Melania Trump Visits Africa, Drawing Fresh Contrast With Husband

(Bloomberg) -- As they settled into the White House together, First Lady Melania Trump drew a firm line with President Donald Trump: the oft-televised Oval Office was his to decorate, and the private residence was hers, according to people close to them.

The first lady has generally sought to avoid the spotlight ever-present on her husband, but she left the privacy of the East Wing this week for a four-country, week-long tour of Africa, a region the president has never visited while in office.

She landed Tuesday in Ghana, where she toured a hospital and had tea with the country’s first lady, Rebecca Akufo-Addo, before proceeding to Malawi, Kenya and Egypt -- developing nations on a continent Donald Trump once famously dismissed in a private meeting as “shithole countries.”

The first lady’s second solo official international trip serves as a bit of soft diplomacy for a corner of the world that hasn’t drawn much of the Trump administration’s attention. Melania Trump seeks to promote global opportunity, especially for children, according to her aides. But she will likely find herself again drawing contrasts with her husband.

In addition to diplomatic visits in each country, Trump will tour various conservation and historic sites. She will also take in some cultural performances and deliver gifts of textbooks and soccer balls to school children.

“This is an important trip and shouldn’t be minimized at all — even given the ‘shithole’ comments and stuff on Twitter,” said Witney Schneidman, a Clinton administration State Department official and currently an international adviser on Africa matters at the law firm Covington & Burling LLP.

‘Profoundly Offensive’

The first lady’s travel habits are markedly different from the president’s. Her staff arranged for gift bags to be placed on the seats of her plane, including those for reporters, that included Hershey’s Kisses in presidential packaging, KIND snack bars, insect repellent wipes, fresh notebooks and water bottles branded with her “Be Best” campaign.

Televisions on board the plane rotated through CNN, Fox News and MSNBC during the nearly 13-hour flight, instead of remaining frozen on Fox, as on Air Force One. Trump was met at the airport in Accra, Ghana, by dancers, drummers, and a flower girl named Lillian Naa Adai Sai, who got a hug from the first lady.

It’s been nine months since Donald Trump, in a closed-door Oval Office negotiation over which immigrants brought to the country illegally as children should be deported, reportedly uttered the profanity about African nations.

“In spite of that comment, which was so profoundly offensive, Africans just want to see Trump,” Schneidman said.

While local news in Accra was dominated by Melania Trump’s visit, on the streets there was little evident enthusiasm. Few people waved as her motorcade traveled through the city.

Shortly after she landed, the Wall Street Journal reported that Donald Trump in February had personally directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to stop the adult film actress known as Stormy Daniels from publicly discussing her alleged affair with the president. Melania Trump smiled through briefings on children’s health issues as an open-air clinic and modern hospital, accompanied by Akufo-Addo, giving no sign she’d seen the news.

She watched medical staff weigh a 6-month-old boy by dangling in a sling attached to a scale, and she scooped up another baby and entertained him with coos and facial expressions. She handed out blankets and teddy bears with the “Be Best” brand.

Spousal Disagreements

Melania Trump has generally adopted a lower profile than her recent predecessors and isn’t expected to deliver a formal speech while in Africa. She will make brief public remarks at some stops, aides said, but won’t be accompanied by a stenographer, unlike her husband.

When the spotlight has found the first lady, she often seems at cross-purposes with the president. Her “Be Best” campaign includes discouraging cyber-bullying, even as Donald Trump insults his critics and opponents on Twitter. After the president bashed the mayor of hurricane-torn San Juan, Puerto Rico, Melania Trump produced a video to draw attention to the plight of the territory’s people. When Trump questioned NBA star LeBron James’s intelligence, her press secretary issued a statement from the first lady complimenting the basketball player’s work with school children.

Melania Trump, herself an immigrant, most noticeably departed from her husband on immigration policy. She encouraged him during the summer to halt the separation of migrant children from parents caught crossing the Mexican border. While he chose not to visit detention centers holding the children, she did -- and created controversy when she boarded her plane wearing a jacket emblazoned with a message: “I really don’t care, do u?”

The first lady’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said Melania Trump chose to visit Africa because she feels it’s “important that people around the world understand the United States cares about the prosperity and future generations of other countries. Our country is safer and stronger when people across the globe have opportunity, and that starts by educating and nurturing children.”

Executive One Foxtrot

She’s accompanied by a small staff, including chief of staff Lindsay Reynolds, Grisham and communications aide Annie LeHardy. Her 45-seat plane is designated Executive One Foxtrot while she’s aboard. The Trumps’ son Barron, 12, didn’t join her; he has school, aides said.

Her Africa itinerary is an “eclectic” choice of nations, said Joshua Meservey, a policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation.

Kenya, an important U.S. ally in counter-terrorism efforts on the continent, is on the short list for a free-trade agreement with the United States. Its president, Uhuru Kenyatta, already has a warm relationship with Trump after a White House visit last month, Meservey said.

Ghana, where democracy is still taking root, matches the profile of developing nations with which the United States looks to create ties. Malawi is a small, poor and obscure nation that doesn’t often get high-level visits and will benefit from the first lady’s attention, Meservey said. Egypt is a critical strategic partner in Middle East and North Africa matters.

In Malawi and Kenya, Melania Trump will likely highlight education, skills development for children, conservation and disease prevention, said Landry Signé, an Africa scholar at the Brookings Institution.

In Ghana, she will particularly focus on health care, especially for women and children. While in Egypt, she’ll probably lean into tourism opportunities, Signé said.

Skipped Davos

Melania Trump has accompanied the president on five of his seven international journeys.

In January, she skipped a trip to Davos, Switzerland, shortly after news broke that her husband’s lawyer had paid an adult film star for her silence about an alleged affair with Donald Trump a decade before he was elected. Melania Trump’s recovery from surgery for a benign kidney condition prevented her from traveling to Singapore in June when Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Her first solo international trip was to Canada in September 2017, where she attended the Invictus games for wounded service members and veterans and met with the U.K.’s Prince Harry.

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