WASHINGTON – First lady Melania Trump has said little about what she intends to do with her prominent position. But in new court documents, her lawyers say that the “multi-year term” during which she “is one of the most photographed women in the world” could mean millions of dollars for her personal brand.
While the new documents don’t specifically mention her term as first lady, the unusual statement about her expected profits drew swift condemnation from ethics watchdogs as inappropriate profiteering from her high-profile position, which is typically centered on public service.
The statement came Monday in a libel lawsuit the first lady re-filed in a state trial court in Manhattan. Trump has been suing the corporation that publishes the Daily Mail’s website over a now-retracted report that claimed she once worked as an escort. In the filing Monday, Trump’s lawyers argued that the report was not only false and libelous, but also damaged her ability to profit off her high profile and affected her business opportunities.
Trump “had the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a former professional model, brand spokesperson and successful businesswoman, to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multi-million dollar business relationships for a multi-year term during which plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world,” the lawsuit said.
The products could have included apparel, accessories, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care and fragrance, among others, the suit says. The first lady is seeking compensatory and punitive damages of at least $150 million.
Richard Painter, who advised former President George W. Bush on ethics, said the language in the lawsuit shows Melania Trump is engaging “in an unprecedented, clear breach of rules about using her government position for private gain. This is a very serious situation where she says she intends to make a lot of money. That ought to be repudiated by the White House or investigated by Congress.”
Painter is part of a group of attorneys suing the president for an alleged violation of a constitutional clause that prohibits presidents from receiving foreign gifts or payments.
In response to questions from the Associated Press, Charles Harder, Melania Trump’s attorney, said “the first lady has no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so. It is not a possibility. Any statements to the contrary are being misinterpreted.”
Harder did not respond to a follow-up question about what the lawsuit means by “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
To Painter and others, there is no ambiguity.
“She’s not talking about the future,” Painter said. “She’s talking about earning money now.”
Scott Amey, general counsel of the Washington watchdog Project on Government Oversight, said it is “another example of the first family blurring the line between public service and private business interests.”
Trump previously filed the lawsuit against Mail Media Inc. in Maryland, but a judge earlier this month ruled the case was filed in the wrong court. The lawsuit is now filed in New York, where the corporation has offices.
Trump also had sued blogger Webster Tarpley for reporting the unsubstantiated rumors. Trump filed the lawsuit in Maryland after both Tarpley and the Daily Mail issued retractions.
On Tuesday, Melania Trump’s attorneys said they’d settled the Maryland case against Tarpley.
“Mr. Tarpley has issued the attached retraction and apology to Mrs. Trump and her family, and agreed to pay her a substantial sum as a settlement,” Harder’s office said in a statement.
Melania Trump’s previous work in marketing has drawn scrutiny before.
On Inauguration Day, the official White House biography for Melania Trump originally included an explicit reference to her jewelry collection, which it noted was sold on the home-shopping channel QVC. By the next day, that bio had been edited and simplified to say that she had “launched her own jewelry collection.”
A spokeswoman for the first lady said the website was updated out of “an abundance of caution” and that the jewelry line is no longer available in any case.
President Donald Trump continues to financially benefit from his global business empire, breaking from past practice. Previous presidents and their families have divested from business interests and placed their holdings in a blind trust, although there is no legal requirement to do so.
Trump handed daily management of the real estate, property management and licensing to his adult sons and a longtime Trump Organization employee.
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