Melania Trump details her solo trip to Africa

Melania Trump details her solo trip to Africa
Copyright 2018 CNN

First lady Melania Trump has outlined her first major solo trip abroad.

During remarks at a reception for United Nations General Assembly leader spouses in Manhattan Wednesday morning, Trump announced she will visit Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt during her upcoming trip to Africa.

Trump, who as first lady has previously only traveled overseas while accompanying her husband, departs for her first-ever trip to the region on Monday, Oct. 1.

Trump revealed that she will partner closely on this trip with the United States Agency for International Development.

“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,” said Trump in her remarks on Wednesday. “This is why I am pleased to be working closely with USAID as I prepare for my first major International trip to Africa. By working with developing countries around the world to help them with their journey to self-reliance, USAID’s work embodies much of what ‘Be Best’ stands for.”

Although Trump unveiled ‘Be Best’ in May as her primary platform to help children, she has yet to take a significant trip such as this one to promote her cause, nor has she specifically outlined the ways she intends to impact policy with the initiative. However, on Wednesday Trump showcased a video of her efforts thus far and spoke about objectives.

“When I launched ‘Be Best,’ it was with the goal of combating some of the issues that children face today by shining a spotlight on successful programs and organizations that teach children the tools and skills needed for emotional, social and physical well-being,” Trump said. “Since the launch, I have had the opportunity to meet children all over the world, with the goal of talking to them about the importance of healthy living and responsible habits.”

Why Africa?

Stephanie Grisham, Trump’s communications director, told CNN the first lady chose Africa for her first major solo excursion long before details and dates were even in the proposal stage.

“Mrs. Trump has always envisioned her first international trip would be Africa,” said Grisham, not counting a day trip Trump made to Toronto, Canada, last September. “So, we’ve ‘known’ that we would be doing this since the very beginning.”

Last month in a statement, Trump said, “I am excited to educate myself on the issues facing children throughout the continent, while also learning about (Africa’s) rich culture and history.”

Grisham says general planning for the trip started in February of this year, while in-depth event and logistics work for the first lady’s travel began in earnest this summer. Asked why October felt like the right time to go abroad, Grisham said that a variety of factors, including Trump’s schedule as “both first lady of the United States and as a parent,” were involved in selecting the dates and duration of her itinerary.

As for details on Trump’s agenda while in Africa, Grisham told CNN: “This is a diplomatic and humanitarian visit, which will include stops focusing on healthcare, education, conservation and tourism. As with all that the first lady does, the well-being of children will be a focus at most of the stops.”

In Ghana, Trump said today she will tout USAID’s healthcare programs in that country.

“(USAID is) supporting efforts to expand the coverage and quality of health care for mothers and newborns and educating women and young children about the importance of proper nutrition.”

Likewise in Malawi and Kenya, the first lady noted she intends to highlight USAID and its efforts in education and skill development, as well as conservation and disease prevention. In Egypt, Trump said she will focus on tourism.

“I know that through USAID, we have worked with the people of Egypt to promote an environment in which all groups of society — including women and religious minorities — can lead productive and healthy lives,” she said.

First ladies in Africa

Africa is a continent also favored by Trump’s most recent predecessors, first ladies Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, all of whom visited several countries there solo during their tenures. Obama chose Africa, specifically Botswana and South Africa, for her second major solo trip abroad in 2011 (her first was to Mexico.)

Bush made five solo visits to Africa while first lady, stopping in a total of 15 countries on those trips.

And Clinton, who was the first sitting first lady to undertake a solo tour of Africa, spent two weeks in sub-Saharan Africa in 1997 on a goodwill tour to Senegal, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda and Eritrea.

“It’s very important that a first lady be a global presence, while her role is mostly symbolic, most modern first ladies have proven they can make real change and have a genuine impact on the policies they choose to champion,” said Kate Andersen Brower, a CNN contributor and author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”

“I think this upcoming trip to Africa sends a strong message that the US is engaged in the region and helps combat the statements reportedly made by her husband about the continent,” Brower said.

Mending fences?

In January, CNN reported President Donald Trump, speaking behind closed doors about illegal immigration, decried “s***hole countries,” with an implication toward Africa.

Anita McBride, who was chief of staff for Laura Bush and traveled to more than 60 countries with the former first lady during her four years on staff, said Trump has an opportunity to help mend a relationship with Africa that might be fractured because of her husband’s remarks.

“To the extent that she is able to help soften that blow for the agency as well as for the country, that would be a helpful objective,” said McBride. “Demonstrating how much USAID and the countries it helps are accomplishing could go a long way, and maybe she is going with the additional intention of mending feelings.”

Brower said Trump would be wise on this trip to continue her role as the more compassionate half of the first couple, the counter-balance to her husband’s bombastic and often insulting manner of deriding his critics.

“It is important that Melania Trump focus on her strengths and those seem to be engaging with young children, playing with them, comforting them, this seems to come naturally to her,” she said.

Trump appears to have an inherent understanding that this empathetic component is crucial to her role as first lady.

“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,” Trump said Wednesday, echoing her speech at this same event more than one year ago. “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.”

McBride said a first lady’s visit to Africa can have a lasting impact on her, due in large part not to necessarily to her objectives, or those of the administration, but to the people she meets and the places she sees.

“Here are these people in these developing countries, some of them struggling to eradicate disease, poverty, sometimes emerging from government corruption — and yet they are the most joyful and spiritual people I have ever met,” said McBride. “My visits to Africa were life-changing, and I hope the same for Mrs. Trump as well.”