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Unusual Place for a President’s Family on a Foreign Trip: Center Stage

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and First Lady Melania Trump make their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, Monday.

JERUSALEM >> At an Israeli children’s hospital, Melania Trump handed out blue canvas backpacks filled with Dr. Seuss books and emblazoned with a picture of the White House. At a forum in Saudi Arabia on combating extremism, Ivanka Trump stood in for her father when he got tired. And in Israel, Jared Kushner stuck by his father-in-law’s side as President Donald Trump pushed for peace in the Middle East.

The president’s first foray overseas is giving the rest of the world its first real glimpse of America’s new governing structure — a White House that has quickly become an all-in-the-family business, standard practice in Saudi Arabia, but rare in the United States.

During the president’s nine-day, multicountry trip that began Friday, the world is learning — and Americans are being reminded of — the significant overlap between blood relations and policy advisers in the current White House. For Trump, they are almost interchangeable.

“It is extremely rare that a president would bring family members, other than a spouse, and ask them to assume a public role on a foreign trip,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the historian at the National First Ladies’ Library.

Anthony said presidents often brought their children or other relatives on foreign excursions. But he added, “In terms of the Trumps assuming public roles, this is unprecedented.”

The president’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Kushner, have offices in the West Wing and are top White House advisers. The couple reportedly received a rabbinical pass to travel with the president on Air Force One on Friday, so they could be by his side. (As Orthodox Jews, they are not supposed to travel in a vehicle on the Sabbath, which begins Friday at sundown and continues until sundown Saturday.)

Melania Trump, America’s reticent and reserved first lady, has all but shunned the spotlight since her husband was elected. Overseas, though, she has been willing to play the role of global ambassador, stepping out a bit as she accompanies her husband. Wherever she goes, she draws attention.

When she arrived in Israel on Monday, a microphone caught a bit of private flattery from the prime minister’s wife. “I talk every place about her,” Sara Netanyahu told Donald Trump after Air Force One landed.

The family-first approach has drawn mostly positive coverage overseas since the Trumps left Washington, especially in Saudi Arabia, where the country’s sprawling royal family is synonymous with its governing elite.

But not all the attention has been kind. On Monday, television cameras at the airport arrival ceremony in Tel Aviv captured what appeared to be an annoyed Melania Trump slapping away her husband’s hand when he tried to hold hers.

The video clip of Melania Trump flicking away the president’s hand quickly went viral on Twitter and was posted on the website for Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, under the headline: “Well this is embarrassing.”

A spokeswoman for Melania Trump did not respond to an email seeking comment on the video.

In Saudi Arabia, Ivanka Trump represented her father at a round-table discussion with female entrepreneurs and Princess Reema bint Bandar, the daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the long-serving Saudi ambassador to the United States.

After the session, the princess told a reporter that Ivanka Trump is broadly seen in the country as a symbol of empowerment, in part because many people can easily relate to the fact that she is part of a powerful family enterprise.

On Sunday night, when the president skipped a Twitter forum on combating extremism, Ivanka Trump filled in, taking to the stage to greet hundreds of young audience members and to explain the policy purposes of the event.

“Ultimately this young generation across the Arab world is a generation that can build tolerance, hope and peace,” she said. “That’s what today has been focused on.”

A White House aide later said that Donald Trump’s schedule had run very late that day and that he was exhausted. The comment was mocked on Twitter by the president’s critics, who noted the nine-day trip had just begun two days earlier.

In Saudi Arabia, it was impossible to ignore the comparisons between Kushner, 36, and Mohammed bin Salman, deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, 31. Both represent a younger generation, in power in their countries largely because of their family ties, yet with vast portfolios.

Kushner has briefed reporters, helped negotiate Saudi deals for weapons and business that totaled almost $400 billion, and is one of the president’s closest advisers on foreign policy and diplomacy. Over the weekend, Kushner attended almost all of the president’s meetings with the Saudi royal family.

“The president asked us to plan a trip that would help unite the world against intolerance and terrorism and we have made great progress towards that goal in Saudi Arabia,” Kushner said in a rare, on-the-record statement just before the president departed from Riyadh for his stop in Jerusalem.

On Monday, Kushner accompanied Trump as he spent hours with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, discussing how to accelerate efforts to achieve peace. On Tuesday, Kushner will be with his father-in-law when he meets with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

All three members of the Trump family joined Donald Trump on Monday as he became the first sitting president to make a pilgrimage to the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy place for prayer. Even as many cameras clicked to capture Trump’s moment of reflection, others were pointed at his wife and daughter, who were doing the same in a section reserved only for women to pray.

Israeli news websites raced to feature pictures of Melania Trump, dressed in a white skirt suit, standing solemnly by the wall. And television cameras captured an emotional Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism, appearing to wipe away a tear after gently touching the wall with her left palm.

Later, at the Israeli hospital, Melania Trump joined Sara Netanyahu, talking to children and passing out the backpacks with books.

“You can do a lot of projects, color and read and write letters,” Trump told the Israeli children, as she posed with them for pictures.

It was the kind of made-for-TV moment that is traditional for first ladies and rare for Melania Trump, who has spent most of the past several months in New York, where the couple’s young son, Barron, has been finishing the school year. She has not taken on the higher-profile role some first ladies have embraced. She has not, for example, organized an official state dinner at the White House yet.

As the wife of America’s new president, Melania Trump is both a source of fascination abroad and offers a potential new route for foreign politicians looking to find ways to connect with her husband. One Israeli news organization reported that Sara Netanyahu spoke to Melania Trump about two missing Israeli soldiers and gave her a letter from the mother of one of them.

Moments after she descended from Air Force One in Riyadh on Friday, commentators in Saudi Arabia noted the flowing black pantsuit and the large gold belt Melania Trump wore. One Saudi newspaper called the outfit “classy and conservative” because it looked similar to the traditional abaya, the robe that many Saudi women wear. On Twitter, Saudi women posted pictures of themselves in abayas that looked similar to Trump’s pantsuit.

On Monday, as he walked the red carpet with Benjamin Netanyahu and their wives during an arrival ceremony at the airport in Tel Aviv, Donald Trump repeatedly bragged about Kushner and Ivanka Trump as the president greeted members of the Israeli Cabinet.

Of one thing, he was certain, the president told one of them: “You’ll like Ivanka.”

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