China is about to approve 38 trademark applications that Donald Trump applied for in April 2016, before he won the election. These businesses range from hotels to escort services. The unusually rapid process has left ethics lawyers questioning whether China gave Trump preferential treatment – which would violate the US Constitution.

  • Acceptance of preferential treatment for a President would violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.
  • Trump Organisation has filed for at least 126 trademarks in China over the past 10 years.
  • Unusually speedy treatment is raising eyebrows and suspicions.
  • Trademarks cover businesses including branded spas, massage parlours, diet pills, cosmetic surgery, underwear, golf clubs, hotels, insurance, finance and real estate companies, retail shops, restaurants, bars, and bodyguard and escort services.

Preliminary approval has been granted for 38 applications, with 35 of them in Donald Trump’s own name, over the past few weeks. Formal registration will happen after 90 days.

In November, a Chinese court also granted the Trump Organisation a trademark for the construction industry. This decision has been something Trump has been chasing for more than a decade, and has prompted many to believe that the timing is less than coincidental.

While nothing is conclusive, it does provide political ammunition for Trump critics.

Timing is everything

It happened during the last leg of Trump’s campaign and shortly after Trump announced his commitment for the first time to the “One China Policy”. This of course has sparked immediate questions over conflicts of interest and ethics violations.

Dan Plane, a director at Simone IP Services, a Hong Kong intellectual property consultancy, said he had never seen so many applications approved so fast. “For all these marks to sail through so quickly and cleanly, with no similar marks, no identical marks, no issues with specifications – boy, it’s weird,” he said.

Plane also added that he would be “very, very surprised” if government officials in China were not monitoring Trump’s intellectual property interests given the potential impact of Trump’s presidency in China.

The speedy approval has led to worries that the President is violating the Emoluments Clause of the US Constitution, which prohibits government officials from achieving financial gain at the hands of foreign countries.

China has a law on the books that prohibits trademarks with “ill effects related to politics,” including ones “the same as or similar to the name of leaders of national, regional, or international political organisations,” as ThinkProgress reported.

Global brand

No president in US history has come close to the global brand that Trump represents, especially in China. Retailers there have been selling Trump condoms, paint, skincare etc for years already. Ensuring that the Trump Organisation benefits from this profitable brand name, they have filed at least 126 trademark applications over the last 10 years in China, a third of which was in the last year, according to the Trademark Office of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.

However, this hasn’t stopped Trump in his campaign speeches and tweets portraying China as the enemy of trade and the middle class, accusing them of stealing jobs and manipulating the currency.

Profound concern 

“Every American should be profoundly concerned by this enormous expansion of President Trump’s entanglements with China,” said Norman Eisen, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer for President Obama. “If the president is receiving these flows of benefits from China, how can he be trusted to staunch the flow of jobs from the United States to that country?”

“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,” said Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer for President George W Bush.

Trump has said that he has assigned all control of his business to a trust overseen by his son Donald Trump Jr, and a longtime Trump Organization executive, Allen Weisselberg. But Trump cannot un-see the assets that he owns, or not notice how his actions could affect their value.

Democratic senators have protested Trump’s acceptance of a valuable trademark from the Chinese government without congressional approval.