Amid a broadening investigation of Russian contacts with his associates and his own role in trying to stop it, President Trump fired off another angry tweet this past week repeating his assertion that he has no business interests in Russia.
But while no Trump Tower graces the Moscow skyline, the Russian authorities recently made sure that another piece of valuable property — the intellectual kind — bearing the same name remained safely in Mr. Trump’s portfolio.
Last year, while hacking Democrats’ emails and working to undermine the American presidential election, the Russian government also granted extensions to six trademarks for Mr. Trump that had been set to expire. The Trump trademarks, originally obtained between 1996 and 2007 for hotels and branding deals that never materialized, each had terms that were coming to an end in 2016.
Despite their inactivity, the Trump Organization sought extensions for the trademarks from Rospatent, the Russian government agency in charge of intellectual property. In a series of approvals starting in April 2016 and ending in December, Rospatent granted new 10-year terms for the trademarks, the agency’s records show.Continue reading the main story
ADVERTISEMENTContinue reading the main story
Four of the approvals were officially registered on Nov. 8 — Election Day in the United States.
Under normal circumstances, renewing trademarks in Russia is generally a routine matter, and there is nothing to suggest from the few public records available that Mr. Trump was shown favoritism. Still, extensions are not guaranteed and can be subject to challenge — particularly if, as in this case, the trademarks went unused for years, according to interviews with a half-dozen lawyers specializing in intellectual property law.
And there is the unprecedented variable of the applicant, Mr. Trump, an American presidential candidate, seeking approvals from a foreign power that United States intelligence agencies concluded had tried to tip the campaign in his favor. As with other federal agencies in Russia, any sensitive decisions by Rospatent — whose director was handpicked by President Vladimir V. Putin for a previous job as deputy culture minister — are presumed to align with the views of Mr. Putin.
Beyond the questions about Russian government approvals, the trademark renewals cast doubt on Mr. Trump’s oft-stated insistence that he has no business interests in Russia. Mr. Trump has made the claims in response to investigations of possible collusion between his associates and Russia during and after the election.
In January, he wrote on Twitter, “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” He told NBC News in May that he has “no investments in Russia, none whatsoever.” And on Thursday, he expressed frustration on Twitter over scrutiny of his “non-dealings” in Russia.
Although Mr. Trump has not managed to develop hotels in Russia despite attempts over the years, and has disclosed no active business ventures there, his intellectual property holdings are a valuable commercial interest. The extension of trademarks such as “Trump International Hotel and Tower” protects his brand in that country and preserves conditions for potential business deals.
“Trademarks have inherent value, per se, as they allow you to stop others from using the mark either by stopping competing registrations or stopping infringing uses,” said Annsley Merelle Ward, an expert in intellectual property law at Bristows law firm in London.
In addition to the six trademarks that were renewed, the Trump Organization has two Russian trademarks that are due to expire next year. That Mr. Trump had obtained trademarks in Russia decades ago for unsuccessful projects has been previously reported; the existence of last year’s extensions was discovered by The New York Times during a recent search of Rospatent’s records.
A Rospatent spokesman initially agreed to accept questions, but then did not respond to them. Hope Hicks, a White House spokeswoman, referred questions to the Trump Organization.
Alan Garten, the chief legal counsel for the Trump Organization, said the renewals had been sought “to prevent third parties from infringing on the company’s intellectual property rights.” He added that the Trump trademarks had not faced formal challenges, despite their inactivity, and that there were no plans to use them in the future.
“The company will not be seeking any new business opportunities in Russia,” Mr. Garten said.
Used or not, the trademarks are very important, something Mr. Garten has previously addressed in defending the Trump brand elsewhere. In a 2015 deposition related to an infringement dispute in the United States, he testified that Mr. Trump’s trademarks generally were “one of his most valuable assets.”
“We take the protection and enforcement of my client’s brand extremely seriously,” Mr. Garten said. “We invest a lot of money in its efforts. It is his brand.”
The subject of Mr. Trump’s foreign trademarks has grown increasingly fraught since he won the presidential election, as his company, now run by his two adult sons, has continued to conduct business around the world. A Times review of intellectual property databases in April found that the Trump Organization had 157 trademark applications pending in 36 countries.
An announcement by China in February that it approved trademark registrations the Trumps had long sought set off alarm bells among ethics watchdogs and congressional Democrats, though the action appeared to have been the final step in a decision reached before Mr. Trump became president. Peruvian officials approved Trump trademarks in late December, not long before Peru’s president met with Mr. Trump in February.
On Wednesday, almost 200 Democratic members of Congress filed a federal lawsuit asserting that Mr. Trump’s business activities — including his intellectual property rights abroad — violate the Constitution’s ban on a president’s accepting gifts from foreign powers.
Rospatent’s records contain no information about agency deliberations or possible objections to the Trump trademarks by outside parties. Russia’s processes for handling such matters can be opaque, and “the most interesting aspects are those which are not publicized,” said Eleonora Rosati, a co-editor of the Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice.
“The renewal/extension of an existing trademark is not just a formality,” she said. “There are several grounds on which a trademark can be denied registration or registration not be renewed.”
In Russia — a “first-to-file” country, where longtime use of a name or logo cannot protect against a competitor’s swooping in and registering it first — it is not uncommon for businesses to file defensive registrations to keep others from grabbing their trademarks. But they need to put them to use, or the trademarks become open to challenges after three years of inactivity.
Mr. Trump first sought a trademark in Russia, for “Trump Tower,” in 1996 during one of his earliest explorations of a possible real estate project in Moscow. Ten years later, while working with the Bayrock Group on several hotels in the United States, he obtained four more Russian trademarks to be used in connection with hotels. Bayrock — whose top executives included Tevfik Arif, a Soviet-era commerce official originally from Kazakhstan, and Felix Sater, a Russian émigré and felon — scouted potential deals in Russia for Mr. Trump, but none panned out.
In 2007, while selling his brand of vodka in Russia and elsewhere, Mr. Trump obtained a trademark for that purpose, though the product was discontinued after several years. Finally, in 2008, Mr. Trump sought trademarks for a coat of arms and the name “Trump Home,” to be used with a long list of furniture products.
Since then, the Trump trademarks have remained on the books but not put to use. If there were no challenges to a renewal application, approval by Rospatent would normally not be a problem, said Peter Sloane, a trademark attorney with Leason Ellis in White Plains.
“I am not aware of any reason why a renewal would be denied if the necessary formalities, such as filing a new power of attorney, are met,” he said.
Rospatent records show that last year, the Trump Organization obtained a new intellectual property representative in Moscow to handle its trademark registrations, and has since shifted ownership of them out of Mr. Trump’s name and into a limited liability company, DTTM Operations, that he controlled. DTTM is a holding company incorporated in Delaware.
In addition to the eight DTTM-owned trademarks, there is another “Trump” trademark, unrelated to Mr. Trump, that is recognized by Rospatent, by virtue of Russia’s adherence to international treaties governing intellectual property rights. That trademark, filed by a company in Germany, is for a brand of detergent.