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How Kamala Harris Navigated Her 1st Foreign Trip As VP

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Vice President Harris is back in the U.S. after her first foreign trip in office. She made stops in Guatemala and Mexico. She was there talking about the root causes of the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, and Harris came away with some modest agreements. But as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, this first trip wasn't entirely smooth.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was just 20 minutes into the trip when spokeswoman Symone Sanders rushed to the press cabin on Air Force Two.

SYMONE SANDERS: Sorry, I have to hurry.

KEITH: There was a problem with the landing gear.

SANDERS: It is a technical issue. There is no major safety concerns, and we'll be able...

KEITH: We landed back where we started without incident. And 90 minutes later, a different plane was wheels up, a bumpy start for a trip that would have a few more bumps along the way. This was Harris' first diplomatic test as vice president, aimed at an intractable challenge - addressing the natural disasters, violence and poverty that pushed so many people to flee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Her excellency, Mrs. Kamala Harris, vice president of the United States of America.

KEITH: At the ornate National Palace in Guatemala, she stood side by side with President Alejandro Giammattei after a tough conversation about corruption. She said she wanted to help Guatemalans find hope at home, and then she said something that made waves back in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border. Do not come.

KEITH: Harris was just restating administration policy, but progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took offense, tweeting that it was disappointing. Later that day, Harris took time to meet with civil society leaders, female farmers and entrepreneurs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: They have the ability to see what can be, unburdened by what has been.

KEITH: That was a variation on a line Harris used at the Democratic convention last year. Joel Payne, who worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, says there was unusually high scrutiny of Harris' international debut.

JOEL PAYNE: We have to remember how audacious this is, OK? This is the first woman to do this. This is the first African American, Asian American woman to do this. And I know that can sound a little routine to say that, but it's not.

KEITH: He says that for Biden's political adversaries, Harris has been an easy target. And so from the moment she got the assignment, Republicans have been relentless, questioning why she isn't going to the border to see the problems there firsthand. And that question came up repeatedly on this trip, including in an exclusive interview with NBC's Lester Holt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LESTER HOLT: Do you have any plans to visit the border?

HARRIS: I - at some point, you know - we are going to the border. We've been to the border. So...

HOLT: You...

HARRIS: This whole thing about the border - we've been to the border. We've been to the border.

HOLT: You haven't been to the border.

HARRIS: I - and I haven't been to Europe.

KEITH: This answer ricocheted around the political world and threatened to overshadow her trip. And later, Harris, who visited the border as a senator, tried again to explain what she meant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: Listen. I've been to the border before. I will go again. But when I'm in Guatemala (laughter) dealing with root causes, I think we should have a conversation about what's going on in Guatemala.

KEITH: She went on to Mexico, met with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and agreed to work together on security and helping Central Americans. Incremental steps - but at a press conference, Harris said there had been progress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: Do I declare this trip a success? Yes, I do.

KEITH: There would be one more bump before the trip's end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you. Our next question will come from Maria Fernanda at Univision.

KEITH: It turns out she wasn't really a reporter or from Univision, which quickly became apparent when she started asking her question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA FERNANDA: Thank you, Madam Vice President. For me, it's an honor because I actually got to vote for the first time as a nationalized citizen, and I voted for you.

KEITH: Harris' staff said the woman misrepresented herself but went through security screening and wasn't a threat. Payne, who was watching from the U.S., said overall, Harris did a solid job.

PAYNE: I don't think she aced everything, but I don't think most principals ace everything. I think there are going to be things that she probably would like to have a do-over for that she'll do better in six months. And she'll do even better in a year.

KEITH: And she'll have many chances to try again since, as Harris herself said, the problems she's trying to tackle aren't going to be solved in one trip that took two days.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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