Melania Trump is just being honest
Give first lady Melania Trump credit for honesty. Rarely has anyone been so forthright about using the White House to cash in.
On Monday, Melania Trump filed a lawsuit in New York accusing Britain's Daily Mail of defamation: The outlet published an article last August — now retracted — suggesting without evidence that she once worked as an "escort." That hurt her reputation and commercial brand, the lawsuit alleges, and Melania Trump is seeking $150 million in damages. It's also the second time she has sued the Daily Mail over this. The first case was in Maryland and was thrown out for lack of jurisdiction.
But what's of real interest here isn't the merits of the lawsuit, but the language in it.
The defamation suit basically alleges the rumors damaged Melania Trump by specifically wrecking her chances to make money off her position as first lady. She "had the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as an extremely famous and well-known person" — during which she would've been "one of the most photographed women in the world" — to launch multiple brand products that would have brought in many millions of dollars for years, according to the language of the suit.
"There has never been a first lady of the United States who insinuated that she intended to make a lot of money because of the 'once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity of being first lady," Richard Painter, a former White House ethics counsel, told The Washington Post.
President Trump's head seems to be in the same place: Just weeks before taking office, he doubled the initiation fee for his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida to $200,000, and the Trump hotel chain says it wants to triple its locations here in America.
But while the language of Melania Trump's lawsuit was unusually blunt, her and her husband's behavior is hardly unique.
Today, being president or first lady automatically bestows upon you a brand that can be marketed to great profit. Between 2001 and the start of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential bid, for instance, she and Bill Clinton raked in a combined $153 million in speaking fees — an average of $210,795 across 729 speeches. It seems unlikely any group would pay anyone $200,000 to prattle on about any subject if "former president" or "former first lady" wasn't in their title.
There are also the ubiquitous book deals, which everyone cashes in on. Plenty of books are written after political fame has already been acquired. Other than George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama (for now), every president since Harry Truman has written an autobiography after leaving office. When you think about it, the genre of the presidential memoir in particular is more or less "cashing in" by default.
Jimmy Carter's been writing books for years since he left the White House. George W. Bush wrote Decision Points in 2010. Bill Clinton wrote My Life in 2004 and Giving in 2007. Hillary Clinton wrote Living History in 2003 and An Invitation to the White House: A Home with History in 2000. The latter tome is literally a coffee table book. Clinton's new book will reportedly tell stories from her life structured around a bunch of her favorite quotes — hardly the sort of idea that any Joe or Jane from down the block could sell to a publisher. Even getting within striking distance of the White House is enough: Sarah Palin wrote Going Rogue in 2009, and Mitt Romney wrote No Apology: The Case for American Greatness in 2010, after his first failed presidential bid.
So why doesn't this raise eyebrows the same way Melania Trump's lawsuit did? Perhaps books are seen as high-minded contributions to history or the public discourse — as opposed to lines of clothing, perfumes, jewelry, hotels, and resorts. But the publishers know what's up: To really see their faith in the presidency as something that can be marketed, look at the advances they give these authors. Bush reportedly got $7 million for Decision Points, Bill Clinton got $15 million for My Life, Hillary Clinton got $8 million for Living History, and Sarah Palin got $1.25 million for Going Rogue. The latest reports on Barack and Michelle Obama is they could be signing book deals in the range of $20 million to $45 million.
But the best story is probably from 1994, when then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was offered $4.5 million to write two books. When he was criticized for cashing in while in office, the Republican put the matter to rest by passing on the advance and settling for a cut of the royalties instead. In other words, being paid to write a book is unseemly, but making lots of money once it's published is okay. Obama, for instance, deliberately wrote all of his books before entering the White House (though one wasn't published until 2010), but while he was president, they made him over $7 million.
This gets to the complex ways presidential fame and economic realities intersect, and how they can tell us uncomfortable truths about how our society really functions. We expect presidents to be dignified office-holders so devoted to public service that they're above the petty concerns of money. But we also imbue them with the kind of fame a movie star could only dream of and dangle temptations in front of them. So they'll cheat and write a guaranteed best-seller. But is making $1 million off a children's book that much better than making $1 million off a tie collection?
What Melania Trump is doing (or says she intended to do) isn't really corruption — that would be if President Trump used the regulatory and lawmaking powers of his office to make his businesses more profitable. But we still don't like the way it looks.