CAIRO — Back home, Washington was in turmoil, but the first lady had something on her mind.
On one of the most consequential days of her husband’s embattled presidency, as the Senate approved his controversial choice for the Supreme Court, Melania Trump traveled to the edge of this sand-colored city and posed before the Great Sphinx, one hand in the pocket of her men’s-wear-inspired ensemble. Standing with her back against the enigmatic monument, the equally enigmatic first lady did something unusual: She spoke up for herself.
“I wish people would focus on what I do,” an exasperated Mrs. Trump said in rare comments to reporters, “not what I wear.”
Then came the fashion show.
Dressed in a tan blazer, a white shirt and black tie, and palazzo pants, Mrs. Trump stood in the wind against the desertscape. As dancers performed and music played, she adjusted her jacket (Ralph Lauren), pulled her hat (Chanel) down over her eyes, and ensured that every angle was captured as her tour through Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt came to a close on Saturday.
It was a striking moment for a first lady who, perhaps more than any other in modern times, has been happy to be a walking contradiction. It also felt like a message to old acquaintances who have boxed her out of her glamorous past life because of their opposition to her husband. Stormy Daniels may get an embrace from Anna Wintour, but Mrs. Trump still has the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Since she moved to Washington, the capital has been transfixed by the distance Mrs. Trump appears to put between herself and her husband. When she managed to put some real distance between them — an ocean — by going to Africa, many observed that she seemed to blossom.
But the trip also served to show just how much the two have in common.
Like the president, Mrs. Trump has eschewed long-held American ideas of how those who make the White House home ought to conduct themselves. And like him, Mrs. Trump is comfortable showing the world that she does not know what she does not know — and that she does not necessarily need to find out.
The president, for his part, said he was pleased with what he saw.
“The first lady did a tremendous job representing our country in Africa — like no one has before,” he said in a statement on Sunday. “She got to know firsthand the people of Africa, and they loved and respected her everywhere she went. Melania told me about her trip in great detail, and I’m so proud of the job she’s doing on behalf of children everywhere. She works so hard, and does it all out of love.”
Still, it was hard to overlook the disconnect between the good will Mrs. Trump exuded on her trip and the Trump administration’s hard-edge approach to foreign aid.
Her visit to Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, came as her husband’s administration moves to cut funding to the United States Agency for International Development by at least 30 percent. The administration has also called for the elimination of basic education funding for Malawi, according to the One Campaign, which fights poverty. Those budget proposals have drawn bipartisan opposition in Congress.
Mrs. Trump, who donated 1.4 million dual-language textbooks to children in Malawi, was asked by a reporter later if she intended to go home and ask the president about more funding for the aid agency. She seemed to ponder the question.
“We are having funding,” Mrs. Trump said as she fielded questions at the Sphinx. “So we are helping the countries, and we are working hard for helping them, and we will continue to help.”
Mrs. Trump also made clear that if there is indeed a secret “resistance” in the White House, she is not part of it. Asked about the #MeToo movement and the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she delivered what appeared to be a rehearsed response: She said she was glad both he and his accuser — a woman whose account Mr. Trump publicly mocked — had been heard.
“We need to help all of the victims no matter what kind of abuse they had,” she said. “I am against any kind of abuse or violence.”
Mrs. Trump also appeared to anticipate a question on reports that her husband had called African countries “shitholes,” adopting White House parlance to dismiss those stories for being anonymously sourced.
Mrs. Trump said she wanted the world to know what she did in Africa. She highlighted the work the American foreign aid agency is doing on the continent, as well as of her child-focused “Be Best” platform.
The East Wing handed out school supplies to children who had none, tote bags to teachers who needed them, and teddy bears to babies who had been abused or abandoned. Mrs. Trump held hands with orphans, cuddled babies, stroked baby elephants and greeted several African first ladies and the Egyptian president with warm smiles. The White House produced several videos of Mrs. Trump at each stop.
When asked what message she wanted to send on behalf of her husband’s administration, the first lady said her trip was meant to “show the world that we care.”
Advocacy groups say they are hopeful the visit will end up having been more than just photo opportunities.
“We hope the first lady will talk to the president about what she’s seen in Africa,” said Tom Hart, the executive director for North America at the One Campaign. “How America’s generosity saves lives, lifts people out of poverty and makes our nation a beacon of hope to millions around the world — and we hope the president’s upcoming budget proposal contains full funding for these programs.”
As always, Mrs. Trump was unable to avoid criticism on her trip. Reports of her decision to wear a white pith helmet — a symbol of British colonial rule — in Kenya visibly frustrated her.
Others urged that Mrs. Trump be given some leeway as she stakes out an unconventional approach to her role.
“She started that on Day 1, when she announced she wasn’t going to be moving to the White House right away,” said Anita McBride, who was Laura Bush’s chief of staff. “People are not used to seeing the light of day between a president and first lady, but by occasionally doing that, she demonstrates she is her own person. And he praises her for it.”
Indeed, shortly before departing for her flight home, Mrs. Trump again declared her independence from her husband. Or at least his Twitter account.
“I don’t always agree what he tweets, and I tell him that,” she said.
Sometimes, she said, she even asks the president to put down his phone.
“I have my own voice and my opinions,” she said, “and it’s very important to me that I express how I feel.”