First lady Melania Trump, in a rare public appearance, shared a stage Friday at the State Department with nine women who have battled slavery, stood up against terrorists and investigated sexual abusers in their home countries.
Trump presented glass awards to the recipients of the International Women of Courage Awards, saying they “define what it means to be a role model.”
Her appearance came a day after CNN broadcast an interview with a former Playboy model who claims that she and President Trump had an affair that began in 2006 just a few months after Melania gave birth to their son, Barron. In the interview, Karen McDougal apologized to the first lady for the extramarital affair.
Trump spoke of the bravery and resilience of the women seated to her side. In one of the few references to herself, Trump said she had focused her efforts as first lady on helping children.
“I believe they learn from what they see around them,” said Trump, who also attended the event last year.
“It takes courage not only to see wrong, but strive to right it,” she said in brief remarks before she passed out the awards. “Courage is what sets apart the heroes from the rest. It is equal parts bravery and nobility.”
The women who were honored had shown both.
Aliyah Khalaf Saleh of Iraq had rescued young military cadets ambushed by Islamic State militants, and helped recruits to the extremist group get fake identity cards so they could escape.
Aiman Umarova, a lawyer in Kazakhstan, represents political prisoners and helps bring to justice those involved in the sexual abuse of women and children.
L’Malouma Said of Mauritania was born into slavery and has become an anti-slavery activist elected to parliament.
Sirikan Charoensiri, a Thai lawyer, helped found a human rights group that documents human rights abuses under the military government that came to power in a 2014 coup. She has been charged with sedition for her work.
The other honorees came from Afghanistan, Honduras, Italy, Kosovo and Rwanda. A 10th woman honored, from Guatemala, was unable to fly to Washington for health reasons. Among the guests were Callista Gingrich, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
The ceremony occurred amid great turmoil at the State Department. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was fired by the president last week, returned to Texas on Thursday, and his replacement, Mike Pompeo, has not been confirmed. Many diplomats have resigned over the past year, and many of those who remain are temporarily filling the jobs of senior officials who have not yet been named.
Melania Trump applauded the work they do.
“I thank you, our incredible American diplomats, for showing courage on behalf of our country every day,” she said. “I am here because I believe in you, and the honorees with whom I’ve privileged to share the stage with.”