour policy board member Randall Stephenson wrote in a July 8 letter announcing his resignation from the board. Stephenson said he had “serious concerns” and cited U.S. intelligence blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who chairs the PIF, for the brutal killing of Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post.
Broadly speaking, America’s addiction to Saudi money and its decades of partnership with the kingdom have had appalling consequences, critics of the U.S.-Saudi relationship say. They argue that the U.S.’s chummy approach has enabled Saudi human rights abuses while fueling threats to America’s national security and global stability, from terrorism to Russia’s war on Ukraine.
A handful of lawmakers and activists want to overhaul the status quo. But Saudi influence over U.S. officials makes their work harder.
“The Saudi regime has made clear over and over again that it’s willing to use financial, economic, any sort of business incentive it has to garner influence over American politics. So whenever we hear of anybody running for office, I think it’s imperative to know: Do they have business interests in Saudi? Have the Saudis invested in their business here? What sort of interactions have they had with Saudi lobbying or [public relations] firms?” said Ben Freeman, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “It’ll give [voters] a sense of how potentially vulnerable this person might be to Saudi influence.”
Freeman cited one example in which that question would be especially salient for a public office-holder: if Congress tried to block a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, as it has repeatedly since 2015 as the Saudis have used U.S. equipment to kill civilians in a military campaign in Yemen.
“If you’re a sitting senator and you have the opportunity to vote on stopping an arms sale but you know you have financial ties in Saudi Arabia, there’s a clear conflict of interest there,” he said.
A spokesperson for McCormick did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
For now, the lack of clarity about his Saudi association is not deterring top Republicans from aggressively recruiting McCormick, believing his wealth ― he loaned his campaign $14 million in 2022 ― and profile as a veteran turned CEO are their best hope of crushing Casey, a three-term incumbent. The GOP wants to attack Casey as a creature of Washington with conflicts of interest of his own.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently pointed to just four states as crucial to the party’s hopes of winning control of the Senate. Three of them were deep red. The fourth was Pennsylvania.
McCormick is currently highlighting his views on foreign policy as he promotes a new book about U.S. competition with China, “Superpower in Peril.”
As Bridgewater’s CEO from 2017 to 2022 ― he first shared the title then held it single-handedly starting in 2020 ― he mostly worked on winning clients, according to The Financial Times. His work of “building the business” took him “all over the place,” specifically the Middle East, McCormick said on the “Jocko” podcast last month.
Bridgewater does not disclose its foreign customers.
Yet in a filing that the firm provided to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2021 and HuffPost reviewed, Bridgewater said that in 2021 it handled money for eight sovereign wealth funds and that 58% of its clients were not U.S. citizens or residents.
And a 2020 Wall Street Journal piece about the company revealed that some Bridgewater staff were concerned about taking money from Saudi investors and Chinese state-linked clients. McCormick advocated for sustaining ties with the Saudis despite Khashoggi’s 2018 slaughter “because such loyalty would be valued highly,” an employee told the Journal. (A Bridgewater representative retorted that the company “doesn’t know of anything like that being said about any of Bridgewater’s clients.”)
Bridgewater did not respond to a request for details on McCormick’s Saudi-related work.
Beyond Bridgewater, McCormick developed links to Saudi officials through Dina Powell, whom he married in 2019. She’s now known as Dina Powell McCormick.
Before they were married, Powell worked on Middle East issues for President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2018, with a focus on U.S.-Saudi ties. When Crown Prince Mohammed made a high-profile visit to the U.S. in the spring of 2018, she and McCormick attended an exclusive dinner with the de facto Saudi ruler.
After she left the Trump administration to return to the investment bank Goldman Sachs, Powell McCormick specifically worked on government-backed funds, particularly those in the Middle East, and helped Goldman contend for the initial public offering of the Saudi state oil company Aramco. “Her time in the U.S. government and her Arabic-speaking abilities have made Powell McCormick among the best-connected Wall Street executives in the region,” the Journal said.
Simultaneously, she has tried to boost her husband’s political prospects, for instance through a failed bid to win McCormick an endorsement from Trump in Pennsylvania’s 2020 Republican Senate primary and in multiple campaign appearances.
Powell McCormick is now tackling a new post at the merchant bank BDT & MSD Partners and will still be concentrating on sovereign wealth funds, according to the Journal.
Powell McCormick has not yet begun her new job.
A spokesperson for BDT & MSD declined to comment on whether her work will include dealing with the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
Earlier this year, she opened a conference organized by the PIF by moderating a panel with the fund’s chief, Yasir Al-Rumayyan. Powell McCormick had “had the privilege of working with [him] for many, many years,” she noted.
Tendrils Of Saudi Influence
U.S. elections are closely watched by Saudi Arabia, which relies on American military backing for its security. They are especially vital when the Saudis face the risk of a real change to their relationship with the U.S. ― as they did in 2020 when President Joe Biden promised to avenge Khashoggi and as they might in 2024 with months ahead of debate over the golf deal.
The kingdom is already signaling that it will help those who are willing to help it, observers say, and some are heeding the call.
The Saudi PIF has invested $2 billion in a fund run by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and $1.5 billion in another fund run by Trump-era Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
“The Kushner example is a calling card for Saudi Arabia and what it says is… if you play ball, the Saudis will pay you,” Freeman said.
As he campaigns to take on Biden, Trump is highlighting his Saudi ties, saying the kingdom’s rulers are “great people [who] wanted to help us.”
The Saudi-backed alternative to the PGA Tour announced on Monday that it would move its end-of-season championship from Saudi Arabia to Trump’s golf club in Miami. “Oh look, Saudi Arabia is moving to put more money in Donald Trump’s pocket,” the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) tweeted in response.
For McCormick, the pressure to offer real transparency about his Saudi links seems likely to grow. His wife’s extensive ties merit attention, too, in Freeman’s view: He noted that there is a history of powerful interests trying to manipulate politicians through their spouses, including on national security matters.
The Saudi relationship shows McCormick is unfit for office, according to Maddy McDaniel, a senior communications adviser to the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
“The real David McCormick is a multimillionaire hedge fund executive who sold out Pennsylvanians to enrich himself and his Wall Street friends,” she wrote in an email. “Pennsylvanians deserve someone fighting every day for their bottom line, not for ... the billion-dollar bottom line of the Saudi royal family.”
In his unsuccessful last run for a Pennsylvania Senate seat, McCormick said he would put his assets in a blind trust if he were elected.
Yet more detailed information about his financial interests could be the only way to build greater public confidence.
“My advice is: Number one, don’t have these ties in the first place ― do your best not to make bankroll off of working for dictators,” Freeman said. “But if you can’t do that, the very least you can do is disclose it ― and let the voters decide for themselves how much they care about it.”