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Trump’s story about why he’s not corrupt made him sound awfully corrupt

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Donald Trump held a press conference Wednesday to assure critics that he is taking steps to resolve the conflicts of interest created by his business dealings. He told a story to the crowd to show how ethical he is. Instead, it made him sound awfully corrupt.

“Over the weekend, I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very amazing man, a great, great developer from the Middle East,” Trump said, referring to Hussain Sajwani, chair of DAMAC Properties. “And I turned it down. I didn’t have to turn it down,” he said.

The story is a good encapsulation of what ethics means to Trump: not directly cashing in, even if he wouldn’t go to jail if he did.

This is not the actual definition of ethics. It is not how to resolve conflicts of interest. And it’s not akin to anything ethics experts have called on him to do. Critics are pushing Trump to remove himself from his business entirely, ideally through a blind trust, as other wealthy politicians have done, to ensure that his financial prospects aren’t coloring his approach to policy.

A conversation with a billionaire developer that ends in “no deal” creates the identical dynamic as one that doesn’t. In this case, Trump talked through “a variety of different property deals,” according to DAMAC, hearing out what kind of business might be available to him now or, very likely, in the future. At the same time, the developer and the government of Dubai are plenty interested in US policy. Just because Trump didn’t sign on the dotted line this weekend doesn’t make the call any more ethical or any less worrisome.

Trump’s televised tale also sends a signal to his business friends (and anyone who wants to be his business friend) around the globe that he’s still taking calls about business. His story about his own ethics was an open invitation to try to corrupt him.

Trump went on to outline his official system to prevent conflicts while in office. He will maintain ownership of the Trump Organization but hand the reins to his adult sons. He carried stacks of manila folders to his press conference and claimed they contained documents he’d signed to relinquish control of his many companies.

The idea that Trump’s kids are the best choice to set a firm barrier between their father and his interests is absurd on its face. Nearly anyone else would be better than the two men he considered confidants through the whole campaign and who are his closest relatives.

Trump’s real plan is “trust me”

The Dubai anecdote illustrates the biggest problem with Trump’s plan to address his conflicts of interest: At the end, the whole plan boils down to “trust me.” Trump hasn’t earned that trust.

He’s asking the American people to trust that he will be able to interact with his adult sons, who will be managing his company, without ever finding out anything about the state of the Trump Organization. He’s asking for trust that his sons won’t play unofficial roles behind the scenes at the White House.

The other promises, too, are just that: promises. Trump says the business will hire an ethics adviser and give that person veto power over future deals. He says he’ll only be apprised of profit and loss for the entire company, not for individual ventures. He says he’ll be able to calculate the profit he’s making from foreign diplomats staying at his hotel, and that he’ll donate it to the US Treasury.

The fact that Trump was apparently working on behalf of his business only a few weeks before he moves into the Oval Office suggests those promises should be viewed skeptically.

The whole point of conflict-of-interest laws is that they eliminate the need for choice, and for trust, in the first place. Most voters probably believe that the candidate they’ve chosen for the presidency has their best interests at heart. But there’s a reason that presidents typically arrange their finances so they don’t even know what investments they hold. It’s so that trust isn’t tested. It’s so presidents never have to face the choice between a good deal for themselves and a good deal for the country. They don’t expect praise for putting America’s interests first because there isn’t supposed to be an alternative.

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