We can all thank Melania Trump for giving us a clearer sense of what she and her family are looking for from their stay in the White House.
In court papers the first lady filed on Monday as part of a libel lawsuit against the parent company of the Daily Mail, she said that the British tabloid and website, by falsely reporting that she had once worked as a prostitute, caused the her to miss “major business opportunities” and “multimillion-dollar relationships.”
The lawsuit, first reported by the New York Post on Tuesday evening, said Trump’s missed deals would have involved such products as “apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, haircare, skincare and fragrance.”
Melania Trump’s role as first lady to President Donald Trump would have offered her a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to cash in on such deals, the lawsuit noted, but the reputational damage done by the Daily Mail had disrupted those plans. Amid a little swirl of social media attention for the case, her spokespeople said that reporters and others had misinterpreted the language in the suit and that the first lady had “no intention” of trying to profit from her White House role.
Fortunately for another Trump, the president’s daughter Ivanka, nothing yet seems to have unwound similar opportunities afforded by being a member of one of the world’s most famous families, with regular access to two of the world’s most powerful men (her father and her husband, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president).
Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, Ivanka’s eponymous accessories company drew criticism for aggressively marketing jewelry she had sported during a “60 Minutes” interview about her and her father’s White House plans. More recently, Ivanka has stated that she would part ways with the Trump Organization and her own business by moving to Washington and taking a “leave of absence” from the companies. But as ProPublica reported last week, she has yet to make public documentation proving that she has formally left her businesses.
Meanwhile, she has invited titans of industry for dinner at her Washington home, where the guests included the chief executive of Walmart. Ivanka’s clothing line is sold in Walmart stores, and Walmart has an interest, inevitably, in a number of decisions that the Trump White House will make, including corporate tax rates, trade agreements and labor regulations.
The taint of possible self-dealing that clings, vaguely, to Ivanka’s comings and goings is a step more pronounced with her husband, Jared Kushner. Privy to innermost White House decisions, he has yet to effectively distance himself from the Kushner family’s real-estate operations (he simply moved his assets into a trust controlled by a less-than-disinterested party, his mother).
And then we come to the Trump patriarch himself, who hasn’t released his tax returns or truly separated himself from the Trump Organization’s business affairs. By these decisions, Trump, who isn’t subject to federal conflicts-of-interest laws, has ignored decades of Oval Office tradition meant to reassure the public that the president — unlike his wife — isn’t looking for “multimillion-dollar relationships” in the White House.
For students of good government, Melania Trump’s lawsuit does have an upside: the discovery process.
Since she is seeking at least $150 million in damages stemming from missed business opportunities, the lawyers representing the Daily Mail should eventually avail themselves of their discovery powers to secure each and every email, communique and document about White House business prospects that the Trump parents and children discussed. They should also subpoena the Trump family’s tax returns and banking records while they’re at it.
If President Trump isn’t inclined to release his tax returns or be more transparent about his business dealings, then maybe the courts can help him along.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View.
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