China has granted preliminary approval for 38 new Trump trademarks, a move that offers a potential business foothold for President Donald Trump's family company and protects his name in a country notorious for counterfeiters.
The trademarks cover everything from hotels and golf clubs to bodyguard and concierge services, public documents show.
Trump's lawyers in China applied for the marks in April 2016, as Trump railed against China at campaign rallies, accusing it of currency manipulation and stealing U.S. jobs. Critics maintain that Trump's swelling portfolio of China trademarks raises the possibility of conflicts of interest.
China's Trademark Office published the provisional approvals on February 27 and Monday.
If no one objects, they will be formally registered after 90 days. All but three are in the president's own name. China already registered one trademark to the president, for Trump-branded construction services on February 14, the result of a 10-year legal battle that turned in Trump's favor after he declared his candidacy.
Ethics lawyers across the political spectrum say that if Trump receives any special treatment in securing trademark rights, it would violate the U.S. Constitution, which bans public servants from accepting anything of value from foreign governments unless approved by Congress. Concerns about potential conflicts of interest are particularly sharp in China, where the courts and bureaucracy are designed to reflect the will of the ruling Communist Party.
Trump Organization chief legal officer Alan Garten said the company has been enforcing its intellectual property rights for more than a decade in China and began registering trademarks relating to its core real estate brand years before Trump announced his presidential run.
“The latest registrations are a natural result of those longstanding, diligent efforts and any suggestion to the contrary demonstrates a complete disregard of the facts as well as a lack of understanding of international trademark law,” he said in an email.
China's State Administration for Industry and Commerce, which oversees the Trademark Office, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Dan Plane, a director at Simone IP Services, a Hong Kong intellectual property consultancy, said he had never seen so many applications approved so expeditiously.
Plane said he would be “very, very surprised” if officials from the ruling Communist Party were not monitoring Trump's intellectual property interests. “This is just way over your average trademark examiner's pay grade,” he said.
The marks include branded spa and massage services, golf clubs, hotels, insurance, finance and real estate companies, restaurants, bars, and a trademark class that covers bodyguards, social escorts, and concierge services.
It's not clear whether any Trump-branded businesses will materialize in China. Garten did not elaborate on how the trademarks would be used, but said the company did not apply for a trademark for social escort services.
Garten said in an email to the AP that part of the application included concierge and security related services associated with the operation of a hotel or restaurant, but not “escort services,” a legal trademark classification.
Those hotel-related services fall into the same trademark class as escort services, which were included in the Chinese government's preliminary approval of the mark. The filing lists “escort service,” “body guard,” and “social escort,” among others.
Protection from name exploitation
Many companies register trademarks in China only to prevent others from using their name inappropriately.
Janet Satterthwaite, a global trademark attorney and partner at Potomac Law Group in Washington, says nothing about Trump seeking and receiving trademarks in China raises any immediate red flags.
“Especially in China, you absolutely need to register defensively so that people do not exploit your name for commercial gain,” she said. She that that while the marks are moving faster than in her own experience, “it does not look like China did anything extraordinary here.”
Spring Chang, a founding partner at Chang Tsi & Partners, a Beijing law firm that has represented the Trump Organization, declined to comment specifically on Trump's trademarks. But she said she advises clients to take out marks defensively, even in categories or subcategories of goods and services they may not aim to develop.
“I don't see any special treatment to the cases of my clients so far,” she added. “I think they're very fair and the examination standard is very equal for every applicant.”
But ethics experts - and Democrats - say a government's discretion to approve trademarks could turn into an opportunity to exercise leverage over the U.S. president.
Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said the volume of new approvals raised red flags.
“A routine trademark, patent or copyright from a foreign government is likely not an unconstitutional emolument, but with so many trademarks being granted over such a short time period, the question arises as to whether there is an accommodation in at least some of them,” he said.
Painter and Norman Eisen, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer for President Barack Obama, are involved in a lawsuit alleging that Trump's foreign business ties violate the U.S. Constitution. Trump has dismissed the lawsuit as “totally without merit.”
Three of the new China trademarks are for Scion, a hotel brand Trump's sons are looking to expand in the U.S. Unlike almost all of Trump's China trademarks, they are registered in the name of a Delaware company called DTTM Operations LLC, rather than Donald J. Trump himself. The Trump Organization has transferred ownership of dozens of trademarks from the president to DTTM Operations LLC since its incorporation in January 2016.
Trump has said he assigned all his business interests to a trust overseen by one of his sons, Donald Trump Jr., and a longtime Trump Organization executive, Allen Weisselberg. However, Trump retains the ability to revoke the trust at any time and as the sole beneficiary stands to benefit financially from it.
Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland said the Chinese trademarks stand as a prime example of how Trump's refusal to divest from his businesses as previous presidents have done raises ethical questions.
“They're trying to curry favor with the president,” he said.