CNN — First lady Dr. Jill Biden warned parts of East Africa are “on the precipice” of famine as the region is dealing with a severe drought, threatening livelihoods and the ability of families to feed their children.
Her comments came in a series of wide-ranging interviews during a recent five-day trip to Africa that were part of “CNN Primetime: Jill Biden Abroad.” In the interviews, she shared her thoughts about the 2024 presidential campaign, weighed in on the classified documents found at their Wilmington, Delaware, home, and talked about life as first lady, including relationships with the women who held the role in the past.
As the Bidens prepare for a possible 2024 presidential campaign, the first lady pushed back on concerns about President Joe Biden’s age, citing his recent travel schedule as reflective of his stamina.
“How many 30-year-olds could travel to Poland, get on the train? Go nine more hours, go to Ukraine, meet with President (Volodymyr) Zelensky?” she said. “So, look at the man. Look what he’s doing. Look what he continues to do each and every day.”
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley has called for politicians over the age of 75 to take mental competency tests, which the first lady called, “Ridiculous.” Asked if her husband, who would be 82 at his inauguration if he’s reelected, would ever take such a test, she said, “We would never even discuss something like that.”
During an extensive sit-down with CNN, Jill Biden said she “absolutely” believes her husband will run for reelection in 2024, saying she’s “all for it.” But the first lady also left an opening for her husband should he decide against a run.
“It’s Joe’s decision,” she said. “And we support whatever he wants to do. If he’s in, we’re there. If he wants to do something else, we’re there too.”
The first lady said her family has not had one definitive sit-down meeting to discuss a reelection bid as has been typical for the Biden clan in the past, saying instead there’s been a series of rolling conversations with their children and grandchildren.
She said the wave of investigations into her son, Hunter Biden, a frequent target for Republicans, has not affected the family’s thinking about 2024.
“I love Hunter, and I’ll support him … in any way I can. And that’s how I look at things,” she said.
The first lady also weighed in for the first time on the revelation that classified documents were found at the president’s Wilmington residence and a private office in Washington, DC, which prompted the Justice Department to assign a special counsel to investigate the matter.
“I was really surprised. We had no idea,” she said, noting the documents at their Wilmington home were in the garage. “Believe me, Arlette, I haven’t been, I mean, I don’t have time to go through, you know, the boxes in the garage. We had no idea they were even down there.”
The first lady in Africa
The first lady traveled to Africa for visits to Namibia and Kenya to emphasize the United States’ commitment to the region at a time when Russia and China have made in-roads on the continent.
“America wants to keep reassuring the countries and the leaders of Africa, like – ‘We didn’t forget you.’ You know, we were isolationist, pretty much for the last four years of the last administration,” she said in a critique of former President Donald Trump. “We want to say, ‘Hey, we’re back.’”
It marked her sixth trip to Africa after having traveled to the continent five times as second lady. She focused on delivering messages about women’s empowerment, youth engagement, and the need to preserve democracy.
Biden also highlighted programs funded through PEPFAR, the Bush-era initiative focused on fighting HIV/AIDS around the globe, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
On her final day in Kenya, the first lady looked to shine a spotlight on the severe drought affecting the region. She traveled to the rural village of Lositeti in Kajiado County to tour a health clinic offering services to the community.
Nearly 500 patients, many of them children, received treatment that day, including medical and malnutrition check-ups and nutritional assistance, according to the US Agency for International Development.
“Livestock is dying. There’s no water. There’s no grass. There are no crops. Mothers can’t lactate. They’re not able to feed their children. It’s a major problem,” she said. “I’m here before it gets any worse to try to create awareness and say, ‘How can we find solutions for these major problems?’”
In Kenya, officials say more than 4 million people have insufficient access to food, with that figure expected to rise above 5 million in the coming months.
The first lady noted the US provides 70% of financial assistance to the drought-plagued region and urged other countries to pitch in with more aid.
“Everybody has to come together to make sure that these people aren’t dying because of the drought,” she said. “Because believe me … they have nothing. They have nothing and their children are malnourished.”
In 2011, Biden visited the same region to highlight the impact of drought and famine. She toured the country’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab, where more than 100,000 Somali refugees fled to amid famine and conflict.
“We’re right on the precipice I think of a famine,” she told CNN. “We’re right on the edge. We need to act now.”
Reflecting on Jimmy Carter and other first ladies
The first lady also reflected on the legacy of former President Jimmy Carter, who recently started receiving hospice care.
“I think he’ll be remembered as a great humanitarian, I mean, all that he has done to help people,” she said. “He never stopped. He never stopped helping Americans, whether it was Habitat for Humanity, building homes, or going into communities, traveling the world helping people all over.”
The president and first lady visited with Carter and his wife, former first Lady Rosalynn Carter, at their Plains, Georgia, home in 2021. Dr. Biden said the two men “talked politics the whole time and what was going on, and they have a real ease in with one another,” and she praised the couple’s seven-decades long marriage.
“She’s so much a part of his life,” she said. “It’s a really strong partnership.”
Biden said Rosalynn Carter has “always been very supportive, as have quite frankly, most of the first ladies. “
“If you ever need anything or you want to talk or if there’s something … on your mind, or if I can help you in some way, they’ve all been great,” she said.
Asked if she’s spoken with former first lady Melania Trump, she responded: “Not Melania.”
The first lady said she plans to offer advice to future first spouses, saying “if they ask, of course, I mean, it’s a very small number, at this point, of women, and I think we have to support one another.”
Insight into the Bidens’ marriage
Biden also offered a window into her marriage, saying she maintains a “good balance” in the types of insight and advice she offers her husband.
“Certainly I tell him stories, and I have things that I’ve seen and things that people want and where their challenges are,” she said. “So, it’s not that I’m like weighing in. It’s like, let me tell you what I saw or what I heard, or what people are saying to me.”
“It’s in that context because I’m out every day. I’m in the classroom. I’m out, you know, somewhere in the United States,” she added. “I think it’s a good balance really.”
Biden said her husband helps her understand there are different ways of looking at issues and viewpoints.
“Well, sometimes I don’t, I may not see things from his perspective. Let’s just put it that way. And so, he offers both sides,” she said. “I’m always better like ‘This person feels this way.” ‘Yes, but this is why they,’ – you know, he’s very good at that – understanding why people feel the way they do. He understands both sides, which is part of his strength.”
Biden, who has been married to the president for nearly 46 years, has long said she’s not an adviser to her husband, but she is his most trusted partner and wields a significant amount of influence within the White House.
The couple speaks often via text and FaceTime throughout the day as they both maintain busy work and travel schedules with the first lady saying the president “calls a lot.”
Biden said she “said a lot of prayers” when her husband made a highly secretive to Kyiv, Ukraine – an active war zone where the US military has no control – last month.
“I was really worried. But you know, one thing, and I have to say this with all my heart. One thing that I truly believe in is the strength of our military, and how everything was so planned out, and the Secret Service, and what an amazing job they did, in pulling off the trip, and keeping my husband safe,” she said.
A unique first lady
Biden plays a unique role as first lady, the first to hold a full-time paid job outside of the White House. She teaches English and writing full time at Northern Virginia Community College, a job she also held for her eight years as second lady when her husband was vice president.
From her perch at the White House, she has spent time advocating for education issues, helping military families through her “Joining Forces” initiative and working to end cancer through the “Cancer Moonshot.” The first lady is one of the Biden administration’s most often used surrogates at events across the country.
“I think it’s all so interesting and really fulfilling for me as, as a teacher, and as a woman, you know, to see the empowerment of other young women in them getting education,” she said when asked how she balance the two roles. “There’s nothing I can ever give up.”
“I really feel like I’ve grown so much in this role, because of the opportunities that I’ve been given whether it’s traveling to Africa, or whether it’s traveling to Nebraska,” she added. “I see so many different communities and reach out to people in all walks of life.”
Biden said her experiences as an educator and first lady have helped her build connections with people during her travels abroad, which has included trips to 10 countries in her first two years in the White House.
“Joe tends towards policy,” she said. “I try to, you know, go in a little bit maybe a softer direction.”
While in Africa, Biden held events with the first ladies of Namibia and Kenya, telling CNN it’s important to cultivate those types of relationships abroad.
“One thing Joe taught me is that all politics is personal, and that’s true because once you have these connections, I think you can call on someone when you need help, when you need to be lifted up, when you can support programs,” she said.