This week the world got a glimpse of how Melania Trump envisions—or once envisioned—life as first lady of the U.S.: as a potential financial jackpot. This insight was delivered via a $150-million defamation suit filed Monday in New York Supreme court. The action was part of the former model’s ongoing legal battle against the Daily Mail, which last August claimed she was once “an elite escort” in “the sex business.” (The paper has issued a retraction.)
In the statement of claim, Melania Trump’s lawyers actually argue the alleged libel robbed the new first lady of a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to cash in on her husband’s presidency. It charges Melania Trump was denied the opportunity “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 the plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.” These “product categories” included “apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care, skin care and fragrance.”
On Tuesday, with the 180-degree whiplash now associated with Trump statements, Melania Trump’s spokeswoman and a law firm representing her both issued another statement: the first lady “has no intention” of using her public position for personal gain, it said. “Any statements to the contrary are being misinterpreted.” Richard Painter, a professor of legal ethics who is also part of a lawsuit launched against Trump for business conflicts of interest, is having none of it. As drafted, the suit “would appear to be an abuse of public office for private gain” by the Trumps, he told the Washington Post.
It isn’t the first sign that Melania Trump, like her husband, views the White House as a branding platform. Initially, her bio on WhiteHouse.gov plugged her jewelry line: “In April 2010, Melania Trump launched her own jewelry collection, ‘Melania™ Timepieces & Jewelry,’ on QVC.” After protest, the reference was dialed back (the health of her business is now a question mark; QVC online has no mention of it). Trump’s presidency appears to have burnished his own brand and business prospects—the U.S. military is now looking to rent space in Trump Tower—while backlash and boycotts hurt Ivanka Trump’s brand. Last week her clothing line line was dropped by Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus stopped selling her high-end jewelry online.
Political wives have long served as brand extensions of their husbands, figuratively speaking. They’re marshalled as moderating, humanizing, even civilizing influences; this we saw when Melania Trump was summoned for a CNN interview to try to deflect her husband’s “grab them by the p—y” boast. Her new lawsuit suggests she’s a Trump brand extension, literally. Little surprise there. We’re watching a U.S. presidential marriage that appears to take its script from reality TV: a Real Housewife of New York first lady and president as The Bachelor, alone at the White House without civilizing domestic ballast. No roses are being handed out in the Rose Garden.
Attempting to monetize the unpaid first lady role is only one way Melania Trump has disrupted presidential spousal tradition. After adopting a low profile during the campaign, she has remained in New York City, cloistered in Trump Tower, ostensibly so as not to interrupt 10-year-old Barron Trump’s schooling. Response has been polarized: outrage over taxpayers having to pay for extra security; empathy for the decision to keep young Barron out of the spotlight, especially after vicious taunts by comedians and on social media. Melania has also been congratulated for eschewing archaic first-lady tradition.
Her absence is not without political impact. A joyless, lifeless Trump White House that is all about executive orders stands in stark relief from the White House occupied by the Obamas. That’s not to say the Trump family’s presence would make the place happier. During the inauguration, Trump’s boorish behaviour toward his wife, and her evident distress, was seen by all. In an interview with ABC News in January, the president was asked whether or not having his wife or son around made him lonely. “No,” he said, “because I end up working longer. And that’s okay.”
Early accounts of Trump’s private time at the White House recall the reclusive eccentric, Howard Hughes. Trump recently told Bill O’Reilly he typically works until midnight or 1 a.m. and gets four or five hours of sleep. According to the New York Times, Trump is “almost always by himself” or with aide and former security chief Keith Schiller. His routine is limited: “When he is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.” (The Trump camp has vociferously denied reports the president owns a bathrobe.)
When, or even if, Melania will move to Washington is a guessing game. Reports suggest she is quietly hiring staff. But present or absent, the first lady sets the administration’s public tone, be it Jackie Kennedy with her White House renovation and perpetuating the Camelot myth, or Michelle Obama with her organic garden and advocacy for children’s health.
During the campaign, Melania Trump pledged to address bullying, an irony lost on no one. It’s a promise repeated on her WhiteHouse.gov bio: “Mrs. Trump cares deeply about issues impacting women and children, and she has focused her platform as First Lady on the problem of cyber bullying among our youth.” A recent investigation by Mother Jones, however, reported the first lady has yet to contact any major anti-cyber-bullying organizations. Taking on the cause is politically risky. LGBTQ youth are disproportionately affected by bullying. Addressing that stands to alienate Trump’s Religious Right base.
Since her husband became president, Melania Trump, ironically, is no longer “one of the most photographed women in the world,” as the lawsuit states. She surfaced for the first time at her husband’s side last weekend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach resort and club, which, post-inauguration, jacked its membership entry fee from $100,000 to $200,000. The couple attended a fundraising ball thrown by the Red Cross, an organization that aids the very people affected by Trump’s travel ban.
Now Mrs. Trump can be seen as a proxy for her husband in going after the media (she also successfully sued a blogger) for spreading alleged falsehoods. If she was in fact maligned, the outlet should be held accountable. Whether the suit should compensate for “a once in a lifetime opportunity” lost by an opportunistic first lady is another question. Either way, you have to wonder whether the claim that the alleged libel “impugned her fitness to perform her duties” serves another purpose: as an out from a job Melania Trump doesn’t want and never signed on for.