First lady Melania Trump is back in Europe.
Her trip with President Donald Trump to Poland and Germany is an encore to the nine-day tour of the Middle East and Europe in May that showcased more of the first lady than the world had seen to date.
She received mostly glowing reviews – there was praise for her style notes and cultural sensitivity, her quiet repose at religious sites, even the way the Pope cracked a joke and a smile when she was in his presence. Her visit with sick children at a hospital in Rome conjured compassion; her viral moment, swatting away the hand of her husband after a gaffe on the tarmac in Israel, revealed an independent streak.
It was a glimpse behind the “Melania mystique,” a chance to see the first lady, who up until mid-June hadn’t even been a full-time White House resident, interact on a global stage. The foreign tour, with stops in four different countries and at the Vatican, was a crash course in diplomacy.
“This trip, for me, has been very special, and I will never forget the women and children I met,” the first lady said at the end of the visit, speaking to American troops and their families in Sicily. “As one of the kids at the hospital that I visit said in a picture he drew for me: We are all the same.”
For this second trip overseas, the first lady will likely start to forge new relationships with the spouses of other world leaders, while at the same time serving as an emissary for her husband.
“Mrs. Bush’s joint foreign visits were always an opportunity for her to highlight the causes that she cared about, and also to amplify the message of President Bush’s trip,” says Anne MacDonald, who served in the George W. Bush administration for six years, and was Laura Bush’s chief of staff after the White House. “While President Bush’s summits were frequently located in conference rooms – albeit some of the most well-appointed in the world – Mrs. Bush was able to explore more of the cultural and social issues of a country as he focused on diplomatic negotiations.”
Melania Trump would be wise to do the same, and parlay the publicity points she earned on the first trip, on to this one.
“Jackie Kennedy was generous with her popularity, and during President Kennedy’s 1961 trip to Europe, in Vienna, Jackie stood on a balcony as 5,000 people below cheered, ‘Jack-ee!’” says Kate Andersen Brower, CNN contributor and author of “First Women: the Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
“At that moment, Jackie very thoughtfully pulled the overlooked Nina Khrushchev, wife of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, onto the balcony with her. The chants changed to ‘Jack-ee! Ni-na!’ And the two women saluted the crowd – it showed how generosity between these two women was a beautiful thing.”
Jackie Kennedy also spoke French when she was in France, charming locals and earning their admiration; Melania Trump did a bit of the same on the last trip to Italy, greeting children at Bambino Gesu hospital in their native tongue.
More recently, Michelle Obama had strong policy associations with her travels abroad, notably using visits there to strengthen her platform on education, and almost always making time in her schedule to appear at schools, no matter the destination. By the time she launched “Let Girls Learn,” her first foreign initiative, in 2015, she had already established herself as a global advocate. “Someone like Michelle Obama really thrived in those environments on trips abroad, especially when talking to girls in underprivileged neighborhoods, as she did genuinely and effectively in London,” says Brower. On that trip, she became friendly with Britain’s Prince Harry, who worked with Obama on a number of projects; when he launched the 2016 Invictus Games for wounded soldiers in 2016 in Florida, Obama served as co-host.
In addition to the charm offensive, the first lady holds the power of her position, and with it can wield a certain amount of influence.
“Mrs. Bush built relationships with the leaders of the civic sector and helped raise the profile of little-known issues,” MacDonald said. “For example, as President (George W.) Bush closed the 2006 nuclear deal with India, Mrs. (Laura) Bush spent time at Mother Teresa’s orphanage for special needs children and at a center for youth who were recovering from being sexually trafficked.”
Additionally, during a stop in Russia for the 2006 G8 summit, Mrs. Bush went to an orphanage for pediatric HIV/AIDS patients, against the objections of the Russian government. “While it didn’t receive much coverage in the US, the images of her holding HIV-infected infants and children went a long way to influence de-stigmatization in a country where that is very much an issue. Mrs. Trump has the opportunity to have the same kind of influence on behalf of our country.”
Melania Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, tells CNN the first lady is taking advantage of the time she has spent abroad in a supporting role to the President. “The first lady has enjoyed meeting her counterparts in other countries very much and looks forward to continued progress with each of them,” Grisham said.
Not that this means there will be automatic pen-pal status. The spousal events for summits such as this week’s G20 are highly staged events. And language barriers often prevent a deep connection.
“It’s a challenge to keep the spouses busy,” Brower said. “(German Chancellor) Angela Merkel’s husband is especially interesting since he’s always been among the only male spouses at these events. I’ve heard that he and Laura Bush got along especially well.”
During Trump’s stop in Poland for bilateral meetings with President Andrzej Duda, the first lady is scheduled to meet with the Polish first lady, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, who at 45 is just two years younger than Mrs. Trump. The two women will tour the Copernicus Science Center and meet with children attending workshops, according to the Polish presidential office.
While the visit will be brief – the Trumps are spending just 15 hours on the ground in Poland – the relationship between the first lady and Kornhauser-Duda could extend well beyond the White House and be beneficial to future causes.
Grisham says Melania Trump already understands the complexities and potential benefits of being flung together with other leaders’ spouses at events. “She has learned quite a lot from many of them when you consider their individual points of view, and she greatly values their different perspectives.”
She also has the distinction of being far less polarizing than her husband, something even he recognized in a speech at the close of their previous joint foreign trip.
“(She is) our magnificent and wonderful person, our first lady, Melania,” the President said. “The countries of the world have a large number of disagreements, but they all agree with me on that one – that I can tell you. So everywhere we go, it’s the same old story. So, great job.”