No family of an American president in the modern era has profited from their association with the White House like Donald Trump and his clan, with foreign governments using their hotels, lobbyists buying expensive private club memberships at Mar-A-Lago and Trump golf clubs, Ivanka Trump’s products getting trademark approval from China and elsewhere, and international influence peddlers buying multi-million dollar condos in Trump commercial buildings worldwide.
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Yet it is still surprising to learn that America’s phantom first lady, Melania Trump, has a lucrative side business surreptitiously peddling family photos through a large photo agency that come with prohibitions on how they can be used -earning her seven figures last year alone, according to an investigation by NBC News.
According to a financial disclosure filed by President Trump with the Government Ethics Office, the First Lady earned between $100,000 and $1 million in 2017 in royalties paid to her by Getty Images, one of the largest U.S. photo agencies, for the use of photos that could only be published as part of favorable coverage of the Trumps.
NBC News found at least a dozen organizations paid to use restricted images of the Trumps in 2017 that, thanks to an unusual deal with a photo agency, resulted in an indirect payment of at least $100,000 to Melania Trump. https://t.co/kMnkL6xpgU
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) July 2, 2018
Unlike past first ladies like Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, there is no indication the profits from her commercial sideline were donated in full or in part of a charity. When NBC News asked, the White House declined to comment.
“Paying royalties to the Trumps and limiting the use to only positive stories about a prominent politician is unusual,” Akili Ramsess, executive director of the National Press Photographers Association, told NBC News.
“It’s not unheard of for celebrities to earn royalties from photos of themselves,” reported NBC News, “but it’s very unusual for the wife of a currently serving elected official.”
At least a dozen news organizations licensed and used the photos including NBC News, Yahoo News, the Daily Mail, Fox News, the Houston Chronicle, Paris Match, House Beautiful, SF Gate and Conde Nast, publisher of VanityFair and other magazines.
The Russian edition of the fashion magazine Elle used a portrait of the Trump family in February 2017.
NBC News contacted all of those they could identify and most said they were not aware that the photos were part of a licensing deal that paid profits to Melania Trump, and several said they were unaware that the photos could only be used with positive coverage (which is detailed on the online Getty images catalog page showing the photos).
The Getty listing also disclosed some pictures were montages and some had been retouched but it made no mention that a portion of the fees went to Melania Trump.
Several outlets, including Yahoo and the Houston Chronicle, took down the images after being contacted by NBC News.
NBC News said it did not agree to use the images only with positive stories and did not know that a portion of the license fee was being paid to Melania Trump as a royalty.
It is quite unusual for the subject of photos to receive ongoing royalties for appearing in photos, although the photographer often is paid based on the sales to publications.
The 187 pictures were taken by Belgian photographer Regine Mahaux in 2010, 2011 and 2016 – mostly of Donald, Melania and Barron Trump – before Trump became president.
The filing for 2017 was the first time the royalties showed up on the president’s disclosure statements, suggesting in prior years the royalties paid did not rise above the minimum amount which must be reported.
In other words, they became much more important and lucrative after Trump was elected.
Mahaux also took Melania Trump’s official White House portrait, but that is public and not subject to the Getty licensing arrangement.
One of Mahaux’s photos also appeared in a Republican Convention publication in 2016 but the GOP told NBC News it was provided to them by the Trump’s and they did not pay a fee.
Since the photos were taken before Trump became president, perhaps former model Melania Trump saw no reason to alter their licensing arrangement with Getty after entering the White House, but it is part of a larger pattern in which the least seen First Lady in years does what she wants, even wearing a jacket with an insensitive message printed on the back on her first recent visit to immigrant children in federal detention.
It is also not a surprise that Slovenian-born Melania Trump’s favorite photographer is not an American but a Belgian – the symbolism of that choice, like her failure to share any of the proceeds with a charity, reeks of arrogance, indifference or at best stupidity.
However, as the wife of a man who is profiting off his government position like no president before him, perhaps it should not be such a big surprise.
It’s all in the family.