“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 at a reception at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where she announced her travel plans. “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.”
The audience included the first ladies of several of the countries she will visit, along with Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Pence, and Susan Pompeo, the wife of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Trump said she chose those four countries because they “have worked alongside USAID and our partners to make great progress in overcoming some of their biggest challenges.”
The continent is a place that every modern first lady has visited. Laura Bush made programs promoting health in Africa a major part of her tenure, particularly in her husband’s second term, when she made seven trips to countries there.
Michelle Obama visited twice without her husband, in 2011 to South Africa and Botswana, and in 2016 to Morocco and Liberia, bringing her daughters along for both trips. As first lady, Hillary Clinton also made two trips accompanied by her teenage daughter with stops in Senegal, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, Eritrea, Morocco and Tunisia.
But Trump’s visit is more fraught than those of her predecessors. During a meeting with lawmakers in January, President Trump referred to Haiti and some African nations as “shithole countries” during a discussion of a proposed bipartisan immigration deal, according to officials who were there. He later denied using such language. Reports had previously circulated that he had questioned why Nigerians in the United States on visas would ever want to return to their “huts.”
The Trump administration further alienated African nations in March when the president fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when the nation’s top diplomat was only a few days into what was supposed to be a week-long apology trip to the continent. Tillerson missed a day of planned meetings, citing ill health, and ultimately cut the trip short.
And the most recent perceived insult came earlier this month when Spain’s foreign minister said that Trump had suggested to him building a wall across the Sahara as a way of dealing with Europe’s migration crisis.
Those comments were taken to mean that Africans should be contained, said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Trump administration has yet to articulate a comprehensive policy toward Africa, he said, and in the absence of such substance, Trump’s disparaging offhand remarks and tweets have filled the void.
President Trump, in formal remarks to the General Assembly on Tuesday, did not mention Africa, though on Wednesday morning, he addressed his wife’s upcoming trip. “We love Africa,” he told reporters outside the U.N. headquarters, and called the continent “beautiful — the most beautiful part of the world in many ways.”
Against the backdrop of such accumulated slights, the trip could put Melania Trump, who delivered her remarks surrounded by large photos of African children and flanked by screens projecting the “Be Best” logo, in an awkward spot.
“People will be looking to her to understand the Trump Africa policy, and the burden is on her to counter the narrative,” Devermont said. “That’s a difficult position to be in.”
Melania Trump, though, may be well positioned to smooth things over, said Anita McBride, who was Laura Bush’s chief of staff in the East Wing.
At the reception Wednesday, the first lady said that at each stop on the African continent, she would focus on programs overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Hinting at her agenda during the trip, Trump mentioned the agency’s work in Ghana to improve health care and nutrition. In Malawi, she noted that USAID has promoted education as a means of combating poverty, and in Kenya, it has projects on early education, wildlife conservation and HIV prevention.
“Her presence could help soften hard feelings,” McBride said. “Generally, first ladies can represent the American people in a gentler way than a president can, because of the tougher things presidents have to do.”
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former assistant secretary of state who is now a senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group, says she thinks African people, particularly the leaders of the countries the first lady visits, are eager to hear from her.
“It will offer her an opportunity to establish her own interests and activities — and her own message that hopefully will play differently from the message that Africans have heard so far from the president,” she said. “I think she will be greeted with respect.”
The trip could be a significant moment for Melania Trump, who has taken a lower profile than many other first ladies, and whose Be Best initiative has been relatively modest. The first lady emphasized public-private partnerships in her remarks and the linkages between foreign aid and domestic national security.
“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,” she said. “When more people have opportunity, and when societies are freer and more democratic, our own country is safer and stronger.”