Donald Trump got his good name back earlier this week. On Tuesday, China gave the president new trademark protections for his business operations there, something that the Trump Organization had been pursuing unsuccessfully for about a decade.
That’s all well and good for Trump the businessman. He’s a developer who also essentially markets himself as a human shingle. To that end, he has licensed his name over the years to sell everything from men’s underwear and mattresses to real estate, golf courses and casinos.
But what about President Trump the public servant? That guy is supposed to negotiate with other countries on behalf of American citizens and workers, securing the best diplomatic and economic outcomes without regard for his own wallet.
All of this circles back to Trump’s conflicts-of-interest problem, and the fact that the president hasn’t fully detached himself from the workings or earnings of the Trump Organization. That has left a cloud hanging over Trump’s White House, with confusion about where his self-interest ends and the public interest begins.
Trump spent a good part of his presidential campaign railing against what he described as China’s economic predations.
“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” he told voters in Indiana last year.
In December, President-elect Trump took the unusual step of phoning Taiwan’s president, a break with decades of diplomatic protocol that appeared to violate the one-China policy that the U.S. agreed to in the 1970s and which acknowledges China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. Trump’s call caused China to complain formally to the U.S.
Shortly after that, Trump took to Twitter to castigate China for militarizing the South China Sea and for taxing U.S. imports. In the same rant, he also incorrectly criticized China for devaluing its currency to boost its exports (the Chinese renminbi has been appreciating for about a decade).
So the election season was a rocky one for Trump and China. But over the last month or so –- presto — everything has taken a nice turn for the better.
In mid-January, shortly before his inauguration, Trump said he would recognize the one-China policy after all, as long as China agreed to stop manipulating its currency and improve trade terms. China said no to that, arguing that the policy wasn’t negotiable.
Then on Feb. 10 Trump said that he would honor the one-China policy in full and without concessions from China. Four days later, a Chinese court extended trademark protections to the Trump Organization, enjoining a Chinese construction company from using the Trump name for itself.
Quid pro quo!
President Trump met China’s diplomatic needs. In turn, he received the opportunity to extend businessman Trump’s brand across new products and projects in China, giving the Trump Organization more ways to put more money in the bank –- while also forcing a broader swath of Chinese companies to stop pirating the Trump name.
Or maybe not.
Trump’s Chinese lawyers have said that the Trump Organization first received a formal trademark ruling in its favor last September, and that a notice about Trump’s application for exclusive use of the Trump brand on certain construction projects was posted in mid-November, shortly after Trump was elected president. That set the clock ticking toward a formal registration of the Trump brand, which then landed a week ago.
Their argument is that the Trump Organization began seeking legal protection for its brand in China a decade ago and that justice finally prevailed, with Trump’s election as president almost beside the point.
There was “no direct influence” from Trump’s “position” as the Republican presidential nominee or as president, said Zhou Dandan, Trump’s Beijing lawyer, in an interview that the Washington Post published on Thursday. “It is not possible that President Trump got favors from Chinese government.”
But given that Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns and hasn’t observed White House traditions of fully disclosing his assets and then distancing himself from them, the presumption will always be that there’s a good chance he’s getting preferential treatment from foreign governments eager to court his favor — and that the most straightforward way to do that is to find ways of helping the Trump Organization financially.
And this is where things could get dicey for the president. As he likes to declare publicly, he isn’t subject to federal conflict-of-interest laws. But he is subject to the Constitution, specifically the “emoluments clause” that forbids the president from receiving any gift or benefit from a foreign government.
Preferential treatment for trademarks in overseas markets sure seems like a benefit, but since I’m not a member of Congress I can’t ask for anyone to examine those deals to make sure the president isn’t being bribed.
Meanwhile, the Trump Organization still has 49 other trademark applications pending in China, according to the Associated Press, all of which were submitted during the presidential campaign. There are also 77 other existing trademarks that the Trump Organization controls in China and most of those will reportedly be coming up for renewal during Trump’s first White House term.
So for anyone interested in the Constitution, there may be more to look at around the Trump Organization’s China operation.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
By Timothy L. O’Brien / Bloomberg