Melania Trump ended up picking a lively week to get out of town. On Monday, the mysterious, glamorous, disappearance-prone first lady was leaving behind a roiling capital where her husband faces several raw battles, including one over his Supreme Court nominee, to embark on a trip to Africa. In her first big solo trip abroad, Trump is scheduled to visit four African countries in the span of a week: Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Egypt. She is expected to see the sights. She is expected to greet schoolchildren and dole out baby blankets at hospitals. She is expected to wear flats.
And through it all, Trump will try her hand at putting a softer lens on her husbands administration abroad, just a week after he appeared before the United Nations and rejected globalism.
Her husbands charged language about the continent may not make that any easier. The president was widely reported as having maligned African countries and Haiti as “shitholes,” and he spoke of Nigerian immigrants as having lived in huts back home. Then there was the lengthy crusade President Donald Trump led claiming that Barack Obama was a Kenyan citizen, and not eligible for the presidency.
The first lady has some lingering diplomatic baggage of her own. In 2011, the Slovenian-born Trump also suggested that Obama had not been born in America. And this year, she made a thousand headlines by wearing a jacket emblazoned with the phrase “I REALLY DONT CARE, DO U?” on the way to visit a Texas shelter for detained migrant children. On another trip to Texas, her choice of footwear — stiletto heels — as she headed off to meet with hurricane victims also seemed insensitive, or at least tone deaf.
The East Wing has played down the idea that the trip is meant to smooth over any of the presidents diplomatic mishaps, clear the way for a presidential visit or undo any missteps Melania Trump has made.
So why Africa?
“She had always envisioned that Africa would be her first solo international trip,” Stephanie Grisham, her communications director, said. “She is interested in Africa because she has never been before and knows that each country will have its own unique history and culture.”
The White House has not yet publicly detailed Trumps itinerary, citing security reasons. But Trump is scheduled to visit schools, hospitals and tourist sites over the course of six days. She is expected to weave in elements of her child-focused platform, “Be Best,” as she visits with children.
“She had a vision in mind of what she wanted to see and wants to hit the ground running,” Grisham said.
Trump will work with the US Agency for International Development during her stops throughout Africa. Her husband offered his view of foreign aid at the United Nations last week, suggesting that the United States would give aid only to “our friends.”
Even without the diplomatic baggage of the Trump administration, trips abroad can be fraught for first ladies. They are expected to be perfect in protocol and project a steadying presence, even against politically tumultuous backdrops.
But among her predecessors, Africa is well-trodden territory. Hillary Clinton travelled there alone. When President George W Bush was in office, Laura Bush went to Africa several times as part of the administrations work fighting AIDS. And, like Trump, who first travelled alone to Toronto last year, Michelle Obama chose Africa as the location for her second solo trip out of the country.
Aside from the unsparing scrutiny they draw as they travel, modern first ladies have also faced questions over the cost of their trips to taxpayers.
Obama drew criticism for the price tag of her solo trips, including the $424,000 that, according to one analysis, it cost taxpayers for her and her entourage to travel to Africa in 2011. Like Obama, Trump has travelled in a C-32A, a smaller version of the plane President Trump uses under the call sign Air Force One, for her previous international travel. Those cost around $15,846 an hour to operate. Melania Trump is planning to go to Africa with a small number of aides; the couples 12-year-old son, Barron, will stay behind in Washington.
In addition to diverting attention away from tumult at home, “its therapeutic for first ladies to leave Washington as often as they can,” said Kate Andersen Brower, who wrote a book about first ladies.
“The harder things get for their husbands, the more they want to leave,” she said.
Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University who studies first ladies, said Trump was unlikely to make any sort of foreign policy moves on behalf of the Trump administration. And she will most likely be well shielded from any demonstrators or people who are unhappy with her husband.
“I think they will work very hard to make sure that she is encountering people who are sympathetic and will give her a sympathetic meeting or greeting,” Jellison said. “This is just kind of standard operating procedure when first ladies make these kind of solo trips.”
Planning for the trip began in earnest last year. The Secret Service whittled down the list of available options for security reasons, and then Trump picked countries where she could mix work with a small amount of tourism. Morocco, was considered, but abandoned in the end because Trump was wary that the entrance for her that was being talked about might strike some as too grand and ceremonious.
Trump is likely to focus on spending time with her counterparts as she goes from country to country. She recently hosted Margaret Kenyatta, the Kenyan first lady, at the White House, and said in a speech last week at the United Nations that she was planning to learn more about the work done by Agency for International Development in Kenya on early childhood education.
“Whether it is education, drug addiction, hunger, online safety or bullying, poverty or disease,” Trump said in that speech, “it is too often children who are hit first, and hardest, across the globe.”
If President Trump can keep from generating too many of his own headlines this week, Melania Trump may be able to step in and help an increasingly isolated America show an inclusive face to the world, Andersen Brower, the author, said.
“I am very curious to see if Melanias trip will be effective,” she said. “This White House is in desperate need of another story line.”