President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday laid out his plan for turning over the Trump Organization to his sons and described what he says he will do to avoid the sorts of conflicts of interests that would potentially violate the Constitution. In so doing, though, he offered a bizarre boast that demonstrated why—even if you believe that he has the purest heart of any person elected to high office—it’s hard to trust that Trump’s massive business empire will not cause problems for his administration.
As he was about to announce the plan at a press conference—his first since July—Trump threw in this seemingly random aside:
I have to say one other thing. 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. Hussain. DAMAC. Friend of mine, great guy. And was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai—a number of deals. And I turned it down. I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know, I have a no conflict situation because I’m president, which is—I didn’t know about that until about three months ago, but it’s a nice thing to have. But I don’t want to take advantage of something.
Trump was apparently referring here to Hussain Sajwani, the developer who helms the DAMAC Group.
Sajwani, an associate of Trump’s since 2005 when they nearly went into business together on twin Trump towers in Dubai, according to CNN, had previously partnered with Trump on a pair of golf courses. The first of those was set to open in the first quarter of this year.
Sajwani has said why he likes to deal with Trump—and why dealing with him now that he’s president is even more appealing. "He had a strong brand—and no question in the last 12 months, his brand became stronger and more global. I think it will have a positive impact on sales," Sajwani told CNN in November after Trump's election.
As recently as Tuesday, NBC News reported that Sajwani was planning to use his close relationship with the Trump children—sons Eric and Donald Jr. are taking over the president-elect's business—to further collaborate with the Trump organization.
"All his three children are very much involved, and I think under their leadership we will have no issue in expanding and growing and maintaining our business relation," he said.
"My wife and Ivanka are very good friends," he added. "They send emails. She's been here to my house. We've been in New York having lunch and dinners with them regularly. And, you know, you enjoy working with somebody—it's not only cold business relation."
That NBC report also goes into further details on those close ties and why this all is a problem:
Sajwani was back in the United States after the election and met with Ivanka, who is moving to Washington to be closer to the White House. He and his family attended Trump's New Year's Eve celebration at Mar-a-Lago, where the president-elect gave them a shout-out, calling them "the most beautiful people."
While ethics watchdogs have raised red flags about intersecting interests in sensitive regions like the Middle East, Sajwani brushes off those concerns. He says there's no reason to be worried about the nexus of his close relationship with the emir of Dubai and his financial links to the next occupant of the Oval Office.
Sajwani, who has been called the “Donald of Dubai” for his sense of extravagance in real estate deals, has helped burnish the country’s reputation as a tourist destination to the benefit of the government. He also bought the land for the development that will be the site of the Trump-partnered golf course for $350 million, payable in installments, from Dubai’s government. He said again on Tuesday that he expects to benefit from Trump’s presidency.
"Naturally, I think we will benefit from the strength of the brand going forward," he told NBC.
There are so, so many things wrong with Trump’s boast that him rejecting this apparent new deal—even though he didn’t have to—shows what an upright man he is and how his presidency won't be compromised by conflicts of interest.
First, the rejected offer apparently happened just this past weekend, less than two weeks before Trump was set to become president of the United States. Whatever claims he makes about handing over his business to his kids on Jan. 20, clearly the president-elect is still involved in discussing the business and making decisions about it.
Second, Sajwani’s close links to the Dubai government could in and of themselves make deals with Trump a violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution if the president-elect is receiving business benefits from that foreign government.
Third, the fact that Trump believes he didn’t have to turn down the deal because federal conflicts of interests laws don’t apply to the president—as mentioned, the Constitution still does—demonstrates that he thinks it would be OK to make such a deal when clearly it’s not OK for him to even be discussing such deals.
All in all, the Trump rollout of his conflicts of interest plan did the opposite of offering reassurance that the administration would avoid conflicts of interest. Instead, it merely raised further questions about whether the incoming president’s loyalty was to the U.S., or to his business interests.