As both the owner of a lifestyle brand, and a senior advisor to her father, Ivanka Trump has been continuously questioned for her ability to separate what's good for her business from what's good for the country. And in obtaining a new set of trademarks in China, ethics experts believe she's coming close to crossing the line.
The Associated Press on Tuesday reported that "on April 6, Ivanka Trump's company won provisional approval from the Chinese government for three new trademarks, giving it monopoly rights to sell Ivanka brand jewelry, bags and spa services in the world's second-largest economy. That night, the first daughter and [husband Jared Kushner] sat next to the president of China ... for dinner at Mar-a-Lago."
On the day of the Associated Press report, Representatives for Ivanka strongly asserted that she's recused herself from management decisions that conflict with her Trump administration duties. The trademarks were simply a routine matter related to protecting her brand from knock-offs, a spokesman told the AP.
To back this up, Ivanka's lawyer Jamie Gorelick told ABC News on Monday evening that “since she resigned her position, Ivanka has had no involvement with trademark applications submitted by the business. The federal ethics rules do not require you to recuse from any matter concerning a foreign country just because a business that you have an ownership interest in has a trademark application pending there. Ivanka will recuse from particular matters where she has a conflict of interest or where the White House Counsel determines her participation would present appearance or impartiality concerns.”
But Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush administration, doesn't think this statement goes far enough to create separation.
"I would recommend that she and Jared stay clear of any discussion involving China that could get into the subject matter of trade negotiations," Painter told ATTN: in an email. "This is not as much because of the trademarks for the sale of products in China — although they are a factor — but more because of the fact that she imports clothes made in China into the US. Her involvement in substantive trade negotiations could violate the criminal conflict of interest statute 18 USC 208."
That statute states that any "officer or employee of the executive branch of the United States Government," among other government employees, can be fined or even imprisoned for participating in discussions that effect their business dealings.
Painter has been unsparing in his criticism of the Trump family's business conflicts, and is currently suing the administration over conflicts-of-interest, specifically to block Trump from accepting payments that could be a violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution
Of particular concern to Painter in this instance are the national security conflicts that arise when dealing with a major geopolitical rival like China — conflicts that could be compromised by Trump possibly making decisions that could effect the family business.
"The problem is that President Trump seems to want to link every discussion with China with trade, which he sees as his carrot and stick," Painter said.
For example, Trump abruptly changed his long-time stance on labeling China as a currency manipulator, apparently to get Beijing to rein North Korea in.
"Right now it is North Korea, tomorrow it could be the South China Sea or something else. This means that Ivanka and Jared need to be careful that discussions involving China that they are participating in don't gravitate toward trade," Painter said.
As of now, it appears the timing of the trademarks and the dinner with President Xi was coincidental. But it's a perfect example of the conflicts and risks that arise when personal and political gain are entangled.