Retired entrepreneur Jeff Paul was once an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump. But that was before Paul went toe-to-toe with Trump over the former president’s 2020 campaign slogan and Paul saw the lengths to which Trump and his band of lawyers would go to trample over his supposed intellectual property.
The slogan? Keep America Great!
The outcome? Not so great!
Exactly one week before Trump took office in 2017, Paul logged on to the campaign website and fired off an inquiry. It was, he said, a sort of business pitch. The subject line had three words and one piece of punctuation: “Keep America Great!”
“The original idea was to start a PAC,” Paul told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “I’d seen how much money he had raised during the election, and, you know, that was hundreds of millions of dollars.” Paul wanted to “get in on some of the moneymaking,” and though he didn’t see himself as a true political player, he figured that just running a Trump PAC “won’t really affect that much, and I could make a little money on the side, you know, put it in my 401k.”
That day, Paul received an automated reply saying a member of the campaign team would be in touch soon to “discuss your inquiry.”
“So of course a couple days later Trump announces that’s his new slogan,” he said.
Paul was referring to a Jan. 18 Washington Post interview, where the then president-elect offered Karen Tumulty a little scoop: He had already landed on the perfect slogan for his 2020 re-election bid.
“Are you ready?” Trump asked. “‘Keep America Great,’ exclamation point.”
And apparently it was a fresh idea. Trump shouted for a lawyer, and when one arrived he asked, “Will you trademark and register, if you would, if you like it—I think I like it, right? Do this: ‘Keep America Great,’ with an exclamation point. With and without an exclamation. ‘Keep America Great.’”
Paul was less jazzed. “I thought, ‘You dirty bastard.’”
And with that thought, Paul kicked off a crusade to claim the rights to what would eventually become Trump’s on-again, off-again, quasi-official 2020 campaign slogan.
The dispute, which dragged on in one form or another for more than four years, has all the trademarks of a Trump legal war. For decades, the real estate tycoon has zealously deployed an army of lawyers—some of them ethically challenged—to bully courtroom opponents into submission with some combination of threats, stonewalling, countersuits, and other dilatory tactics, outspending them until they’re bled dry. And here, like so many of Trump’s relationships with former allies, the little guy invariably gets burned.
And while Paul’s company can finally use those marks today, that personal victory was a long time coming—and maybe too long.
“I started off as a supporter, but really they’re just like anyone else, stealing a good idea,” he said of the campaign.
After Paul caught wind of the Washington Post report, he consulted a lawyer, who advised him to trademark the phrase. He did so immediately, filing the application on Jan. 27—with and without the exclamation mark—as an alias for his LLC, “In Harm’s Way!”
Trump’s lawyers, however, were there first. The day Trump asked for it, an attorney for the campaign applied to trademark “Keep America Great”—with and without the exclamation mark.
But, it turned out, even Trump had been beaten. The previous July, another person had filed to trademark the phrase. And so, in April, 2017, one month after Trump gave KAG! its first rally test drive, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office suspended the campaign’s application.
Trump cooled on the idea for a while, but Paul soldiered on. In October, he submitted to the USPTO his first commercial product bearing the phrase—a lapel pin featuring, oddly, the coat of arms of the historical U.S. Navy icon John Paul Jones, along with his famous declaration, “I have not yet begun to fight.” The reverse was engraved, “PRODUCT OF KEEP AMERICA GREAT!™”
Asked whether Jones’ phrase captured the spirit of his battle with Trump, Paul explained that he was related to the war of 1812 hero.
The lapel pin was the first in what Paul envisioned as a line of more than 400 Keep America Great! products. According to his application, Paul wanted to reserve the KAG! brand for a wide array of items, including toilet paper, face towels of paper, hand towels of paper, paper towels, bikinis, boxer briefs, boxer shorts, bras, briefs, thong beachwear, thong underwear, helmet lining as headwear, handball shoes, and “Adult novelty gag clothing item, namely, socks.”
Paul said his lawyer “put that in there for fun I think.”
But Paul eventually did produce some of the items on his list, including more variations on the lapel pin, buttons, polo shirts, and hats. All feature the John Paul Jones coat of arms (“he’s really a Paul,” explained Paul) circumscribed with a gold ring bearing the phrases “AMERICA IN HARMS WAY,” and, of course, “KEEP AMERICA GREAT!”
A photo of one hat, which Paul shared with The Daily Beast, shows a price tag of $36.98.
The lapel pin would go on to become one of Paul’s key arguments in court.
Trademark law can be arcane, nuanced, and involute—in a word, maddening—but Paul possibly had a case here, according to Eric Goldman, a prominent intellectual property law expert and professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.
“Trademark applicants must claim ‘intent to use’ on their applications,” Goldman told The Daily Beast, noting that applicants have a window of time to submit official “specimens” of products, such as Paul’s photo of his lapel pin. “Judges will sometimes decide in favor of applicants who show actual use for commerce,” he said.
While the Trump campaign had declared its “intent to use,” unlike Paul, in the four years after the Trump campaign first filed its application, it never once submitted any actual products to the USPTO. But one month after Paul submitted his pin, the agency suspended his application, too.
Over the next two years, Trump kept quiet while KAG!’s legal status plinko’d through the system. But in 2019, things changed. The USPTO rejected the original Keep America Great! applicant from 2016—which raised ethical questions among some legal experts—and lifted the suspension on the campaign.
At a rally that June, Trump broke it out again in what was, on its surface, an impromptu slogan poll: MAGA vs. KAG! But when the crowd overwhelmingly chose KAG!, Trump reminded them of the associated risks.
“How do you give up the greatest of all time?” he asked, even though that first slogan had problems of its own. “And if I lose people are going to say, ‘What a mistake that was!’”
It turns out that, on that very day, the USPTO had notified his campaign that KAG! had been entered into the agency’s Trademark Official Gazette—a big step forward. The end was in sight.
Not for Paul, though. That October—about two years after he gave Trump hundreds of dollars in support—Jeff Paul sued the campaign in trademark court, on the grounds that they hadn’t shown a good-faith intent to use the mark for commerce, and that their use wasn’t how trademarks function.
Paul’s attorneys argued that his mark was another name for his company—in legal terms, a “source of goods”—whereas Trump had just trademarked a phrase, and a political one at that, which did not hit the bar for commerce.
Goldman allowed that, depending on the circumstances, this argument could also have held legal water. But we’ll never know what a judge would say.
That’s because over the next year, Trump’s legal team—true to form—filed extension after extension, kicking the case down the road until just a few weeks before Election Day, when the campaign was all but over.
Paul had offered to settle, but the campaign shot him down every time. When the case moved forward again in September 2020, he hired a new lawyer, who, filings show, appears to have missed an early deadline, putting another wrinkle in the proceedings. Paul says that lawyer “blew it” for him. (The lawyer declined comment, other than to say that, outside of the once-in-a-lifetime defendant, the case was a typical dispute and entirely forgettable.)
Then, last spring, Paul conceded defeat. He withdrew his case on May 4 and—nearly $100,000 in the hole—called it a day.
Curiously, Trump’s application may itself raise its own legal concerns. The law firm on those filings—Hughes, Hubbard, and Reed, who represented the campaign in another trademark lawsuit, over “Make America Great Again”—never got paid by the campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Brendan Fischer, director of reform at Campaign Legal Center, said that this would appear to violate federal law.
“If these lawyers handled trademark cases for the Trump campaign, and the campaign didn't pay for those legal services, then the law firm would have made illegal corporate contributions to the campaign,” Fischer told The Daily Beast, adding that the payments may have been “disguised” as a subvendor.
But the very next month, Paul was stunned to see the campaign abandon the trademark altogether.
“That’s how they operate, I guess. Keep dragging it out, then soon as I drop, they abandon the applications,” Paul said. “That seems unusual, but they must have some exposure.”
While Paul had reserved the right to bring the case again, there is, of course, another explanation: Why would Trump, in all likelihood the Republican nominee in 2024, want to campaign on keeping a Joe Biden-led America great?
Trump himself made this point in November, telling MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell that he had thrown out all his Keep America Great! hats, because the United States had become “a laughing stock.” (The only Trump-endorsed super PAC is called Make America Great Again Again!)
Paul, however, isn’t so sure. Ever the self-advocate, he says his position still offers plenty of opportunity.
For instance, Paul has the ability to enforce his trademark now, and says that over the last few months, Amazon has taken down hundreds of infringing listings at his request. He is planning to submit new filings with the USPTO in the coming weeks. He has a KAG! product line ready, including hats, sweats, and quarter-zip fleeces, and his website—keepamericagreat.company—will soon be up and running, ready to host the full spread of hundreds of KAG! items from the original submission filed four years ago, almost exactly to the day.
While Paul now thinks Trump is a “dirtbag,” he is, however, still a conservative. Asked whether he was concerned his products might now be viewed as endorsing the Biden administration, the self-identifying conservative libertarian took a transactional, and somewhat Trumpian, view.
“I guess it may sound political, and they’ll politicize it, but it’s just a company that sells stuff,” he said.