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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s False Accusation

Donald Trump has accused Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign of buying the rights to a racy photo of Trump’s wife, Melania, and giving the photo to a super PAC that used it in an ad. But Trump has provided no evidence of that, and the photographer who took the photo told us no one contacted him to buy the rights.

The anti-Trump super PAC, Make America Awesome, used a photo that originally was published in a 2000 photo spread in British GQ, and republished on March 4 online by the magazine. The photo shows Melania, a model and then Trump’s girlfriend, nude, but strategically arranged on a fur and handcuffed to a briefcase. Make America Awesome used the photo in a still Facebook ad, targeting Mormon voters in Utah ahead of the March 22 state Republican caucuses. The ad read, “Meet Melania Trump. Your Next First Lady. Or, You Could Support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.”

The ad sparked a Twitter battle between the GOP presidential candidates, with Trump accusing Cruz of running the photo, Cruz responding that it wasn’t his campaign that did it, and Trump retweeting an unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz next to a photo-shoot-worthy pic of Melania. Now, Trump has claimed in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that the Cruz camp collaborated with the super PAC on the ad, securing the rights to the photo.

Trump, March 27: And by the way, [Cruz is] the one that started it. And from what I hear, he and his campaign went out and bought the cover shoot. She did — Melania did a cover shoot for GQ, a very strong modeling picture. No big deal. But it was a cover shoot for GQ, a big magazine. And it was, you know, fine. And from what I hear somebody bought the rights to it and he was the one or his campaign bought the rights and they gave it to the super PAC. …

And just so you understand, that super PAC is very friendly to Ted Cruz. He knew all about it 100 percent. So he started. I didn’t start it.

It is illegal for the Cruz campaign to coordinate with the super PAC. So what Trump is suggesting would violate federal regulations.

And there’s no evidence that the Trump campaign has provided to back up the accusation. (We contacted the campaign and haven’t received a response.) We also contacted Condé Nast Britain, which publishes British GQ, and a spokesman told us that the magazine no longer owns the rights to the photos of Melania Trump. “To confirm, British GQ has no rights any longer in relation to these photographs,” Richard Pickard, acting publicity manager for Condé Nast Britain, told us in an email.

We then contacted the photographer, New York-based Antoine Verglas, who confirmed in an email that he was the only one who had the rights to the photo now. We asked if anyone had contacted him about buying the rights to the photo. Verglas responded: “No not anyone.”

He told us he hadn’t given permission to have the photo used by the super PAC and had not been in touch with the super PAC about it. “It basically constitutes a violation of my intellectual property,” Verglas told us. “This shooting was only supposed to appear in gq UK magazine and its website. I am looking with my attorney at different options.”

The Cruz campaign and the super PAC, Make America Awesome, have said there was no collaboration between the two on securing the photo or creating the ad.

Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the Cruz campaign, told The Hill that the campaign didn’t purchase the rights to the photo. “Of course we haven’t and Trump knows it,” she said.

Liz Mair, the Republican strategist behind Make America Awesome, told us the same thing. “First, the Cruz campaign had nothing to do with this ad whatsoever. We didn’t get the image or the idea for the ad from them,” she said in an emailed statement, adding that the image in the ad had been “spread all over the Internet long before we ever conceived of the ad.”

Mair also noted that British GQ had republished the photo, among others, online on March 4, about two weeks before Make America Awesome created the ad. We asked her if she could provide any information on whether anyone had been contacted about the rights to the photo, and Mair would not directly respond to that question. She said, “I’m going to pass on providing anything further. The relevant point is that we’re 100% independent and Cruz and the Cruz campaign had nothing to do with this.”

Given Mair’s refusal to comment on that, we can’t say with certainty whether the super PAC contacted anyone about the rights to the photo — but if it did, it must have contacted the wrong person. Verglas, the photographer, says no one contacted him about the photo, and he’s the one who owns the rights to it.

And that means the Cruz campaign didn’t contact Verglas to buy the rights to the photo, either. We find Trump’s accusation that the Cruz campaign bought the photo for the super PAC to be baseless.