President-elect Donald Trump took a page out of the kleptocrats’ playbook when he dismissed concerns about his business dealings after he takes office, telling the New York Times: “The law’s totally on my side. The president can’t have a conflict of interest.”

President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York.

Trump also described his situation as unique: “There’s never been a case like this.” But a tangled web of business and politics is a hallmark of corrupt governments—which is a big part of the reason why past US Presidents have felt obliged to avoid getting tangled up in them.

Trump acknowledged to the Times that during a post-election meeting with British politician Nigel Farage he discussed his opposition to a wind farm that would mar views from his Scottish golf courses. Media reports say he used a congratulatory call from Argentina’s president to push for a stalled building project in Buenos Aires, although the president’s spokesman denied this. Three days later it was announced that the project would go ahead.

Regardless of whether Trump is reading US law correctly, his position is worryingly similar to the argument made by an infamous kleptocrat prosecuted by the US Justice Department for laundering money.   Teodoro Nguema, known as Teodorin, is not just Vice-President of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea but eldest son of its president, currently the world’s longest serving leader.   

Teodorin, then Minister of Forestry, went on a $110 million shopping spree in the United States, allegedly with public funds. He bought a jet, a mansion and Michael Jackson memorabilia – including his white crystal-encrusted Bad tour glove. Prosecutors uncovered a mountain of evidence revealing how he used his official position to make millions from timber concessions and other illicit business dealings. The case was settled when Teodorin agreed to forfeit more than $30 million in assets, but he and his government insisted that his dealings were legal because conflict of interest rules only applied to civil servants and not senior officials.  

The US anti-kleptocracy initiative, started under President George W. Bush and expanded under President Barack Obama has been a signature effort to stop kleptocrats from fleecing their people. The program prosecutes high-level foreign official corruption and seizes ill-begotten proceeds located in the United States.

If Trump is serious about fighting corruption – “Drain the swamp!” – a good start would be to tighten conflict of interest rules instead of announcing his intention to ignore them, so he can continue his predecessors’ aggressive efforts to stop international corruption without looking like a hypocrite.  The US can’t very well lead the charge against kleptocracy if its own President is reading from Teodorin’s script. Trump’s words must be comforting to those who worry that the US might start investigating them, and that should be reason enough to walk them back.