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Can The First Lady Have A Job, Legally? Let's Take a Look at History

Melania Trump, as 45th President Donald Trump's wife, has a very big role to play as the first lady of the United States. That's a job in and of itself, many would argue. But with a lawsuit recently announced involving a product line she may want to launch during her husband's presidency, many are asking: can the first lady have a job, legally? Besides the "job" she has as the other half of the "first couple?"

On Monday, Melania Trump refiled a $150 million libel lawsuit against the Daily Mail, after the suit was previously dismissed in Maryland on judicial grounds, claiming that an article in the publication alleging Trump had once worked for an escort service resulted in her brand losing “significant value.” There is no proof that Trump worked for such a service.

And while the lawsuit doesn't specifically say Trump planned to launch the brand while acting as first lady, it did say the article published by the Daily Mail hurt her reputation just as she began a “multi-year term during which Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world." It's not hard to determine what role she might have meant to be performing during this, "unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" that would span several years in which she would enjoy a greater opportunity for publicity.

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The details of the lawsuit were reported Monday night by The Washington Post, and specifically states that Melania is: "an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a former professional model and brand spokesperson, and successful businesswoman...," and that her plan entailed launching "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." Those categories would include, "among other things, apparel accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care, skin care and fragrance." Sounds like FLOTUS has all sorts of plans for her brand.

The lawsuit takes aim at the Daily Mail for its story on Trump's alleged past work. The lawsuit also states that the article “impugned her fitness to perform her duties as First Lady of the United States.”

While there is an ethical component to consider in this whole situation, it's important to note that, while Melania profiting because she is the first lady may seem morally wrong, profiting as the first lady isn't necessarily unheard of.

For example, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of president Franklin Roosevelt and one of the most admired former first ladies, actively earned money during her husband's presidency. According to an article on the website of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation:

Writing to a friend at the end of 1933, FDR’s first year in the White House, she trumpeted, “I’ve done it! I earned as much as Franklin.” She made as much as $1,400 a lecture (almost $25,000 in 2016), $1,000 a month for her column, and thousands more for her books and magazine articles.

Eleanor was determined to have more than just a domestic role as the wife of a president, and she kept working while her husband performed his political duties. According to another source, "she would tally earnings of $100,000 as First Lady, prompting Congress into examining her tax returns."

According to the National First Ladies' Library website, other first ladies were employed in various ways while their husbands acted as president as well.

  • Sarah Polk, James Polk’s wife, worked as the president's secretary, but didn't have a salary.
  • Bess Truman, wife of Harry S. Truman, worked as her husband's salaried Senate aide.

But not all first ladies agree when it comes to working outside the White House. Laura Bush once said, "The interesting question really is not should they receive a salary but should they be able to work for a salary at their job that they might have already had." She continued:

A first gentleman might continue to work at whatever he did if he was a lawyer or whatever. And so I think that's really the question we should ask is should she have a career during those years that her husband is president in addition to serving as the first lady."

So, yes. Legally, it appears the first lady can work outside of their role as wife of the president. And there is a precedent for working and making money while also acting as a first lady.

The question with Melania Trump seems to be whether the first lady should be able to use the position as first lady to further their business endeavors and further line their pockets. The first lady does not earn a salary, in that role alone, but some have earned money in other ways.

It remains to be seen how Melania will continue her career while husband Donald Trump is in the White House.