Melania Trump is an unusual first lady. Could she turn that in her favor?

Michelle Obama had children's health. Barbara Bush had family literacy. Jackie Kennedy had historic preservation. Could Melania Trump turn business into a pet project?

Carlos Barria/Reuters/File
First Lady Melania Trump and U.S. President Donald Trump (not pictured) attend the 60th Annual Red Cross Gala at Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., February 4, 2017.

A defamation lawsuit filed this week by first lady Melania Trump against the Mail Online accuses the site of costing her business opportunities because of its publication of unsubstantiated reports claiming she had once worked as an escort.

Those reports, the suit alleges, caused Mrs. Trump’s brand to lose “significant value” and miss out on “major business opportunities” for product lines including jewelry, accessories, and skin care.

For some Washington observers, the lawsuit raised questions about Mrs. Trump's role in the new administration's White House. The job of first lady is, of course, not really a job. It comes with no job description, but many expectations – none of which typically include making money.

Mrs. Trump's complaint doesn’t explicitly link those business opportunities to her position as first lady. But it does allege that the false stories “impugned on her fitness to perform her duties” of first lady, and refers to missed business potential that would have come during an unspecified time period of special visibility. 

Mrs. Trump, it reads, “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.”

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mrs. Trump’s attorney said his client “has no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so,” adding that “[a]ny statements to the contrary are being misinterpreted.”

In interviews with the AP and elsewhere, however, observers pointed to three active companies still owned by the first lady, as evidence that the holdings could present conflicts of interest.

But some say that if managed correctly, her business experience could also provide a road map for reshaping the role of first lady, just as others before her have used their pre-White House careers to inform the position’s traditionally press-friendly, nonpartisan activism.

“We’ve not had a first lady that’s ‘worked’ while in the White House, nor have all these investments and possibilities of making money,” says Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Lynn University who has written several books about first ladies. “She should divest and sit on it until her husband’s presidency is over.”

But just as Laura Bush, a former librarian, made family literacy a key initiative during her time in the White House, he tells The Christian Science Monitor, Mrs. Trump could turn herself into a champion of young women entrepreneurs.

Mrs. Trump's behavior in the very first days of her tenure as first lady has already raised questions about her role as first lady. Her absence from the White House, along her not having appointed many staff members, has caused observers to wonder when – or if – she planned to claim the mantle.

Given the roles that other first ladies have played, many are waiting to see if Mrs. Trump will embrace a cause. Entrepreneurship could be an obvious fit for Mrs. Trump, suggests Watson. “It’d be advice she’d be credible in giving, and something that would seem to be a passion of hers,” he says. “People would applaud it.”

“First ladies are routinely more popular than their husbands, and their social projects bring a lot of good will to the White House,” he notes, adding “[President] Trump could certainly use that right now.”

But this week’s lawsuit, some argue, sets a tone of unusual combativeness.

The suit, re-filed in New York state court after a Maryland judge dismissed it for jurisdictional reasons, came one day before Mrs. Trump settled a separate suit against a Maryland blogger for publishing similar, unfounded claims. And the $150 million in damages sought by her legal team in the New York casehas led some to speculate that the suits could be a variation of her husband’s own full-contact handling of the press corps.

“[I]t’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,” wrote Slate on Tuesday.

The decision to file the lawsuits in response to the false stories has no real precedent for first ladies, though plenty of others have gotten bad press, says Stacy Cordery, an Iowa State University historian who has written about women in presidential families.

“For me, the puzzling thing as a historian is, she had other choices. So this lawsuit is perplexing. It continues to shine a light on something she wants to bury,” she says.

How could Mrs. Trump best move forward from here?

“The sooner she espouses a cause and takes on the mantle of first lady, the faster that past recedes,” says Cordery.

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