Pope Francis exchanges gifts with President Trump and Melania Trump during an audience at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City.
Melania Trump's role on first foreign trip
02:30 - Source: CNN

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Trumps are set to return to US this weekend

First lady kept her own schedule for much of the trip

Washington CNN  — 

As the overseas debut of President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump draws to a close – the couple is set to return to Washington this weekend – there was the usual bluster and bravado from the President.

His white-knuckled handshake with France’s new president made headlines. The speech to NATO was memorable, as was his brusque, push-aside of the leader of Montenegro to make his way to the front of a pack of world leaders. It was classic, unadulterated Trump, a man the country has come to know for all of the above quirks, mannerisms and machismo.

But this trip was especially telling about Melania Trump, a first lady about whom the country is still learning, four months into her husband’s administration.

From the moment she stepped off the plane in Saudi Arabia, it was clear she had given thought to her wardrobe, using the fashion diplomacy tactic that worked so well for her predecessor, Michelle Obama. Her flowing black jumpsuit, by designer Stella McCartney, looked consciously similar to an abaya, the traditional robe garments worn by Muslim women in the region. In Israel, she donned white, a color considered by some Jews to be sacred, and a symbol of purity and peace. To meet the Pope, it was formal black lace with head veil. For Brussels, she donned a tan suit made by a Belgian designer and in Italy, both the Rome and Sicily legs, Trump stuck to outfits by the Italian fashion house of Dolce & Gabbana.

Clearly, her strategy of packing a bag for each and every event on the nine-day trip, and the time she spent getting information from State Department officials regarding protocol, paid off. There was little in the way of a faux pas, even Friday, when she wore a $51,500 floral-embellished jacket to tour around Sicily.

But the trip was also telling about what sort of person the first lady is and how she interacts with her husband. For a woman of, so far, few words, it’s been the non-verbal clues that have shed the most insight.

“I watched her come off Air Force One with great interest, each time,” says Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush in the White House. “They emerged from that plane as partners, she as the spouse of the President, fully prepared for her role.”

Trump kept her own schedule, announcing in a statement ahead of time from the White House that she would have visits and events independent from those of her husband.

“Of course, as first lady, on trips like these, she’s going to go off and do things on her own,” says McBride. “But she went so far as to set the marker before she even left.”

The first lady’s several solo ventures – two to children’s hospitals, where she spent time coloring, reading books, even smiling as she took selfies with the kids, showcasing a compassionate side – were a stark juxtaposition to the forward-charging personality of her husband, who, in addition to visiting the Middle East, attended his first NATO and G-7 summits.

“She’s already shown that although public speaking might not be something she’s entirely comfortable with just yet, the actions she does take are genuine, and a window into the kind of person she is,” says McBride. “She clearly and very carefully selected what she wanted to do and where she wanted to go on this trip, consistent with the types of activities she’s done back at home. She’s choosing things where it is something she cares about.”

McBride adds that Trump might even be more comfortable on the world stage, as someone who grew up in Slovenia and spent time abroad as an adult, noting “That’s where she comes from, there’s a way she can draw from personal experience.”

Whatever the reason, she has neutralized the spotlight that so often only shines on her husband. Except for that one, unexpected moment – swatting away the President’s hand on the tarmac in Israel. The move, which quickly went viral did, however, provide a bit of insight into the kind of person she is, especially with her husband of 12 years.

“On that red carpet (on the tarmac), there were four people expected to be on that space, the Trumps and the Netanyahus,” says McBride. “Trump is larger than life, in any setting, and he went out ahead of her a little bit, and it crowded her ability to walk with him and the Netanyahus equally. So he sort of pushed her off, and then realized what he’d done. She didn’t appreciate it, and she made it known. She’s not afraid to assert her opinion with her husband.”

For the remainder of the trip, the couple has held hands more often than they haven’t. On Friday evening, she posted a photo standing close to her husband, taking in the Sicilian sunset.

“I think the fact that no one really knows what their relationship is like actually says a lot about how loyal their friends are,” says CNN contributor and historian Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.

McBride cites Trump’s strategic appearances on the campaign trail, and a bit during the transition, as a clue to how loyalty might be one of the components to her marriage. It’s a trait those close to the president say he values.

“She was out there when she was needed most, particularly in October, after the (Access Hollywood) video came out.”

Not only did she defend her husband, she timed a speech in Philadelphia to double down on the fact she was indeed sticking by his side.

“In my mind, it was validation from her to the country that she loves her husband, and she believes in him, and you can believe in him, too. She plays this role for him in their marriage, and she doesn’t have to be a woman of many words to express that.”

The lack of physical distance between the two on this international trip also provided a hint of what things might be like once the first lady moves full-time into the White House this summer. They have been together more in the past week, for more consecutive days, than they likely have since Trump kicked off his presidential campaign, and most certainly since he moved, solo, into the White House.

“I think the fact that they are the only first couple to live apart is telling,” says Brower. “They live separate lives, and don’t put on a show to make it seem as if they don’t.”

Yet, the opportunity to witness the Trumps together on this five-city tour is a learning tool of sorts, a way to see her independence, and his bravado, meld together for the first time in the public eye.

“Ultimately,” says McBride, “what this trip has shown is so much more of her on a daily basis. And that she fully intends to be a very active first lady.”