If you think Trump’s rise to power and his newly registered trademark in China are somehow unrelated events, consider the timeline below.
For over a decade, Donald Trump had been trying to secure trademark protection for the Trump brand in the Chinese construction industry. Just days after his first call as president of the United States with Chinese President Xi Jinping (during which Trump reaffirmed his commitment to the One China policy), the trademark was finally granted.
At first glance, such a convergence of events looks suspiciously like quid pro quo, and a clear violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution which “restricts members of the government from receiving gifts, emoluments, offices or titles from foreign states without the consent of the United States Congress” (source). On the other hand, The Washington Post makes the case that the Trump trademark and the phone call between the two world leaders were not as interconnected as they appear. The truth, as revealed by the following timeline, is somewhere in-between, though it ultimately shows that the two events cannot be separated.
- November, 2006: A man named Dong Wei files an application to use the Trump brand in association with Chinese construction services (source).
- December 7, 2006: Two weeks later, Donald Trump files a similar application, but since Dong Wei filed his application first, Trump’s application is rejected (source).
- December, 2006 – May, 2015: Chinese courts rule against Trump’s appeals on at least five separate occasions (source).
- June 16, 2015: Donald Trump announces that he is running for president of the United States.
- September, 2016: Just as Trump pulls ahead of Clinton in the polls, Trump’s lawyers ask yet again that the Chinese Trademark Review and Adjudication Board invalidate Dong Wei’s claim (source). This time, despite at least five former rejections, the appeal is granted, and Dong Wei’s claims are invalidated.
- November 8, 2016: Trump wins the presidential election.
- November 13, 2016: Trump’s newly granted trademark claims are published in China’s Trademark Gazette. Interested parties are given three months to object (source).
- November 14, 2016: The next day, Trump receives a congratulatory call from Xi Jinping during which the Chinese president emphasizes that cooperation is the only way forward for the two nations.
- December 2, 2016: Trump infuriates China when he deviates from decades of US diplomatic policy by accepting a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan in order to appease lobbyists.
- December 11, 2016: In an interview with FOX, Trump says that he doesn’t feel “bound by a one-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
- December 11, 2016 – February 9, 2017: Chinese president Xi Jinping refuses to speak with Trump until the US reaffirms its commitment to the One China policy (source).
- February 9, 2017: Trump finally concedes, signaling that the United States will respect the One China policy, and he and Xi Jinping speak at length on the phone (source).
- February 14, 2017: Three months after Trump’s claims are published in China’s Trademark Gazette, and five days after Trump’s call with Xi Jinping, the registration of the Trump brand for the Chinese construction industry becomes official (source).
Laying all the relevant events out in chronological order reveals two seemingly paradoxical conclusions. The first is that the official registration of the trademark was put in motion three months before Trump’s concession on the One China policy which appears to indicate that the two are not related. As the Washington Post puts it:
Let’s be clear: The notification [of the trademark registration] was not a surprise. In fact, the decision to rule in Trump’s favor predates his election as president, and this week’s announcement was essentially a legal formality.
However, the sequence of events also reveals the exact opposite: that Trump’s rise to power, and the granting of a long-sought trademark in China, are inextricable. Even if one were to assume that the granting of trademarks and other forms of legal protection were entirely independent of the will of the Communist Party (and that the president of China couldn’t, at any time, derail the trademark process), the only reason left to grant Trump’s appeal after at least five rejections over nine years would be Trump’s increased international fame which, of course, is a direct result of his political rise.
In other words, if Trump had not amassed political power, Dong Wei’s claims would never have been invalidated.
One could make the argument that because there is no proof that Trump explicitly leveraged his position to gain legal protection for his businesses in China, he is not responsible for the timing of the decision by the Chinese Trademark Review and Adjudication Board. However, one does have to wonder why Trump’s lawyers filed another appeal in September of 2016, just as Trump was pulling ahead of Hilary Clinton in the polls.
But more importantly, by placing his assets in a revocable trust (for which he is the sole beneficiary) rather than selling off his assets or placing them in a blind trust (as he said he would), even if Trump never explicitly or implicitly requests political favors, he has knowingly and willingly put himself in a position to illegally receive emoluments from foreign powers.
It’s important to note that the scope of this issue is far greater than a single trademark. According to the Washington Post:
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.
Those are just trademarks, and just in China. According to his own disclosures, Trump owns or controls more than 500 businesses in two dozen countries around the world, though because he refuses to release his tax returns, it is impossible to know for sure what those numbers actually are, and which countries have the greatest potential for conflicts of interest. An ongoing BuzzFeed investigation suggests that Trump’s financial and business interests are, in fact, far more extensive.