MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
While much of the country was focused on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight last week, first lady Melania Trump was in Africa. She's just back - her first big solo trip overseas. She went on a safari in Kenya. She stopped by the pyramids in Egypt. She also visited babies in a hospital in Ghana and schoolchildren in Malawi. CNN reporter Kate Bennett was on that trip, traveling with the first lady, and she joins me here now. Hi, Kate.
KATE BENNETT: Hello.
KELLY: So to be clear, this was an official trip. She was traveling as first lady. U.S. taxpayers were footing the bill for this.
BENNETT: Exactly. This was her first big sort of goodwill tour, so to speak.
KELLY: And what was the agenda?
BENNETT: Well, I mean, she said she was there to spread the message about Be Best, which is her initiative, and the welfare of children. And she also worked with the USAID on some of the programs they're putting out.
KELLY: USAID - the U.S. Agency for International Development.
BENNETT: Exactly. So she partnered with them on this trip. You know, it was also a cultural tour. She wanted to learn more about tourism in Egypt, for example. It was, again, sort of a broad-based initiative, but she - that was her undertaking.
KELLY: Was this awkward because her husband is known for his "America First" agenda, for wanting to slash foreign aid? And there she is on a trip highlighting all the good that American foreign aid does. Was that awkward?
BENNETT: Well, it's that strange sort of juxtaposition between the first lady and what she does and the president and what he does, right? This is sort of, like, raised eyebrows - and also just going to Africa, that earlier this year he was accused of perhaps saying some derogatory comments about. What she wanted to do was say, here is what this organization is doing in spite of budget cuts. Just, you know, the idea is to help these countries get off of the need for our aid. So certainly it didn't feel awkward when we were there. But ahead of time, it was a head-scratcher.
KELLY: Her wardrobe got a lot of coverage on this trip, as it often does. And Mrs. Trump weighed in on that. She said she wishes people would quit talking about her clothes.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MELANIA TRUMP: I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear.
KELLY: But Kate Bennett, it's almost like she wants us to talk about what she's wearing - I mean, the pith helmet.
BENNETT: The pith helmet I think was something that was just an oversight in terms of what she was wearing, that it wasn't going to be...
KELLY: Describe what she was wearing.
BENNETT: So she wore a very sort of out-of-Africa, I kept calling it, -esque outfit on the safari in Kenya and included, for the safari portion, a white pith helmet, which for Africans brings up a time in their history that isn't necessarily something that they like to recall.
KELLY: Nineteenth century colonialism...
BENNETT: Colonialism, exactly.
KELLY: ...Being ruled by outside forces, yeah.
BENNETT: Exactly. So we (laughter) - we try to look at these non-verbal cues. We try to look into what she's wearing, what she's saying, what she's tweeting. Is she wearing a white suit to the state of the Union because she's sending a message about suffrage? Probably not, but we have to examine all of those things with this very private first lady.
KELLY: You are, if I'm not mistaken, the only reporter covering the East Wing, the first lady, full-time. How do you think about that? What is the news value in reporting on the first lady?
BENNETT: You know, people say, well, what do you even do if you cover the first lady? She doesn't do anything (laughter). And that's sort of an interesting argument. She does. She does it with a smaller staff, with a smaller footprint, with not necessarily traditional agendas that other first ladies have had.
For me, it's been really interesting trying to crack the code of this woman who ironically Maureen Dowd called the Slovenian Sphinx. (Laughter) So here we were in front of the Sphinx, looking at the Sphinx. So in that way, it is very interesting. And I think that we can't - I can't report what is she thinking. But at the same time, we need to get facts out there. We need to understand her. And this trip I think very much helped that.
KELLY: Thank you, Kate.
BENNETT: Thank you.
KELLY: That's Kate Bennett. She covers the first lady for CNN. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.