A group of Senate Democrats sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday, requesting information about a raft of trademark approvals from China this year that they say may violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on gifts from foreign governments.
"China's rapid approvals after years of court battles have raised questions as to whether the trademarks will prevent you from standing up to China on behalf of American workers and their businesses," the eight senators, led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow and Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, wrote.
China's most recent nod for a Trump trademark, covering clothing, came on May 6, bringing to 40 the number of marks China has granted or provisionally granted to the president and a related company, DTTM Operations LLC, since his inauguration. If there are no objections, provisional approvals are formally registered after 90 days. China has also rejected or partially rejected nine Trump trademarks since the inauguration.
Trademarks give the holder monopoly rights to a brand in a given market. In many jurisdictions, like China, they can also be filed defensively, to prevent squatters from using a name. Because trademarks are granted at the discretion of foreign governments and can be enormously valuable, they can be problematic for U.S. officials, who are barred by the emoluments clause of the constitution from accepting anything of value from foreign states without congressional approval.
In their letter, the senators were particularly interested in any special efforts Trump, his Chinese lawyers, or the U.S. Embassy in China, which sometimes advocates for U.S. firms, may have made to secure approval for the president's trademarks. They cited an Associated Press report quoting one of Trump's lawyers in China, Spring Chang, who said that "government relations are an important part of trademark strategy in China."
Concern about favoritism is particularly sharp in China, where the courts and bureaucracy are designed to reflect the will of the ruling Communist Party. China has defended its handling of Trump's intellectual property interests, saying it followed the law in processing his applications, though some trademark lawyers viewed the pace as unusually quick and well-coordinated. In addition, China approved one trademark for Trump-branded construction services after a 10-year legal battle that turned in his favor only after he declared his candidacy.
Alan Garten, chief legal officer of The Trump Organization, did not respond immediately to a request for comment. He has previously said that Trump's trademark activity in China predates his election and noted that Trump has stepped away from managing his company. However, the president retains an ownership stake in his global branding and real estate empire.
In April, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, added "gratuitous Chinese trademarks" to its lawsuit against the president for alleged emoluments violations. Trump has dismissed the suit as without merit.