Since her father was elected president of the United States, global sales of Ivanka Trump merchandise have surged and the company has applied for at least nine new trademarks in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Canada and the U.S. The commercial engine of the first daughter's brand is stronger than ever even as she builds a new political career from her West Wing office.
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Sales hit record levels in 2017, despite boycotts and several stores limiting her merchandise. U.S. imports, almost all from China, shot up an estimated 166 percent last year.
The brand, which Ivanka Trump no longer manages but still owns, says distribution is growing. It has launched new active wear and affordable jewelry lines, and is working to expand its global intellectual property footprint. In addition to applying for the new trademarks, Ivanka Trump Marks LLC has won provisional approval from the Chinese government for at least five since the inauguration.
The commercial currents of President Donald Trump's White House are unprecedented in modern American politics, ethics lawyers say. They have created an unfamiliar landscape riven with ethical pitfalls, and forced consumers and retailers to wrestle with the unlikely passions now inspired by Ivanka Trump's mid-market collection of ruffled blouses, shifts and wedges.
Using the prestige of government service to build a brand is not illegal. But criminal conflict-of-interest law prohibits federal officials, like Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, from participating in government matters that could impact their own financial interest or that of their spouses. Some argue that the more her business broadens its scope, the more it threatens to encroach on the ability of two trusted advisers to deliver credible counsel to the president on core issues like trade, intellectual property and the value of Chinese currency.
"Put the business on hold and stop trying to get trademarks while you're in government," advises Richard Painter, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush.
In fact, 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 her husband sat next to the president of China and his wife for a steak and Dover sole dinner at Mar-a-Lago.
The scenario underscores how difficult it is for the president's daughter, to separate business from politics in her new position at the White House.
In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Ivanka Trump brand said that all 2017 Chinese trademarks were defensive, filed to prevent counterfeiters or squatters from using her name.
To address ethical concerns, Ivanka Trump has shifted the brand's assets to a family-run trust valued at more than $50 million and pledged to recuse herself from issues that present conflicts. She is also no longer running her design business and has given day-to-day responsibility to Abigail Klem, president of the brand. Meanwhile, her husband has taken steps to distance himself from his sprawling New York real estate business, divesting some of his business interests including his stake in a major Fifth Avenue skyscraper.
"Ivanka will not weigh in on business strategy, marketing issues or the commercial terms of agreements," her attorney, Jamie Gorelick, said in a statement. "She has retained authority to direct the trustees to terminate agreements that she determines create a conflict of interest or the appearance of one."
China, however, remains a nagging concern.
"Ivanka has so many China ties and conflicts, yet she and Jared appear deeply involved in China contacts and policy. I would never have allowed it," said Norman Eisen, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer under President Barack Obama. "For their own sake, and the country's, Ivanka and Jared should consider stepping away from China matters."
Instead, the first daughter and her husband have emerged as prominent interlocutors with China, where they have both had significant business ties. Last year, Kushner pursued hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate investments from Anbang Insurance Group, a financial conglomerate with close ties to the Chinese state. After media reports about the deal, talks were called off.
Publicly, Ivanka Trump has taken a gracious, charming approach toward Beijing. During the Mar-a-Lago meetings, her daughter, 5-year-old Arabella, stood in a gilded room and sang a traditional Chinese song, in Mandarin, for China's president, Xi Jinping. The video, which was lavishly praised by Chinese state media, played over 2.2 million times on China's popular news portal qq.com.
The week of the summit, 3.4 tons of Ivanka Trump handbags, wallets and blouses arrived in the U.S. from Hong Kong and Shanghai. U.S. imports of her merchandise grew an estimated 40 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to Panjiva Inc., which maintains and analyzes global shipping records.
Gorelick, Ivanka Trump's attorney, said that she and her husband would steer clear of specific areas that could impact her business, or be seen as conflicts of interest, but are under no legal obligation to step back from huge swaths of policy, like trade with China.
Under the rules, Trump would recuse herself from conversations about duties on clothing imported from China, Gorelick said, but not broad foreign policy.