China has given preliminary approval to a raft of trademark requests from President Donald Trump's business empire, renewing concerns of ethics watchdogs that the president's private dealings conflict with his role as leader of a world superpower, and therefore violate the U.S. Constitution.
Trump attorneys filed the 38 trademark applications last April, while Trump was still a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. China's Trademark Office signaled its tentative approval over the past two weeks.
If there is no objection, the trademarks will be officially registered in 90 days. They cover a wide variety of Trump interests, including hotels, restaurants, golf clubs, bars, real estate, finance, and escort and concierge services.
The Trump Organization also received a single trademark approval in February for Trump-branded construction services. That approval came after a 10-year legal battle.
Preferential treatment possible?
Presidential ethics experts say China's favorable consideration of Trump requests buttresses their argument that foreign governments seeking to curry favor with the president would be inclined to show preferential treatment to the president's business interests.
Representatives of the Trump Organization, however, say securing trademarks is a natural part of doing business in countries around the globe in keeping with international law.
The Trump ethics question is already the subject of a federal lawsuit filed in January by the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. The complaint was filed in federal court in New York days after the president was inaugurated. The suit claims Trump’s business dealings create “countless conflicts of interest, as well as unprecedented influence by foreign governments.”
Attorneys for the plaintiff include Norman Eisen, who served as ethics adviser to President Barack Obama, and Richard Painter who held the same position under President George W. Bush. Other attorneys involved include prominent legal luminaries such as Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe and University of California-Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. They argue that Trump’s competing interests violate the U.S. Constitution's Emoluments Clause, which prohibits public servants from accepting anything of value from a foreign government.
In an email conversation with VOA this week, Eisen said, "This new large group of 38 trademarks granted to Trump while he occupies the Oval Office raises similar concerns because of their unprecedented scope and scale." Eisen said he expected to add the latest trademark issue to the January lawsuit, asking, "How can we be sure he [Trump] will advance U.S. interests in his engagements with that country, for example by staunching the flow of American jobs out from the U.S. to China?"
The CREW lawsuit also notes that Trump collects royalties from his TV shows, some of which are broadcast on stations owned or controlled by foreign governments. It points to other examples of Trump properties in Scotland, Indonesia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
"When Trump the president sits down to negotiate trade deals with these countries," it asks, "the American people will have no way of knowing whether he will also be thinking about profits of Trump the businessman."
'Natural result' of previous actions
The White House declined to comment on the issue, but in a statement emailed to VOA, Trump Organization spokeswoman Amanda Miller said the group had been actively enforcing its intellectual property rights in China for over a decade. "The latest registrations are a natural result of those long-standing, 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," it said.
Before he was elected, candidate Trump argued that the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution did not apply to the president. Reacting to a reporter's question about the CREW lawsuit in January, the president called it "totally without merit."
The lawsuit has also drawn criticism from many conservative-leaning ethicists. Hadley Arkes, professor of American institutions at Amherst College in Massachusetts, told VOA, "The claim that this arrangement would violate the Emoluments Clause strikes me as specious — and contrived for this president only. The implication could be that any businessman, with substantial holdings, doing business in China, could be charged with violating the Constitution if he curiously became president."