Melania Trump seemed at ease during her brief trip to Paris last week. She spoke French with sick children during a visit to Necker hospital, toured the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte and garnered positive reviews for her reserved demeanor and adherence to diplomatic protocols on Bastille Day.
This despite her husband’s social goof: The president made headlines for commenting on the French first lady’s physical appearance, saying more than once that Brigitte Macron — who is more than two decades older than her husband — is “in such good shape.” Mrs. Trump looked on serenely during the odd exchange.
Overall, she seems to be enjoying the rest of the world a little more than her home turf.
Melania Trump, who moved to the White House five weeks ago, has accompanied her husband on several foreign trips. On each she has stood behind a podium and spoken publicly, something she rarely does in the United States.
She has also made several well-publicized visits to hospitals overseas, in contrast to the handful of deliberately low-key stops she has made to pediatric wards in New York and Washington, D.C.
“We see [Mrs. Trump] so much more when she is abroad, which is really bizarre,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women,” a history of presidential spouses.
In general, it is on these trips that the first lady has made herself most visible, garnering extensive press at home and internationally, offering fodder for both the style-watchers assessing her fashion choices (largely positive) and political analysts gauging her influence on the president (she’s said to have a calming effect).
During the recent G-20 meeting in Poland, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that the first lady was sent into a meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to help wrap up the overly long session. (Her intervention did not work. The men kept talking.)
Since Ida McKinley visited Juarez, Mexico, in 1901, foreign travel has been an important aspect of the role of first lady, according to Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the historian of the National First Ladies Library.
In the 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt made trips to Ireland, England and military installations around the world. Melania Trump’s visit had echoes of Jacqueline Kennedy’s famous meeting with Charles DeGaulle in Paris.
“Jackie Kennedy, who I think [Melania Trump] is trying to model herself after, went to France soon after her husband was elected and [the French] loved — it was [as if] American royalty was going to France,” Andersen Brower said. “These foreign trips help Melania Trump a lot. When she goes abroad, she is able to do things that for some reason she isn’t able to do here. . . . I think they are very wise to have her speak the language.”
Mrs. Trump, who was born in Slovenia, has said she is fluent in six languages, and in addition to conversing in French in Paris, she spoke Italian with the pope when she and her husband visited Rome.
“We saw her interaction with the Holy Father, which was very special. [Pope Francis] was making jokes in the native language. The Italian people were very touched about that,” said Paolo Zampolli, the Italian American businessman who introduced the Trumps to each other and remains in contact with Melania Trump.
Mrs. Trump’s burgeoning international focus also helps her differentiate herself from her popular predecessor. Michelle Obama made domestic issues her primary focus and took only about half as many foreign trips as first ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, according to an analysis by the National Taxpayers Union. But Clinton’s and Bush’s travels abroad came later in their husbands’ administrations, after those first ladies had established themselves in the White House. Melania Trump, who delayed her move to the White House, is shaping more of her persona outside of the country.
Doesn’t seem to hurt: A slim 51 percent majority of voters had a favorable opinion of Melania Trump in a recent Fox News poll, with 28 percent unfavorable. In April, her favorable rating was a relatively low 34 percent in a Quinnipiac poll, with a 24 percent unfavorable.
Polling analyst Emily Guskin contributed to this report.