Melania Trump is accompanying her husband on his first foreign trip
"I am very excited for the upcoming trip," she said in a statement
While most of the focus for the next nine days will be on President Donald Trump as he makes his first international trip as commander in chief, there will be plenty of eyes on first lady Melania Trump, also set to bow on the global stage.
“I am very excited for the upcoming trip,” said the first lady in a prepared statement one day before her departure.
“This will not just be an opportunity to support my husband as he works on important matters of national security and foreign relations, it will also be my honor to visit and speak with women and children from different countries, with different perspectives,” she added.
The trip, which includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Rome, Brussels and Sicily, will likely shine the biggest spotlight on Melania Trump to date. As a first lady who hasn’t yet moved into the White House, nor staffed an office, outlined a succinct platform or had a robust schedule of events, the curiosity factor surrounding her as she leaves American soil is at an all-time high.
Trump’s schedule will be packed with many events alongside her husband, but she will also make excursions on her own.
“She wants to take advantage of every moment and stop, and thus has a robust independent schedule planned,” East Wing communications director Stephanie Grisham told CNN.
The East Wing coordinates closely with the West Wing on joint events as the first lady’s independent schedule comes together.
“It’s a combination of input that is sought from embassy on the ground, the (National Security Council), and the State Department,” said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.
Ultimately, adds McBride, Trump’s independent stops will depend on programs and locations where the US has a relationship, but also her interests: Authenticity is key.
If her handful of public events stateside are any indication, Trump could spend time at schools, hospitals, or museums. She has visited children in hospitals in Washington and New York, and she toured schools with Queen Rania of Jordan and China’s Madame Peng. She also visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture with Sara Netanyahu.
“I think she’s going to do very well on this trip. She’s already shown a capacity and ability to choose wisely on the things that she does. They’re meaningful and it’ll be interesting,” McBride said.
First lady diplomacy
However, the true test isn’t just about visits, or the public-facing photo-ops. Trump must also practice seamless diplomatic procedure. A multi-country presidential trip is not an easy task, says a source with knowledge of operations inside the State Department’s protocol office, who adds even something as simple as gift-giving can be tricky.
If the principals in a host country will be presenting Trump with a gift, she’s expected to do the same for them – in this case several times over. She’ll likely rely on help from someone with protocol experience to figure out the likes and dislikes of her foreign counterpart to formulate an appropriate present, which oftentimes must come with a story around the gift to make it incredibly personal and special.
According the same source, extensive planning should have been in the works for this trip weeks in advance, mostly to craft overall messaging goals, but also to nail down details such as cultural sensitivities, attire, proper greetings for delegations and general customs.
“In Saudi Arabia, I’ll be especially interested to see if Melania wears the traditional head scarf,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author and expert on first lady history. “Michelle Obama did not wear one during a 2015 visit, and Laura Bush was photographed with members of the Saudi royal family also not adhering to the strict rules that demand women cover their hair in public.”
McBride said Trump has already proven an astute and “excellent hostess for our country in how she has greeted and entertained her foreign counterparts and foreign guests.”
“If she can come back showing the same sort of confidence and graciousness as she has at home, that would be a great measure of success; she can take on this diplomatic role of first lady, be appropriately respectful of the foreign culture that she is visiting, but also represent Americans in the best way that she can,” she said.
As the trip gets closer, it’s likely that advance teams on the ground abroad are working with the host countries to negotiate and finalize all the elements; those teams report back to the White House minimizing whatever could possibly go awry.
The Melania advantage
Trump is unique in that she is the only first lady in modern history to be born outside the United States. She was raised in Slovenia, and also lived in Paris, France, and Milan, Italy, before moving to New York.
She speaks five languages, including Italian, which could come in handy during the Italy and Vatican stops. Beyond that, her worldly background gives her a diplomatic advantage on this trip.
“This comes naturally to her – she speaks other languages, and anybody that speaks other languages has a different cultural sensitivity and ability to adapt rather quickly in an environment when you’re on foreign soil. She has shown that at home, that has given her a real leg up as a new first lady,” said McBride.
Brower said Trump should take advantage of her inherent skills.
“Foreign trips are an opportunity for first ladies to connect and act as ambassadors. Jacqueline Kennedy had tremendous success as first lady when she famously spoke French and Spanish in foreign countries, and I think it would be wonderful to see Melania do the same,” she said.
Additionally, Ivanka Trump is expected to make at least part, if not all, of the trip. And while it’s unclear if Melania Trump will appear with her stepdaughter, the President will have the advantage of being able to spread out two of his most effective surrogates throughout the trip.
The success – or failure – of the first lady’s first foray into foreign diplomacy is ultimately dependent on how safe she intends to play it. If she publicly discusses things like policy interests, she could be expected to do so from here on out, positioning her platform, delving into her own political tendencies, or those of her husband.
“Is this a first lady that will be called on to be an advocate for US foreign policy now and in the future? And is that something she is comfortable doing?” asks McBride.
“Or will she establish initiatives and make announcements on this trip that she will in future be supporting on solo trips abroad herself? I would look for that: a combination of being appropriately a guest, but also being willing to step out and speak.”
Obstacles outside of her comfort zone might prove tricky.
Brower said the fact this is a more complicated foreign trip – relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel are weighty – also adds to the pressure of Trump’s first tentative steps onto the world stage. But, she does have one thing going for her: the Melania mystique.
“The fact that she’s been so private gives her a lot of leeway because so many are fascinated by her,” said Brower. “No matter what happens, people will be riveted by almost anything she does.”