On Monday, First Lady of the United States Melania Trump refiled a defamation suit against Mail Media, owner of the Daily Mail, over a story suggesting that she had once worked as an escort. Because she is undoubtedly a public figure, Melania will need to prove that the Daily Mail defamed her intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, in order to secure a legal victory.
This high bar is so difficult to clear that you might wonder why Melania doesn’t simply write off the now-retracted allegations as the imprudent musings of a sleazy tabloid. The lawsuit itself gives one remarkable answer to this question: it claims the Daily Mail story harmed Melania’s “unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to launch a new commercial brand as First Lady that would have made her millions on everything from clothes to jewelry to skin care products.
Plaintiff had the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a former professional model and 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.
Translation: The First Lady’s perks include highly lucrative business opportunities, and the Daily Mail chased away those opportunities by defaming Melania.
Ethics watchdogs and good-government types who have been sounding the alarm for months about conflicts of interest posed by the first family’s private business ventures see the suit as the latest red flag in a series of them.
“I don’t know why everybody is so surprised,” Norm Eisen, who served as the chief ethics lawyer for the Obama White House, told Slate by email on Tuesday. Eisen is the board chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW), a watchdog group that has spearheaded a lawsuit targeting Trump’s conflicts of interest.
“The pleading just makes plain what a large group of bipartisan experts have been pointing out,” Eisen continued, “based on the behavior of the entire family. Above all, it’s paterfamilias: The Trumps are using the White House like the Kardashians used reality TV, to build and vastly expand their business enterprises.”
Richard Painter, who served as the chief ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush White House and is vice board chair of CREW, voiced similar concerns. “The White House isn’t a marketing opportunity,” he told Slate by phone. “We’ve never seen this before. This would be a use of [Trump’s] office, the presidency, for private gain—that is corruption.” Painter added that Melania is effectively claiming ownership of something he believes she never had in the first place: the right to make money from the presidency. “She might as well sue them for taking away her ownership interest in the Brooklyn Bridge,” he said.
The White House did not respond to questions concerning Melania’s plans for her brand. Trump and his lawyers have previously shrugged off any and all ethical concerns about the obvious problems created by the president owning a sprawling global business empire that includes real estate properties and licensing deals. Their defense, to the extent they’ve offered one, is twofold: 1) the Trump Organization is charging a fair-market value for its products, and 2) the president has isolated himself from his company. Both of those claims are dubious at best—but even if we suspend disbelief, they don’t come close to addressing the underlying ethics problems themselves. If Melania were to pursue branding deals, it would only make the Trump defense weaker, since she would be using her position as First Lady—and, by extension, her husband’s office—to pursue private financial gain.
(In fact, she may already be doing that. On Inauguration Day, the White House website promoted Melania’s modeling and jewelry line, focusing in particular on branded jewelry she had previously sold on QVC. After the Washington Post wrote about it, the reference to “Melania™ Timepieces & Jewelry” disappeared, but her official biography remains bizarrely promotional.)
Melania’s lawsuit raises a second red flag. Her complaint requests $150 million in damages, a shockingly high sum—particularly for a defamation suit involving a public figure married to a public official. The suit asserts that this amount is appropriate because of the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” Melania lost to profit off of her service as First Lady.
But it’s difficult to read these allegations without speculating that this suit might really be designed for a different purpose entirely: to bankrupt and destroy the Daily Mail. As our colleague Osita Nwanevu has noted, Melania is being represented by Charles Harder—who rose to fame as Hulk Hogan’s attorney in his own lawsuit against Gawker. Hogan’s suit, bankrolled by Trump adviser Peter Thiel, also asked for, and was awarded, mind-bogglingly high damages ($140 million), which ultimately bankrupted Gawker Media.
Harder has declared his intent to do the same to other media companies: “I think there needs to be a chilling effect on the irresponsible writers,” he told a GQ writer this fall. He may or may not believe that Melania lost $150 million in business opportunities because of the Daily Mail article, in other words, but he knows that this theory of damages allows Melania to request a sum that would devastate the tabloid. And given Harder’s professed interest in punishing the press, his sally against the Daily Mail could be a trial balloon for future attacks on more established and respected outlets like the New York Times.
Still, the most notable thing about Melania’s suit isn’t its thinly veiled effort to launch an assault on freedom of the press. It is that it’s so intent on doing so that it willingly embraces a grifter theory of the presidency—one that President Trump may soon have to fight in court. While the commander-in-chief insists, out of constitutional necessity, that he will not use the presidency to enrich himself, Melania has frankly acknowledged that she planned to make money off of her husband’s office. So long as it helps them take down a media outlet, the Trump family is apparently happy to drop the pretense that they’re not using the presidency to line their own pockets. Their shamelessness would make a Kardashian blush.