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Melania Trump began 2022 by announcing she'd be auctioning off a hat, along with two other items, for the low, low starting bid of $250,000.
Her website, MelaniaTrump.com, allowed the bids only to be made in cryptocurrency. Remember this. This will be important.
She called the auction the "Head of State" collection. It included the custom-made, wide-brimmed white hat she'd worn to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, during the Trumps' first state visit at the White House in April 2018 - autographed - plus a watercolor of Trump in the hat, and a non-fungible token, or NFT, depicting the image.
One year after leaving the White House, Melania Trump is remaking herself as an entrepreneur. In a vast departure from previous first ladies - but in keeping with her business trajectory before her husband became president, when she licensed her name to jewelry and skin care lines - she is reviving her personal brand for monetary gain.
That plan, though, has an unexpected gum in the works: the massive cryptocurrency crash.
"A portion of the proceeds derived from this auction will provide foster care children with access to computer science and technology education," read a small disclosure on the auction's website. The rest, presumably, will go to Trump herself. Trump's office did not respond to questions about how much of the proceeds will be donated, and to which charity.
When The Washington Post checked the hat auction exactly two days before its indeterminate ending time (advertised as Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. PST, although a countdown clock on the website ran 24 hours faster than that), the starting bid had dropped to $155,916, and continued to fluctuate around that level. At an earlier point in the 14-day auction, the bids had reached more than $275,000.
But the auction was only accepting bids in cryptocurrency, which has taken a nosedive in the last week, with bitcoin falling 20% and Ethereum 30%.
Melania Trump's hat auction may have become unlikely collateral damage in the crisis, a prime example of what happens when risk-taking intersects with terrible timing. The only cryptocurrency accepted on Trump's website is Solana (SOL), which has been one of the hardest-hit, falling more than 40% over the previous week. The Solana blockchain (a distributed database that stores a secure and decentralized record of digital transactions) also had an outage on Friday and Saturday, further adding to its free fall. Had this auction taken place in December 2021, Trump would have been accepting bids in Solana during a surge in which its value had increased 11,150% since the beginning of the year.
Instead, in a bizarre turn of events - or perhaps series of technical glitches - Trump's auction appeared to close early Tuesday morning (a day earlier than advertised on the website) with the hat and its lot going for $160,218, or around $90,000 below the asking price. The site read "Auction Ended" for five hours, and then the next time The Post checked, bidding had reopened. As of 2:15 a.m. Eastern time, the highest bid is still 1,800 SOL, as it has been for days, but with a value of $177,750.
This is all happening at a time when the Trump family's business practices are under intense scrutiny, including by New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat who has filed evidence in a civil investigation against former president Trump and his three eldest children focusing on the ways he allegedly misrepresented his assets to secure favorable loans and insurance policies.
The former first lady's post-White House endeavors have puzzled experts on modern first ladies.
"Most previous first ladies certainly have used their celebrity to do good works," says Myra Gutin, author of "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century," citing Laura Bush's post-White House advocating for Afghan women; Michelle Obama's work supporting girls and education and fighting for voting rights; Rosalynn Carter's continued hands-on volunteering for Habitat for Humanity; and Betty Ford's rehab center and work to de-stigmatize addiction. "I would classify it [the auction] as a personal pursuit, versus one that's likely to benefit the country," says Gutin.
Selling significant items of clothing worn as first lady is also bucking tradition. Although they're under no obligation to do so, typically, first ladies donate iconic items either the Smithsonian's First Ladies collection, or to their husband's libraries and museums, as a way of preserving history for the public.
The hat was custom-made for the occasion by Hervé Pierre, the French-born, New York-based designer who became her White House stylist after making her inaugural gown. (That one is in the Smithsonian.) "Mrs. Trump recognized this important moment for the country, and accordingly, a great deal of consideration went into the planning," her website reads, explaining why she chose to auction off the hat.
"I'm not surprised when I see controversies surrounding her public activity," says Lauren Wright, a political scientist who studies first ladies at Princeton University. "I never know, as I never knew when she was in office, whether she has advisers telling her, 'You know, we might want to clarify how much of this is going to charity and how much is not.' Or if she's doing things and she just doesn't think a lot about potential public backlash."
Certainly, other first ladies and presidents have engaged in for-profit activities, particularly the large advances many of them receive to write their memoirs and for speaking engagements. "But that doesn't take up nearly as much time as their not-for-profit activities," Wright says. "That's most of what they spend time on when they leave office."
Melania Trump, of course, was always an unconventional first lady. She rarely spoke with the press and was "relatively inactive" in public, says Gutin. She also refused to campaign for Republican candidates - and often for her husband - even though polls showed her to be the most popular member of the Trump family. (Although she ended the administration as the least popular first lady ever, with a CNN/SSRS poll showing her to have a 42% favorable to a 47% unfavorable rating.)
She now mainly spends time with her sister, parents, and 15-year-old son, Barron, at Mar-a-Lago, according to People and CNN, and has a routine of lunch, dinner with her husband, facials, manicures and massages, often spending several hours a day at the spa or going twice in a single day.
"She seems to be reverting back to more of the life that she enjoyed when she was not first lady, when she was living in New York," says Gutin. In New York, Gutin adds, she was "a consumer, and she's always been someone who was very au courant with fashion and cultural trends."
For most of the year, Trump appeared to be content to stay out of the public eye. Her Instagram begins with her farewell speech from the White House and features compilation videos of her meeting children; thanks for birthday wishes; and holiday greetings. But when a historian, Michael Beschloss, tweeted out a barren photograph of the Rose Garden last August and called Trump's controversial renovation an "evisceration," on its one-year anniversary, she came out swinging.
"@BeschlossDC has proven his ignorance by showing a picture of the Rose Garden in its infancy," Trump tweeted. The most common critiques of the renovation had been that Trump took out the garden's famous crabapple trees - many of which horticulture experts say were diseased or preventing sunlight from reaching the roses. The barren look of many early photos of the renovations are, experts say, because the flower bushes, were newly planted and not even close to full bloom. "The Rose Garden is graced with a healthy & colorful blossoming of roses," her Tweet continued. "His misleading information is dishonorable & he should never be trusted as a professional historian."
In many ways, it seems that Trump was always planning to return to branding opportunities. In February 2017, while she still living in New York City before moving to the White House, Trump filed lawsuits in the United States and Britain against the Daily Mail for insinuating that she'd worked as an escort. The cases were settled for a total of $2.9 million, according to the Associated Press.
Notably, the filing claimed that the tabloid's insinuations had cost Trump "the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity . . . to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multi-million dollar business relationships for a multiyear term during which Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world." The lawsuit stated that Trump had the potential to launch product lines in, "among other things, apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care, skin care and fragrance," to capitalize on being first lady - but had been thwarted by the damage caused to her reputation.
The ethics around profiting off the first lady's office once you no longer occupy it are murky.
The hat auction marks only the second initiative Trump has undertaken in the past year. The first was the mid-December sale of an NFT featuring a watercolor painting of her eyes, called "Melania's Vision," by French artist Marc-Antoine Coulon, who also pained the hat NFT. Unlimited quantities of that NFT sold for one SOL, which was worth around $185 at the time. Each came with an audio message from Trump: "My vision is: Look forward with inspiration, strength and courage."
Melania Trump is certainly not the only celebrity currently enamored with NFTs and cryptocurrency. Shawn Mendes, Eminem, and Grimes made millions selling NFTs of their images (only for the value to drop precipitously months later). Matt Damon has been featured in a crypto commercial and Reese Witherspoon recently tweeted about crypto being the future, both to widespread ridicule.
It is the uniqueness of NFTs, being digitally marked, authenticated and non-replicable, that seems to appeal to Trump, who used the phrase "one-of-a-kind" many times in advertising the hat, watercolor and NFT.
To look at Melania Trump's Twitter feed, you'd think she's an NFT spokeswoman. She has tweeted about her NFT sales 24 times since she launched "Melania's Vision" on December 16, stopping only occasionally to send out Christmas wishes or praise the Coast Guard. A news release at the time stated, "Mrs. Trump will release NFTs in regular intervals."
One page of her website is a 22-part FAQ answering such questions as "What is an NFT?"; "How do I create a crypto wallet?", and "Why buy an NFT?" Answer: Because it's "a unique and secure digital asset" and, like the other collectibles, such as coins or baseball cards, it has the potential to increase in value and can be sold or traded, according to the website.
In contrast, the page dedicated to her former White House initiative, Be Best, has two paragraphs and a video. Trump has said she wants to continue Be Best, which concentrated on children's issues such as cyberbullying, drug abuse and mental health. On Monday, Trump announced that she was being honored at a gala for her Be Best initiative Fostering the Future, which "provides foster care children with access to education in computer science," Trump said in a Tweet.
Her website included no details about the Fostering the Future initiative, and it appears to be the first time she's mentioned it.