Trump’s Conflicts of Interest in China Just Became Much, Much Worse

The Trump brand has strengthened its foothold in China, with the country recently approving 38 new Trump-branded business ventures. The newly approved trademarks will widen the family brand, with everything from hotels and spas, to escort services and even massage parlors, all under the Trump name.

Trump’s lawyers applied for the trademarks back in April 2016, as Trump was making his way around the United States blasting the country for manipulating its currency to steal American jobs. Not surprisingly, the latest business development raises some eyebrows, with the President’s critics citing possible conflicts of interest. All but three of the trademarks are in the President’s own name.

China’s Trademarks Office published the approvals on February 27 and they’ll be formally registered in 90 days. Ethics lawyers across the political spectrum agree that if Trump received any special treatment in securing the trademark rights, he’ll be in violation of the U.S. Constitution. (Public servants are forbidden from accepting anything of value from foreign governments unless approved by Congress.)

The Trump brand has long been a fixture in China, where counterfeiting runs rampant. His name is already on everything from toilets to condoms – only most of these products don’t actually belong to him. He’s been grinding it out in China’s courts for nearly a decade. While his fight with China may have begun before he launched his U.S. presidential campaign, continuing it has critics calling it an ethical foul.

“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,” Norman Eisen, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer for President Barack Obama, told Fortune. “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.”


The Trump brand has met heavy criticism since January for the expensive security needed for Donald Jr. and Eric Trump’s business trips. Since the President’s inauguration, they’ve traveled to Canada and Dubai to further the Trump business name and racked up millions in security costs — leaving taxpayers with the bill.

The approval by China is being seen as a win by many in the business world, as registering trademarks in China to prevent counterfeiting competitors from flooding the market is common for companies. “Especially in China, you absolutely need to register defensively so that people do not exploit your name for commercial gain,” Janet Satterthwaite, a global trademarks attorney and partner at Potomac Law Group in Washington, told Time. New Balance shoe company was sued for using the translations of its Chinese name because another businessman held the rights to the name. In a similar case last year, a Beijing court ruled over Apple and in favor of a Chinese leather goods company that stamped “IPHONE” on its wallets and phone cases.

What’s raising red flags with ethics lawyers isn’t necessarily the approval, but the large volume of the approved trademarks, says Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush. “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 Painter.

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