On Monday, Aug. 20, news broke that Melania Trump would be taking her first big solo trip as first lady to Africa. But controversial comments about South Africa from her husband on Twitter Wednesday night could affect Melania Trump’s visit to Africa.
The White House has been fairly quiet about Trump’s Africa trip since President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that he was asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to study South Africa’s proposal to seize land from white farmers and "the large scale killing of farmers." The South African government rejected this information and said it was a “narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past” in a tweet.
The first lady has not given many details about her trip to Africa, including which countries she will be visiting — and if South Africa is among them. Trump’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham hasn’t responded to Bustle’s request for comment about whether the president's comments will affect the first lady’s visit, but Dr. Lauren Wright, a politics and public affairs lecturer at Princeton University and the author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today, tells Bustle that she believes Trump’s position as first lady could be leveraged to improve relations with South Africa. However, she has doubts that Trump's team has the wherewithal to coordinate the strategy.
Wright says that first ladies in general are in a unique position to shine a positive light on presidential controversy. Although Trump’s schedule hasn’t been released for her Africa trip, Wright says it could be a smart move to add South Africa to the list if it isn’t already on it.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for her to positively impact the administration’s efforts in the area,” Wright said. “Here’s the thing that’s so special about first ladies — they have really unique status when it comes to how the public perceives them and how they’re treated by the media and by foreign governments … People just like them a lot better than politicians.”
Wright says that people see first ladies, in general, as more trustworthy “benevolent volunteers.” A good example of this can be shown in Laura Bush, who visited Afghanistan and worked with women there. She did this after her husband George W. Bush launched intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan as a part of the Global War on Terror after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Mrs. Trump could do something akin to this and visit South Africa and highlight some Trump administration programs designed to help the country. That might be more of a classic tactic,” Wright said.
However, Wright said she’s hesitant to assume that Trump’s staff will employ this tactic. Even if Trump does visit South Africa, Wright says we shouldn’t assume it’s a strategic move. “I think what’s really going on in the East Wing and the conclusion we should often draw from what Melania Trump does is that there’s sort of a lack of strategy altogether,” Wright said.
Wright pointed out that in the past, the first lady has refused to "engage in the clean-up efforts" when it comes to her husband's public relations strategy. She added that it’s probably a “gendered, unfair expectation” that people look to Trump to deal with the president's messes in the first place.
Journalist Kate Andersen Brower took this a step further. Andersen Brower, who wrote the book First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, tells Bustle she believes Trump does things just to spite her husband — for example, going to the border after her husband's policies separated immigrant children and families. Picking Africa for her first solo trip as first lady could be an example of this.
“She seems to be trolling him really,” Andersen Brower said. “Almost everything she’s done publicly in the last few months has been kind of at odds with his platform.”
Her going to Africa could also be perceived as Trump going against the president. Back in April, Trump reportedly referred to some African nations as "sh*thole countries" in a meeting, a Democratic aide told NBC News. But Wright notes that although in some instances it may seem that Trump is going against her husband, in this case, it could be interpreted that he contradicted her.
It's safe to say this won't be the last we hear of the Trumps and Africa.