She always viewed the role differently than most of her recent predecessors. Resistant to public speaking, she rarely made trips, did not actively campaign, and on occasion, expressed views or ideas juxtaposed to those of her husband, former President Donald Trump. Now her high-priced opening bid is recalling her same preoccupation with doing what she wants instead of concerning herself with the American public, and it’s opening the former first lady up to renewed criticism.
“(Selling her hat) lends credence to the notion that the Trumps were always shameless about making money and that Melania keeps proving that she is a Trump through and through,” said Kate Andersen Brower, a CNN contributor and author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
The notion Trump is out for her own personal gain, at the expense of tradition and respect for her former role, was echoed several times by the 10 people CNN spoke to for this story, including several former Trump administration officials. CNN reached out to Melania Trump for comment and did not receive a response.
All of the items Trump is selling can only be purchased via cryptocurrency. Her move towards NFT, mostly a trendy B-list celebrity genre money-grab, was questionable in terms of a post-first lady business, but it is the selling of an item she wore to an official White House event that has those who know her scratching their heads.
“It is not okay,” said another person who worked in a senior position in the Trump White House. “It’s unseemly. She is trying to build herself a nest-egg of cash built upon a role that the American people elected her husband for her to inhabit.”
Yet another person, a friend of Trump’s for many years before and during her White House tenure, was hesitant to criticize the former first lady, but this person did question why Trump has not stated clearly whether the bulk of the money will go to charity and not directly into her pocket. “If she is going to do this, sell her personal things, she has to publicly disclose the financials,” said this person, who is no longer close with Trump.
A small paragraph on the page of Trump’s new website mentions her intent to put at least some of the profits toward a charitable endeavor.
“A portion of the proceeds derived from this auction will provide foster care children with access to computer science and technology education,” the website reads. CNN has numerous times sought clarity from Trump’s office regarding the portion size, and the exact beneficiaries of said portion, and has never received a response.
“When she was first lady I thought she was tone deaf and that she didn’t understand the optics of how some things would land,” says Brower. “Now I think she knows exactly how things look and she simply doesn’t care. There is no way that she went into this auction without knowing how unprecedented it is to sell items from state visits.”
When a first lady wears an outfit, it is often catalogued by a member of her East Wing staff. During Trump’s time in office, this job fell to her communications director, later her chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, who kept copies of Trump’s looks for most important public occasions with detailed notes of the designers involved, according to a person familiar with staff duties. The itemization occurs, ostensibly, for posterity — much of a first lady’s wardrobe is saved and often given to a presidential library, or another museum.
“Many of these items have particular historical significance — the dress worn to an inauguration ceremony or the gown worn to an inaugural ball, for example,” says Mark Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation, the non-profit organization that supports the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. “These items are catalogued and housed in the library with other artifacts from the administration. Often they are available to go on loan to other museums.”
The LBJ library includes a section dedicated to former first lady Lady Bird Johnson, which includes several important artifacts and a good selection of her clothing. Updegrove says the personal effects help to “personify these often-distant historic figures, humanizing them and making them more relatable. It’s often the closest we will get to seeing them in person.”
And a first lady’s wardrobe is often the most popular part of a presidential library.
“Back in 2014, when President and Mrs. Obama were at the LBJ Library for the Civil Rights Summit,” recalled Updegrove, “President Obama saw (Lady Bird’s) dresses and told me that he had no illusions that many visitors would come to his presidential library to learn about what happened during his administration. ‘They’ll be coming to see Michelle’s dresses,’ he said.”
With the sale of Trump’s signed hat, there will be one less item for the public to eventually see in person, should a Donald Trump presidential library ever come to fruition.
“While it is her right to do so, it is inconsistent with what other former first ladies have done, donating similar items to the National Archives and presidential libraries in the interest of preserving history and giving back to the American people,” Updegrove said.
‘Money is money. Business is business’
Sidestepping tradition and going for the biggest bang for the buck is a Trumpian hallmark. For decades, Donald Trump and his offspring — and his wives — have piggybacked on the popularity of the Trump name and brand. Doing so made Trump and his family revered, and very wealthy.
Melania Trump dabbled in a brand of her own, in 2010 designing and selling “Melania Trump” fashion jewelry and watches on QVC. She attempted a skincare business shortly thereafter that never came to be. “I don’t know why everyone is so surprised by this,” one former Trump administration official and current Trump supporter told CNN of her endeavor. “She is married to Donald Trump. This is what they do. Money is money. Business is business.”
And yet, the criticism of the former first lady is that she is blurring the line between business and American history for personal profit. It “cheapens” the position of first lady, Brower said, but she noted that many former first ladies have made a hearty profit from selling their memoirs and making speeches and now — in the case of Michelle Obama — books and production deals. “But there’s something inherently opaque and lazy about what Melania is doing,” she added.
Many of the Trump acquaintances who spoke with CNN did not know for certain whether she was facing financial woes or concerned about future security. At least three people pointed to the idea Trump is driven by the need to make an income unrelated to that of her husband, citing her extreme desire for independence, which extends at times to her marriage. “She wants her own money,” said one of the people who knows Trump and worked with her in the White House. “This is a fast and easy way to do that.”
Yet it might not be as lucrative as Trump would hope, based on previous auctions of first lady memorabilia.
“When somebody has died, and their estate is being sold, that is typically when their items increase in price, because it’s emotional and ephemeral,” says John Reznikoff, president and founder of Connecticut-based University Archives. Reznikoff has handled several auctions of former first lady items, including a bible of Mary Todd Lincoln’s, which sold for $90,000, and accessories that belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy, including a pair of white gloves that fetched $2,400.
Reznikoff, who has been valuing historic items for auction for 40 years, noted that Trump being alive and not as universally beloved as Kennedy, for example, makes the quarter-of-a-million dollar opening bid for her NFT, signed hat and watercolor wildly over-valued. “If I were advising her as a client — and I’m nonpolitical — I would advise a client that a better opening price for the hat alone would be $5,000,” said Reznikoff. He thinks the “I really don’t care. Do u?” jacket could fetch more, and so perhaps would the pith helmet Trump wore in Africa that made headlines. But he added even those would be nowhere near $250,000.
Kennedy’s estate famously went to auction at Sotheby’s in 1996, two years after her death, and the sale of her personal effects garnered millions of dollars for her family, with most items going well above their initial estimations. Reznikoff said Kennedy’s decades-long popularity and fashion icon status, as well as the vast range of historic and mundane personal effects, were the ideal recipe for a multi-million dollar haul.
“In my experience in this business, living people who are famous, unless they’re broke, generally don’t auction off their household goods,” he said.
The impetus for Trump’s decision to auction a personal item of clothing might never be known. “She’s private, she’s never going to say what this is about,” said the former administration official who worked with the first lady for several years. “And she’s never, ever cared what anyone thinks about her, so all of this criticism means nothing.”