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 income drew swift condemnation from ethics watchdogs as inappropriate profiteering from her high-profile position, which is typically centred on public service.
U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump attend the 60th Annual Red Cross Gala at Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida on Feb. 4. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)
The statement came Monday in a libel lawsuit the first lady re-filed in a state trial court in Manhattan. Mrs. 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, Mrs. 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.
Mrs. 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.
'Unprecedented, clear breach'
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, Mrs. 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."
"She's not talking about the future. She's talking about earning money now.''
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."
Melania Trump has not stepped away from her brand, according to business documents.
As of Tuesday, she was listed in New York filings as the CEO of Melania Marks Accessories Member Corp, the holding company of Melania Marks Accessories LLC, both of which remain active. Those companies managed between $15,000 and $50,000 in royalties from her accessories lines, the Trumps' May 2016 financial disclosure filing shows.
A third company, Melania LLC, was also still active, though the Trumps had listed it as having less than $1,000 in value and producing less than $200. Two other of Mrs. Trump's companies tied to skincare products were shut down last week, according to business filings in Delaware. Both were listed in the May 2016 financial disclosure as having little to no value or income.
U.S. President Donald Trump walks with his wife Melania Trump on the tarmac after he arrived on Air Force One at the Palm Beach International Airport. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Amey said a more ethical course would be for all members of the first family to halt their business activities while Trump is president. A spokeswoman for the first lady did not respond to a request for comment.
Melania Trump previously sued 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.
Mrs. Trump also had sued blogger Webster Tarpley for reporting the unsubstantiated rumours. 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 after he apologized and agreed to pay "a substantial sum as a settlement."
Previous scrutiny over marketing
Melania Trump's marketing has drawn scrutiny before.
On Inauguration Day, the official White House biography for Melania Trump originally referenced 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."
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.
Associated Press writers Randall Chase in Dover, Del., and Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.
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