News media paid Melania Trump thousands for use of photos in 'positive stories only'
Since her husband took office Melania Trump has earned six figures from an unusual deal with a photo agency in which major media organizations have indirectly paid the Trump family despite a requirement that the photos be used only in positive coverage.
President Donald Trump's most recent financial disclosure reveals that in 2017 the first lady earned at least $100,000 from Getty Images for the use of any of a series of 187 photos of the first family shot between 2010 and 2016 by Belgian photographer Regine Mahaux.
It's not unheard of for celebrities to earn royalties from photos of themselves, but it's very unusual for the wife of a currently serving elected official. More problematic for the many news organizations that have published or broadcast the images, however, is that Getty's licensing agreement stipulates the pictures can be used in "positive stories only."
According to the revenue statement in President Trump's May financial disclosure, Melania Trump earned between $100,000 and $1,000,000 in photo royalties in 2017 from the Getty deal.
Federal officials are only required to give an income range in their filings, and both Getty and the White House declined requests to provide more precise figures or list the places the images had appeared.
But NBC News found at least a dozen organizations that had paid to use Mahaux's restricted images of the Trumps in 2017, resulting in indirect payment to the first family.
Yahoo News, NBC News, Marie Claire, the Daily Mail, My San Antonio, Houston Chronicle, House Beautiful, and SF Gate, the website for The San Francisco Chronicle, are among those that have featured Mahaux's highly stylized family portraits since Trump took office.
The February 2017 issue of the Russian edition of the fashion magazine Elle included a gilded Mahaux portrait of the first family.
A Mahaux group portrait of Donald, Melania and son Barron Trump was featured on the May page of the White House 2017 calendar that was on sale in the White House gift shop for $14. Bent Publishing, which publishes the calendars, confirmed that it licensed the Mahaux photo for the 2017 calendar. The 2018 calendar now on sale at the gift shop does not include any Mahaux images.
NBC News also found that numerous entities had used the images before President Trump took office, though no income from the Getty deal was itemized in any financial disclosure prior to 2017.
In August 2016, Mahaux's portrait of then-candidate Trump and his wife was featured in the official Republican National Convention guide book that was given to each delegate. Campaign finance records show the money to pay for the guide came from political donations to the Republican National Committee.
The program was produced by Great Lakes Publishing, which said it got the image from a committee involved in arranging the convention. Jeff Larson, a political consultant who ran that committee, said, "We didn't pay any royalties that I know of for that photo."
NBC's Nightly News included the images in a Nightly News segment on Melania Trump that aired July 18, 2016, during the Republican National Convention.
The French edition of Vanity Fair put one of the pictures on the cover of its August 2016 issue.
Fox News used the photos in a variety of news segments in 2016. Greta Van Susteren's show "On the Record" included two portraits of Melania Trump during an interview Van Susteren did with the future first lady. In November 2016, after Trump's upset election win, the first episode of the Fox News show "OBJECTified," hosted by TMZ founder Harvey Levin, depicted the life and rise of Donald Trump. The episode included two of the images taken by Mahaux.
A Fox News Channel spokesperson said in a statement that the Mahaux photos used by Fox "were provided by the Trump campaign and Melania Trump's office, who told us they had full ownership and rights to the photos."
An NBC News spokesperson said NBC News did not agree or sign a statement that the image would be used for positive coverage, and was never informed that a portion of the royalties would go to the Trump family.
Several news organizations removed the images from their websites after inquiries by NBC News.
Yahoo took them down and said in a statement: "We were not aware of this specific arrangement with Getty nor was our editorial influenced by it. We have removed the image from Yahoo Lifestyle."
The San Francisco Chronicle deleted the images from its website as well, and said it was looking into how they came to be used.
The photographs were also pulled from the websites for The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News following inquiries by NBC News. Hearst Communications Inc. owns the three newspapers and their websites. The images remained on other Hearst websites like those for the magazines House Beautiful and Marie Claire. Representatives for those publications did not return repeated calls and emails.
French Vanity Fair, Russian Elle, and the Daily Mail and Paris Match, which also used the photographs, did not respond to requests for comment.
In a standard photo contract, the photographer gets royalties and the photo agency receives fees for each use of an image. Models are not paid royalties.
Paying royalties to the Trumps and limiting the use to only positive stories about a prominent politician is unusual, according to Akili Ramsess, executive director of the National Press Photographers Association. She said that while celebrity wedding or baby photographs are sometimes licensed so part of the fees flows back to the celebrity, it is rare for politicians. Keith Major, another Getty photographer who has also photographed Melania Trump, does not share royalties with her, and agreed that splitting income with a subject is unusual.
Getty's licensing agreement does not offer any hint that money is also paid to the Trumps, and the arrangement did not appear to have become public until the income was listed in the president's May financial filing.
However, Getty does make clear in its catalog that the images can only be licensed with permission by Getty or, in some cases, Mahaux, and that the images may be used for "positive stories only."
News organizations likely would not have known about the payments to Melania Trump, but could have been aware of the published stipulation about positive coverage in the catalog.
Indira Lakshmanan, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, said, "If I'm a news editor, I would use photos that don't have any restriction attached to them. There's a lesson for editors, for public figures. There are plenty of photos out there that you can use that don't have these restrictions."
Getty Images told NBC News that the details and amounts of payments to the Trumps are covered by confidential agreements. The agency declined to say whether there are separate royalty arrangements with other members of the Trump families, and declined all comment on the deal other than to say that once a photo has been licensed, Getty pays "contracted royalties back to the photographer and/or individual(s) as covered by their confidential agreement."
In a statement, a White House spokesperson said: "President Trump's recent Public Disclosure Report, which included information regarding Mrs. Trump's income and assets, was filed after being certified by the White House Ethics Counsel and the Office of Government Ethics. The report speaks for itself."
When NBC News reached photographer Regine Mahaux by phone, she said "everything is legal" and then asked that any questions be submitted to her by email. NBC repeatedly emailed her questions but did not get a reply.
Mahaux took the photos during sessions in 2010, 2011 and 2016. Most feature some combination of Trump, Melania and son Barron. At least one of the photos, depicting the future first lady floating inside a swan boat on a still lake, and her swinging from a chandelier, combines images into a composite. Getty noted in its online catalog that many of the images of the Trumps have been "retouched," including those that later appeared in various news publications.
Mahaux has worked closely with the Trumps since 2010. Several albums on the Getty website feature her intimate photoshoots with the family in Trump Tower. "I like working with the family's image – it speaks to me. It inspires me," Mahaux told a French news outlet in 2017. Mahaux also took Melania Trump's official White House portrait, which is public and not subject to the licensing arrangement.
Melania's 2017 income from the Mahaux photos is an increase from previous years, based on the president's financial filings. Royalties from Getty Images do not appear in any of the financial statements submitted by Trump in the three prior years. Melania Trump likely earned some money during those years, but the income was below the federal government's threshold required for declaring the income.
Most modern first ladies have launched books and other commercial products during their stints in the White House — and then donated the entire proceeds to charity. Laura Bush donated a book advance to education charities, and Michelle Obama gave the proceeds from her book American Grown to the National Park Foundation.
Among Trump administration spouses, Vice President Mike Pence's wife, Karen, announced that revenues from her children's book would be donated to a children's hospital in Indiana and an anti-sex-trafficking nonprofit. In 2017, Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and wife of senior adviser Jared Kushner, said she would give most of the advance and any future royalties from her book "Women Who Work" to charity.
The White House declined to comment on whether the Trumps have steered any of the proceeds from the Getty deal, which was consummated before Melania Trump became first lady, to a charity. Absent a public announcement, their annual tax returns might provide a hint — but unlike all other modern first families, the Trumps have not released them.
However, some of the proceeds from at least one of Mahaux's pictures of the first lady seem to have made their way to charity through another means. The White House gift shop, which sold the 2017 White House calendar, donates part of its earnings to help rural police departments.