First Lady Melania Trump is suing a British newspaper, saying a defamatory article it later retracted deprived her of the chance to launch a lucrative brand of clothing, shoes, jewelry and perfume.
The $150 million suit against the publisher of the Daily Mail accused the London tabloid of causing “tremendous harm” to her reputation and making it almost impossible to take advantage of “major business opportunities” available “for a multi-year term during which plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.”
President Donald Trump’s spouse says she has a “unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to “launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories.” Melania Trump also claims she could have sold “apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care, skin care and fragrance.”
Filed in state court in Manhattan on Monday after being dismissed by a Maryland judge last week, the complaint prompted questions anew about whether President Donald Trump and his family understand the ethical conflicts created by mixing public service with commercial opportunities.
“The suit makes clear she believes she was damaged because she can’t make as much money off her position as First Lady,” said Richard Painter, who served as White House ethics counsel under President George W. Bush. “It’s a clear violation of the standards of professional conduct for federal employees to have a president allowing his wife to benefit financially from his office.”
One of Melania Trump’s lawyers disputed the suggestion that the former model is trying to monetize her role. “The First Lady has no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so,” attorney Matthew Blackett said in an e-mailed statement. “It is not a possibility. Any statements to the contrary are being misinterpreted.”
Most ethics experts, including the agency that monitors such matters in the federal government, have said the president should divest his holdings. Instead, Trump has turned over management of his company, the Trump Organization, to his two elder sons and pledged no new foreign deals during his term. The president has said he has no legal or moral obligation to do more.
Melania Trump has also come in for criticism about conflicts. Visitors to the White House website in January were told about her jewelry line being sold on QVC Inc., a home-shopping network owned by billionaire John Malone’s Liberty Interactive Corp. The reference was removed after news accounts on it appeared.
In her libel case, she accuses the newspaper’s website of running an article that said her “well-publicized professional modeling career in the 1990s was a ruse” to cover her work as an “elite escort” in the sex trade.
Melania Trump sued Mail Media Inc. in September over the story, which cited allegations about the escort service published earlier in a Slovenian magazine. The former model sued in state court in Maryland after the website and Webster Tarpley, a blogger who also reported the claims, issued retractions.
A judge concluded Trump didn’t have the right to sue the newspaper company in Maryland, but allowed her claims against Tarpley to proceed because he lived there.
In the New York libel case, the First Lady may not need to prove she lost business opportunities because of the retracted article to recover under the state’s defamation law, said John Diamond, a media law professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law.
“If it turns out that she does have to prove people aren’t purchasing her goods because of the prostitution story, that may be a challenge because there may be political reasons people are refusing” to buy her jewelry and clothes, the professor added.