First lady goes abroad

First lady re­laxes, says she doesn’t al­ways agree with her hus­band

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Dar­lene Su­perville As­so­ci­ated Press Cairo

Me­la­nia Trump shows a less se­ri­ous side on world trip.

It took Me­la­nia Trump’s first big solo in­ter­na­tional trip for her to show a dif­fer­ent side of her­self — a play­ful, less se­ri­ous one.

And while she gen­er­ously dished out warm smiles and happy waves, the first lady also used her four-na­tion tour of Africa to draw some firmer bound­aries be­tween her own views and those of her hus­band the pres­i­dent.

“I don’t al­ways agree with what he says and I tell him that,” the first lady told reporters Satur­day against the back­drop of the Great Sphinx be­fore she headed back to Wash­ing­ton. “But I have my own voice and my own opin­ions and it’s very im­por­tant for me that I ex­press what I feel.”

The U.S. first lady hop­scotched across Africa with­out Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, com­mand­ing a spot­light that was hers alone. In do­ing her own thing, the very pri­vate first lady es­sen­tially peeled back the cur­tain ever so slightly as she wiped away the se­ri­ous face she wears around Wash­ing­ton.

She demon­strated her in­de­pen­dence from her hus­band in ways large and small — like talk­ing up U.S. for­eign aid that he’s tried to slash and ig­nor­ing the Fox-only edict that the pres­i­dent im­poses on TV screens when he’s aboard Air Force One.

The first lady also did a few things she’s never done be­fore, like wave to jour­nal­ists as she boarded a U.S. gov­ern­ment air­craft for the gru­el­ing five-day tour across mul­ti­ple time zones. With big smiles on her face — some­times paired with the un­fa­mil­iar sound of her laugh­ter — she cud­dled ba­bies and bot­tlefed young ele­phants.

And she sashayed and shim­mied and danced.

The trip, which had been in the works for months, pro­vided a wel­come es­cape from the ugly po­lit­i­cal bat­tle in the U.S. cap­i­tal over Brett Ka­vanaugh, the pres­i­dent’s Supreme Court nom­i­nee. Ka­vanaugh’s fate had seemed in doubt af­ter he was ac­cused of sex­u­ally as­sault­ing a girl when they were teenagers.

Ka­vanaugh has de­nied the charge and on Satur­day was con­firmed to a life­time ap­point­ment on Amer­ica’s high­est court.

Even half a world away, Mrs. Trump couldn’t com­pletely ig­nore the is­sue. Reporters asked her opin­ion about the judge, and she said he was “highly qual­i­fied” to join the court. As for Ka­vanaugh’s ac­cusers, Mrs. Trump de­clined to ven­ture an opin­ion but said “we need to help all vic­tims, no mat­ter what kind of abuse” they ex­pe­ri­enced.

The strug­gle over Ka­vanaugh resur­faced the roil­ing de­bate over the treat­ment of women who al­lege sex­ual mis­con­duct. The first lady has had to grap­ple with that is­sue her­self, given the mul­ti­ple women who have ac­cused her hus­band of sex­u­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior, claims he says are false.

Al­ways un­der a mi­cro­scope, the fash­ion-con­scious first lady caught some crit­i­cism for the white pith hel­met she wore with her sa­fari en­sem­ble in Kenya. So­cial me­dia lit up with com­plaints about her choice of a hat viewed by some as a sym­bol of Kenya’s colo­nial past and its one­time dom­i­na­tion by the Bri­tish.

The for­mer model had a terse re­join­der when asked about that: “I wish peo­ple would fo­cus on what I do, not what I wear.”

What, then, was her in­tended mes­sage for Africa? “That we care and we want to show the world we care.”

It was a mes­sage that was es­pe­cially wel­come given Pres­i­dent Trump’s own deroga­tory com­ments about a con­ti­nent that he has yet to visit.

The hap­pier place Mrs. Trump seemed to go to while in Africa sur­prised some.

“She’s still largely a mys­tery to the Amer­i­can peo­ple be­cause she main­tains her largely low pro­file,” said Kather­ine Jel­li­son, who stud­ies first ladies at Ohio Univer­sity.

Joshua Me­ser­vey, a se­nior Africa pol­icy an­a­lyst at the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage In­sti­tute, said there were mod­est ex­pec­ta­tions for the first lady’s trip, and she largely met them, avoid­ing any ma­jor gaffes along the way.

“As a pub­lic diplo­macy tour, it seemed suc­cess­ful,” he said.

The first lady opened the trip in Ghana, where she went to an in­fant clinic and learned how ba­bies are weighed — in slings that are hooked to a scale. It was at Greater Ac­cra Re­gional Hos­pi­tal that she plucked a chubby baby boy from the arms of the woman hold­ing him. She cooed with the baby, who stared back at her with won­der. Pho­tos of the un­ex­pected mo­ment were pop­u­lar on so­cial me­dia.

She also learned about Africa’s slave past by tour­ing Cape Coast Cas­tle, a for­mer slave hold­ing fa­cil­ity on the Ghana­ian coast.

Mrs. Trump spent time in­side the cramped dun­geon that was used to house male slaves. She also walked through the “Door of No Re­turn,” the por­tal through which the slaves were shipped to the New World, and gazed out at the At­lantic Ocean as if try­ing to imag­ine the har­row­ing jour­ney.

In Malawi, she went to

Chipala Pri­mary School in Li­longwe, where stu­dents sang their wel­come to the first lady.

She toured in­door and out­door class­rooms, ob­served lessons and watched some stu­dents play soc­cer with balls she do­nated. The first lady also wit­nessed the han­dover of a batch of text­books do­nated by a U.S. in­ter­na­tional devel­op­men­tal agency.

Mrs. Trump seemed most happy in Kenya, where she vis­ited Nairobi Na­tional Park to high­light ele­phant preser­va­tion. Ap­pear­ing ret­i­cent at first, she ul­ti­mately en­gaged them and ended up ob­vi­ously en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of feed­ing baby ele­phants milk through a su­per-sized baby bot­tle, pat­ting one ele­phant’s head and stroking an­other’s ear.

She tem­po­rar­ily lost her foot­ing when an ele­phant made an un­ex­pected move and got a lit­tle too close for her com­fort. But she was braced by a Se­cret Ser­vice agent and re­sumed play with the an­i­mals, laugh­ing at their an­tics un­til it was time to head off on a 90-minute sa­fari.

She closed her tour in Egypt by tour­ing the pyra­mids and the Great Sphinx.

Carolyn Kaster / As­so­ci­ated Press

First lady Me­la­nia Trump waves be­fore en­ter­ing the Great Pyra­mid as she vis­its the his­tor­i­cal site of the Giza Pyra­mids near Cairo, Egypt on Satur­day. The first lady is vis­it­ing Africa on her first big solo in­ter­na­tional trip.

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