White House says Melania isn’t in business. So why are her companies still active?

Melania Trump’s focus as First Lady is to end cyberbullying

In Berwyn, Pa., Melania Trump said her main focus would be to bring an end to cyberbullying if selected as first lady. This was her first speech since the Republican National Convention in July 2016.
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In Berwyn, Pa., Melania Trump said her main focus would be to bring an end to cyberbullying if selected as first lady. This was her first speech since the Republican National Convention in July 2016.

First lady Melania Trump has several companies that are still active enterprises, raising questions about whether they will be used for profit while she is in the White House.

Beyond the 564 companies listed in then-candidate Donald Trump’s May 2016 financial disclosure were seven companies associated with his wife.

All but one of her companies had been listed in the disclosure as active, and five of the seven were still active as of Feb. 21. The one Melania Trump company he listed last year as having inactive assets — Melania LLC — appears to be an ongoing and active company in the records of the New York State Division of Corporations.

On his last financial disclosure, Trump did not say what the company did. New York records show it registered as a business in October 2002, set up by the Trump Organization more than two years before the couple wed Jan. 22, 2005.

“These kinds of errors raise the question of what other mistakes there might be on the disclosure,” said Norman Eisen, an ethics czar in the Obama White House from 2009 to 2011 and a former ambassador to the Czech Republic. “Absent tax returns, they ought to be more transparent about what these companies do.”

President Trump has refused to release his tax returns, saying recently that the U.S. election results show Americans aren’t worried about his taxes. He claims he has separated himself from most of his companies by resigning and leaving his grown children and senior company leaders to operate his businesses.

McClatchy also learned that companies manufacturing products under licenses for Melania Trump have ended their relationships with her. The two business partners, which had manufactured skin-care products and watches under Melania Trump’s name, have severed ties with her registered companies.

“There is no longer any relationship between our company and Melania Marks,” said Chris Shaffer, vice president of global sales for Indiana-based New Sunshine LLC, which until mid-2016 made the Melania Skin Care Collection under license. “We don’t comment on previous relationships.”

Products for Melania Marks Skincare included pricey caviar-infused anti-aging cremes sold at Lord & Taylor and other high-end retail establishments. New Sunshine continues to make a number of popular sun block and tanning lotion products under license, including the popular Australian Gold line and products bearing the name of the Kardashian sisters.

Some time after Trump’s May 2016 financial disclosure, the company licensed to make gem-encrusted watches and jewelry sold under Melania Trump’s name also ended ties.

“There is no longer a relationship,” said an executive with Long Island-based MZ Berger & Co. LLC, which manufactured watches under license for Melania Marks Accessories LLC.

The executive, who discussed the matter under condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak, said the contract was allowed to expire and declined further detail.

The watches, created for Melania Marks Accessories, were offered on the QVC shopping website, but no longer appear there. QVC declined to comment, although a company spokesperson told CNN on Jan. 21 that there was not an “active relationship” with the brand. That same day, President Trump’s first full day in office, the White House reworded her official online biography after criticism that it appeared to be touting her jewelry line.

“Melania Marks Accessories LLC is not currently doing any business and the First Lady’s former jewelry line is no longer active,” said a White House spokesperson who asked to remain anonymous as a matter of policy. “To be clear, the First Lady has no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so. It is not a possibility. Any statements to the contrary are being misinterpreted.”

Melania Marks Accessories became an active company in New York in 2009, according to public records, and remained so as of this week. The first lady also has two active companies in Delaware for real estate in her name located in New York.

The company set up for Melania Trump’s skincare products ceased operating on Feb. 1. Delaware public records show that just weeks ago the Trump Organization canceled registration for Melania Marks Skincare LLC and its associated tax-related company called Melania Marks Skincare Managing Member Corp.

Of the first lady’s seven companies, three are actually parallel operating companies to provide a measure of protection against lawsuits and for tax benefits. Only Melania LLC, her oldest company, lacks a parallel company.

Ethics experts say as long as the companies remain active, there is a possibility for profiting.

“I would dissolve all those companies, or make sure they are in inactive status,” said Richard Painter, the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007.

There could be legitimate reasons for leaving these companies in an active state, Painter said, including the possibility that they still collect revenue from past deals.

“We just don’t know for sure, what they’re doing,” he cautioned. “They haven’t dissolved them. We know that.”

White House spokespeople and Trump Organization attorney Alan Garten declined to say whether Melania Trump planned to follow the lead of her husband and her stepdaughter Ivanka, who resigned from their companies. They also declined to discuss the question of why Melania LLC was listed as inactive on President Trump’s disclosure but remains actively registered in New York.

Painter and Eisen both said that best ethics practices have long dictated that public servants separate themselves from business interests to avoid corruption or even the appearance of it.

The active status of the first lady’s companies is troubling to the two former White House lawyers because of a $150 million libel lawsuit Melania Trump’s lawyers filed on Feb. 6 against the U.S. operations of London-based newspaper The Daily Mail. The legal complaint cites what it calls “unsubstantiated” allegations that damaged Melania Trump. The Daily Mail alleged she worked as an “elite escort.”

Filed with the State Supreme Court of New York, the lawsuit said the defamatory statements meant her “brand has lost significant value, and major business opportunities that were otherwise available to her have been lost and/or substantially impacted.”

Moreover, the lawsuit alleged Melania Trump now held a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to “launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple categories,” each potentially garnering “multi-million dollar business relationships.”

The lawsuit led to a New York Times story a day later questioning whether she intended, like President Trump’s grown children, to continue operating family businesses.

“That’s not what she is supposed to be doing, but that’s what they said in the Daily Mail case,” said Painter, who interpreted the lawsuit language to suggest Melania Trump might run a business while her husband is in office. “It does lead to the question of what’s going on.”

President Trump is not required to file a financial disclosure form again until May 2018, even though past presidents have done so just months into office. Trump resisted suggestions from the Office of Government Ethics to dissolve his companies, instead handing management of them to his grown children.

“The president has set a very poor tone at the top,” said Eisen.

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall