Democratic senators are protesting the Trump Organization's acceptance of a valuable trademark from the Chinese government without asking Congress first if doing so is constitutional.
A group of 13 senators warned President Donald Trump in a letter Thursday that they intended to hold him accountable to his oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Additional Democrats signed a letter Friday to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that complained about Trump getting special treatment from China.
"A president must not have two masters," said Thursday's letter, led by Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal. "If you continue to refuse to request and receive congressional approval before accepting favors from foreign governments, we will be unable to serve our constitutional role. Such a situation is unacceptable."
The letters came in response to China's February 14 registration of a trademark for construction services to Trump. He secured the mark only after fighting for 10 grinding years in China's courts to win back rights from a man named Dong Wei. A bureaucratic about-face after Trump declared his candidacy has raised questions about whether his political rise is benefiting his family business. These concerns are particularly sharp in China, where the courts and bureaucracy reflect the will of the ruling Communist Party.
Critics say the trademark award violates the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars public servants from accepting anything of value from foreign states unless approved by Congress. While the actual value of Trump's China trademarks is unclear, Trump himself has said he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending them. Trump has significant intellectual property interests abroad, including 49 pending and 77 registered trademarks in China alone. Most come up for renewal during his term.
Alan Garten, chief legal officer of the Trump Organization, did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment. He has previously said that Trump's trademark activity in China predates his election. Garten has also noted that Trump turned management of his company over to his children and a team of executives in order to remove himself from his business and its trademark portfolio.
Last week, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California called the China trademark registration "a clear conflict of interest and deeply troubling." Feinstein is a signatory to both of this week's letters, too.
"At a time when the United States has pressing economic, diplomatic and security concerns at play in our relationship with the People's Republic of China, the possibility that the government of China is seeking to win President Trump's favor by granting him special treatment for his businesses is disturbing," said the letter to Tillerson, also signed by Senators Ben Cardin of Maryland and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.