WASHINGTON – First lady Melania Trump expected to develop "multi-million dollar business relationships" tied to her presence in the White House, according to a lawsuit she filed. And she has yet to step away from the companies that manage royalties from her name-branded products, business documents show.
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Ethics watchdogs worry that Mrs. Trump seems to be inappropriately trying to profit from a high-profile position that is usually centered on public service.
"The Trumps are using the White House like the Kardashians used reality TV, to build and vastly expand their overall business enterprises," said Norman Eisen, who was President Barack Obama's chief ethics counselor.
Mrs. Trump is living in New York while her son finishes out the school year. She has done little hiring for her White House office and has not posted on social media since Jan. 21. She joined President Donald Trump last weekend at their home in Florida but has not returned to Washington since the inauguration last month.
A libel lawsuit refiled by Mrs. Trump on Monday in New York is one of the few times the public has heard from her lately.
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.
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While the new court documents don't specifically mention her role as first lady, an unusual passage argues that in addition to being false and libelous, the Daily Mail report damaged her ability to profit from 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 reads.
Charles Harder, Mrs. Trump's attorney, did not respond to a question about what was meant by the phrase "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." He said the first lady "has no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so."
"It is not a possibility," Harder said. "Any statements to the contrary are being misinterpreted."
A White House spokeswoman for the first lady did not respond to a request for comment.
The products referenced in the lawsuit could have included apparel, accessories, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care and fragrance, among others. The first lady is seeking compensatory and punitive damages of at least $150 million.
An Associated Press review of business filings found that Melania Trump has not stepped away from her brand.
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.
Scott Amey, general counsel of the Washington watchdog Project on Government Oversight, said the first lady's ongoing enterprises are "another example of the first family blurring the line between public service and private business interests."
Richard Painter, who advised former President George W. Bush on ethics, said the lawsuit's language shows Melania Trump is engaging "in an unprecedented, clear breach of rules about using her government position for private gain."
Painter and Eisen are 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.
President 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 business to his adult sons and a longtime Trump Organization employee.
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."
Mrs. 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 rumors. 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."
Associated Press writers Randall Chase in Dover, Del., and Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.