Trump trademark applications spiked around the world when he started running for president

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump, his company and his family have applied for upward of 1,000 trademarks since the late 1980s.
  • A large chunk of those applications, close to 200, have been filed since 2015, the year Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
  • Many of the more recent trademark applications have been filed by Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and a senior White House advisor. Several of the requests were filed in China.
in the grand ballroom of Trump International Hotel, U.S. Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump (center) speaks, with his daughter Ivanka Trump by his side, talks about the grand opening of their family's latest property, Trump International Hotel - Old Post Office, in Washington, DC on October 26, 2016. The event was closed to the public, and included VIP guests and employees of Trump. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Cheris May | NurPhoto | Getty Images

President Donald Trump and his family have long made the Trump brand a top priority for his business — and continued doing so even as he sought and won the White House.

Analyses of domestic and international trademark applications databases show that Trump, his company and his family have applied for upward of 1,000 trademarks since the late 1980s.

A large chunk of those applications, about 200, were filed since 2015, the year that Trump, a real estate mogul and reality TV star, announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. He launched his run in June of that year.

Around half of those more recent applications were filed in China — and many of those were brand protections sought by the president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, who also is a senior White House advisor.

Ivanka Trump Marks LLC in 2017 sought trademark protections in categories that included toys, alcoholic beverages and foods in China.

At that time, the United States government was — as it continues to be — engaged in a large trade war with China at the direction of Trump.

In October 2018, Ivanka Trump — who three months earlier had said she was shutting down her personal clothing brand — won initial approval from the Chinese government for 16 new trademarks, which covered a range of products that included "voting machines."

Also in 2018, DTTM Operations LLC — an entity controlled by the Trump Organization — sought a "Trump Plaza" trademark in the Philippines. This year, DTTM Operations applied for a "Trump Card" trademark in the European Union.

Trump and his family's maintenance of trademarks and applications of trademarks, along with his seeking new trademarks while running for and winning the presidency, raise both ethical red flags and constitutional concerns, according to a public advocacy group, Democratic lawmakers and the Democratic National Committee.

Those concerns are certain to persist if Trump wins reelection next November and continues profiting from the trademark protections.

Daniel Wessel, deputy war room director at the Democratic National Committee, said, "Despite his promises, Donald Trump never fully separated himself from his company, which has continued to do business globally."

'His ongoing ties raise massive conflicts of interest and undermine his claims to an 'America First' agenda. Instead of putting the American people first, Trump has only put himself first," Wessel said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC.

Alan Garten, chief legal officer for the Trump Organization, which is being run by Trump's adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, provided CNBC with a prepared statement:

Like every other major international brand, the Trump Organization has been zealously protecting its intellectual property rights around the world for more than 20 years. Such efforts have particularly concentrated on so-called "first-to-file" countries where trademark infringement is rampant. In China, where some of the world's most recognized brands have had their intellectual property rights either stolen or held for ransom, the Trump Organization's efforts date back more than a decade. Indeed, prior to June of 2015, the company had successfully registered more than 70 trademarks just in China alone. Many of these registrations have been in key categories such as real estate services, real estate development, hotels, golf courses and entertainment. The company's most recent efforts to enforce its intellectual property rights merely seek to build on a foundation that was established years ago in order protect its valuable brand.

The trade publication World Trademark Review, in late October, reported that its analysis of Trump-related marks found applications for trademark in around 80 countries, and that 2016, the year of the presidential election, was the "single biggest year" for Trump trademark filings.

"Foreign [trademark] filings by entities related to Trump have slowed but not ceased since his inauguration," WTR reported.

A separate, more recent analysis obtained and reviewed by CNBC backs up WTR's findings.

An ethical minefield

The analysis found there were more than 580 active Trump trademarks around the world, and at least 140 trademark applications in nine foreign countries and the European Union since he announced his presidential run in 2015.

Two pending lawsuits cite the approval of trademark applications for Trump brands by China weeks after he was sworn in as president among the grounds for claims that he has violated the Constitution's emoluments clause — which bars presidents from accepting gifts from foreign nations.

While the lawsuits as filed originally focused on revenue from foreigners that flowed to Trump's hotels, real estate ventures and other properties, they later were amended to include details of the China trademarks.

The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., on Monday is due to hear oral arguments on whether one of those suits, filed by more than 200 Democratic members of Congress, can proceed toward trial.

"As of April 2017, according to one investigation, [Trump's]'s companies had 157 trademark applications pending in 36 foreign nations," that lawsuit says. "Accepting the registration of these trademarks would violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause unless Defendant first sought and obtained 'the Consent of the Congress,' which he has not done."

Trump rails against 'phony Emoluments Clause' amid scrapped G7 plans
Trump rails against 'phony Emoluments Clause' amid scrapped G7 plans

Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, said Trump's holding and seeking of trademarks represents a conflict of interest between his responsibilities as president and his pursuit of profit as a businessman.

"If you look at the continued application and receiving of trademarks for the Trump brand," Libowitz said, "it's clear that they plan on continuing to profit overseas off the Trump names during the presidency and after the presidency."

Libowitz, whose organization is pursuing one of the emoluments lawsuits against Trump, said that the Trump Organization real estate holdings "are actually a fairly small portion of his portfolio," in contrast to the business of licensing the Trump name for properties and products.

"It's all about the Trump branding on a product," Libowitz said. "Expanding the brand is the core of the business itself."

"Presidents for decades have separated themselves from their assets" to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interests, Libowitz added.

But Trump, in contrast, has retained his stake in his assets.

"Now we have a question of which decisions are made based on where the Trump family is or could potentially be doing business," Libowitz said.

White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump attends a discussion on "Women Entrepreneurs Through Finance and Markets" at the World Bank on October 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images

The China factor

CREW's emoluments lawsuit notes that Trump began seeking trademark protection in China for use of his name in construction service in 2006, but had that bid was repeatedly rejected.

Then, Trump suggested as a candidate that he might end the United States' policy of not recognizing China and Taiwan as separate sovereign China states.

After winning election, Trump spoke directly with Taiwan's president, breaking "long-standing protocol" which "suggested that [Trump] might end the 'One China' policy that the United States had observed for decades," the lawsuit says. "Before taking office, Defendant suggested that he might end the One China policy unless some benefit were received in exchange."

Three weeks after being sworn in as president, Trump spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Feb. 9, 2017, "and pledged to honor the One-China policy," the suit says.

"Five days later, on February 14, 2017, China reversed its prior course and gave Defendant trademark protection," the suit adds.

The suit goes on to note that Chinese law "prohibits awarding trademarks that are "the same as or similar to the name of leaders of national, regional, or international political organizations.

Less than a month after granting that initial trademark to Trump after a 10-year effort, China gave preliminary approval to 38 new Trump trademarks, which "cover everything from hotels and golf clubs to bodyguard and concierge services," The Associated Press reported on March 8, 2017.

Those marks in China were applied for in 2016 — while Trump was running for president.

Garten, the Trump firm's legal officer, told the AP for its report at that time that "the latest registrations are a natural result of those longstanding, diligent efforts" by the company to protect its intellectual property in China.

"Any suggestion to the contrary demonstrates a complete disregard of the facts as well as a lack of understanding of international trademark law," Garten told the AP.