BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The first telephone call Jill Biden made from her black SUV after an unannounced meeting with her Ukrainian counterpart inside the embattled country was to her husband, President Joe Biden.
Biden and Olena Zelenska, who had not been seen in public since President Vladimir Putin sent Russia’s military into her country nearly 11 weeks ago, had just spent about two hours together at a school in Uzhhorod in western Ukraine.
With her visit to the Ukraine war zone, the U.S. first lady was able to act as a second pair of eyes and ears for the president, who so far has been unable to visit the country himself.
“Sometimes the first lady is able to do things and get into places where the president can’t,” said Myra Gutin, author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.”
Jill Biden wrapped up her four-day trip to Eastern Europe on Monday after meeting in Bratislava with Zuzana Caputova, Slovakia’s first female president. Her trip over the border on Sunday to meet with Zelenska and refugees from elsewhere in Ukraine was a highpoint of the visit.
Seated across from Caputova, Jill Biden said she told her husband in their phone call “just how much I saw the need to support the people of Ukraine” and about “the horrors and the brutality that the people I had met had experienced.”
Ever since Russia opened war on Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been open about wanting Biden to visit him in Kyiv, just like many other world leaders have done, including Canada’s Justin Trudeau on Sunday.
The closest President Biden has been to Ukraine was a stop in Rzeszow, Poland, in late March after he went to Brussels to discuss the war with other world leaders. At the time, he publicly lamented that he was not allowed to cross the Polish border and go into western Ukraine.
“Part of my disappointment is that I can’t see it firsthand … they will not let me,” Biden said, likely speaking about the ever-present security concerns associated with presidential travel that are heightened by any talk of sending him to an active war zone.
The White House said as recently as last week that while the president “would love to visit” Ukraine there were no plans for him to do so at this time.
Security is a concern for the first lady, too. But when she travels solo, she flies on a smaller plane than the president’s Air Force One and with a significantly smaller “package” of Secret Service agents, Air Force crew members, White House staff and, sometimes, journalists.
The difference in the “footprint” makes it easier for a first lady to act as an emissary for the president and then tell him about what she picks up during her travels.
Jill Biden had wanted to visit Ukraine in March but settled on a Mother’s Day weekend trip to help buck up Ukrainian moms who fled with their children to “frontline” countries like Slovakia that border Ukraine and have been taking them in.
During multiple stops in Romania and Slovakia, refugees shared their heartbreaking stories with the first lady — but also their gratitude for her visit as a high-profile symbol of U.S. support.
While first ladies lack the power or authority to send money or fighter jets, what they can do is show people that they — and the United States — care, Gutin said.
A first lady is a presidential adviser without comparison.
On a trip like this, “she will be able to say to the refuges, ‘I’m going to tell the president what I saw, I’m going to tell the president what you told me,’” Gutin, a professor at Rider University in New Jersey, said in an interview before the trip.
The first lady was so eager to tell the president about her meeting with Zelenska that he was the first person she called from her vehicle after that portion of the trip had concluded.
The trip gave Jill Biden something else, too: a chance to practice the “soft diplomacy” that first ladies engage in while representing the United States abroad.
Her first stop in Europe was a military base near the Black Sea in Romania to meet U.S. troops deployed there by the president in the run-up to the Russia-Ukraine war. She brought them 50 gallons of ketchup after learning that base supplies of the condiment had run low.
She had the belly of her plane packed with seven trunks of supplies for refugees, including blankets, playing cards, coloring books and crayons, T-shirts, gardenia-scented candles, toiletry kits and other items. The White House logo or the Bidens’ signatures were on everything.
As she interacted with displaced Ukrainians and the volunteers helping them, the first lady sometimes turned the person she was face to face with around and asked them to tell their story to the journalists in the room.
“Come here so the press can hear you, then they know what you’re doing,” she said Sunday while repositioning a local volunteer working in one of the tents at a processing facility at the Slovak border crossing in Vysne Nemecke.
Soft diplomacy works in reverse, too.
Jill Biden sported a large Ukraine flag pin on her lapel after she returned to the Kosice airport from Ukraine. It was a gift from the head of Zelenska’s security detail after the U.S. first lady presented him with one of her souvenir coins.
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