Melania Trump just launched her solo career.
The first lady has maintained a lower profile than many of her recent predecessors at the White House. But this week, Mrs. Trump headed to Africa on her first major international trip without her husband since the start of his presidency.
She arrived Tuesday morning in Ghana, where she visited the Greater Accra Regional Hospital to learn about the vitamin supplements received by newborns and visit the NICU, per a pool report. A photo distributed to the press showed Trump handing out baby blankets and teddy bears. Later, she was scheduled to have tea with the First Lady of Ghana, Rebecca Akufo-Addo, at the presidential palace.
Last week, FLOTUS previewed what she said she knows “will be a meaningful” upcoming journey while hosting a New York reception in honor of United Nations General Assembly attendees, including spouses of foreign heads of state and reps of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
“October 1 will mark the first day of my solo visit to four beautiful and very different countries in Africa — Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, and Egypt — all of which have worked alongside USAID and our partners to make great progress in overcoming some of their biggest challenges,” said Trump, who departed late Monday afternoon.
“I am so proud of the work this Administration is doing through USAID and others, and look forward to the opportunity to take the message of my Be Best campaign to many of the countries, and children, throughout Africa,” she said at the UN event. “Whether it is education, drug addiction, hunger, online safety or bullying, poverty or disease, it is too often children who are hit first, and hardest, across the globe. Each of us hails from a country with its own unique challenges, but I know in my heart we are united by our commitment to raising the next generation to be happy, healthy and morally responsible adults.”
Trump tied the trip to her child-focused “Be Best” initiative, saying there are “many programs across the country that are doing great things for children, and I believe we can replicate many of these programs overseas” in concert with USAID.
U.S. first ladies traditionally dedicate themselves to a signature cause, and Trump rolled out “Be Best” in May. The wide-ranging campaign focuses on the well-being of children, with particular attention to social and emotional health, positive use of social media, and opioid addiction. FLOTUS has visited children’s hospitals, addressed a cyberbullying summit, and spoken to youth groups as part of the program, among other events.
She tweeted about the campaign on September 4: “Students – as you head #BacktoSchool, think about what you wish to accomplish this year. You have so much power in your individual voices. Will you strive to #BeBest?”
That tweet, as was the case with the “Be Best” kickoff itself, got an immediate response—many suggesting her war on nasty social media manners ought to start with her own spouse.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts, deputy director of the Women’s Initiative of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, tells Glamour that the Africa visit could be a big learning opportunity for the first lady given the central role kids play in “Be Best.”
“If addressing the challenges that face children [is] where Mrs. Trump is really committed, this trip to Africa will really open to her eyes to how a lot of African first ladies have moved beyond traditional partners and really thought about how they can directly engage with young people,” says Gonnella-Platts, who works on the Institute’s First Ladies Initiative for women and children worldwide.
Both Gonnella-Platts and Trump have noted that FLOTUS has already hosted the first lady of Kenya, Margaret Kenyatta, at the White House. The two discussed Kenyatta’s “Beyond Zero” program to improve maternal and child health.
Among other examples Gonnella-Platts cites: Namibia’s first lady, Monica Geingos, who has turned her experience as a lawyer and private equity fund director to tackling poverty, and the work Ester Lungu of Zambia has done to combat child marriage.
“While I appreciate the interest in replicating successful domestic programs overseas, the recommendation I have for Mrs. Trump is to also consider the success that is happening right now at the local, regional, and national levels across Africa,” Gonnella-Platts says. “As [Geingos] has said, ‘Change happens when we break down silos and work together.’”
Still, it’s really up to Trump how she wants to handle a role that exists in a somewhat foggy zone between public and private life, acknowledges Gonnella-Platts.
“Our expectation in this present day is for our first ladies to be active, to be vocal, to be out there, to be engaged. And while I hope Mrs. Trump will really engage in the use of her platform and really define what she wants to see with ‘Be Best’ and really think about how she can engage local stakeholders — [and] if she doesn’t, it’s also her choice not to do so,” she says.
Mrs. Trump has already shown a will to do things her own way, and with her own optics: She doesn’t always pre-announce her public appearances (for a variety of reasons which, according to a spokeswoman, range from security considerations to avoiding attracting demonstrators). From the start of the presidency, she held firm on waiting until Barron finished his 2017 school year before moving into the White House. She’s appeared on more than a few occasions to contradict her husband in a public forum.
At the same time, she hasn’t avoided controversy—she generated buzz (and some fundraising cash for the Democrats) with a now-infamous olive jacket she wore to visit migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S. border.
“The most fascinating thing to me about Melania Trump is that she does her own thing,” says Lauren Wright, a lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University.
But that doesn’t mean her husband’s critics and fans won’t weigh what this trip means for the administration overall.
First ladies are traditionally more popular with the public than their husbands, and with the president teetering at a 50 percent disapproval rating, according to the freshest Rasmussen Reports tracking figures, the commander-in-chief might not mind a little boost.
That could be particularly true just over a month out from a high-stakes midterm election and in the midst of a battle over the fate of his second Supreme Court nominee.
Wright says the first lady could use her current journey, along with appearances stateside, to soften the president’s image and frame him as “someone that cares about women, children, and people at home and all over the world facing hard times.”
She predicts the FLOTUS voyage to Africa will “probably enhance opinion of Mrs. Trump herself, but if she doesn’t engage with the media outside highly scripted interactions, and doesn’t mention her husband,” Wright said, “it is not going to change how Americans perceive him.”
Whether it does or doesn’t—and whether that is or isn’t part of Mrs. Trump’s mission abroad—will be evident in the coming days.
Celeste Katz is senior politics reporter for Glamour. Send news tips, questions, and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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