There is a Trump toilet, a Trump condom, a Trump pacemaker and even a Trump International Hotel among hundreds of trademarks in China that do not belong to US President Donald Trump.
However, after a decade of grinding battle in China’s courts, the president was expected to get an unlikely win this week — the rights to his own name.
Trump’s late victory in the fight to wrest back one sliver of his brand — the trademark for building construction services — could signal a shift in fortune for the US president’s intellectual property in China.
At stake are 49 pending trademark applications — all made during his campaign — and 77 marks already registered in his name, most of which will come up for renewal during his term. The case also raises the possibility that the president could claw back control of more than 225 Trump-related marks in China that do not belong to him.
To some, it also illustrates how Trump’s efforts to consolidate control over his brand could be used to extend or withhold favor, especially in a country such as China, where the courts and bureaucracy are influenced by the Chinese Communist Party, and by design reflect the leadership’s political imperatives.
Trump’s foreign trademarks have raised red flags with ethics lawyers across the political spectrum who say they present grave conflicts of interest and might violate the emoluments clause of the US constitution, which bars public servants from accepting anything of value from foreign governments unless explicitly approved by US Congress.
“There can be no question that it is a terrible idea for Donald Trump to be accepting the registration of these valuable property rights from China while he’s a sitting president of the United States,” said Norman Eisen, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer for former US president Barack Obama. “It’s fair to conclude that this is an effort to influence Mr Trump that is relatively inexpensive for the Chinese, potentially very valuable to him, but it could be very costly for the United States.”
Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under former US president George W. Bush, called the situation “highly improper.”
Since foreign governments know Trump cares deeply about his family’s business, “they will give him what he wants and they will expect stuff in return,” Painter said.
Eisen and Painter are involved in a lawsuit alleging that Trump’s foreign business ties violate the US constitution.
Trump has dismissed the lawsuit as “totally without merit.”
Trump Organization chief legal officer Alan Garten said the Chinese trademarks were already in the works before the election and the president has turned management of his company over to his children and a team of executives.
In an e-mail, Garten wrote: “The only mark we were seeking was one in the related class of construction which someone was improperly squatting on.”
The precise value of the trademarks is a matter of debate, but Trump himself thought his brands in China were worth enough to defend them, according to a 2011 letter he wrote then-US secretary of commerce Gary Locke about a trademark dispute in Macau.
“I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to secure my own name and globally recognized brand from Chinese individuals who seek to trade off my reputation,” Trump wrote.