WASHINGTON — On a three-state tour this week to promote her child-focused initiative, “Be Best,” Melania Trump showed that her time as first lady has sharpened an already sophisticated understanding of how to enhance her public image.
In a glossy and tightly controlled environment, Mrs. Trump restricted the majority of her interactions to emphasize motherhood — perhaps the only part of her private life that she has publicly embraced. In Tulsa, Okla., she had a heartwarming exchange with a child who dislikes homework. In Seattle, she spoke to assembled Microsoft executives about the challenges children face online. And onstage at a theater in Las Vegas, she shared a rare personal story about warning her 12-year-old son, Barron, about the dangers of drug abuse.
“I try to explain how drugs are dangerous,” Mrs. Trump said, “and how they will mess up your head, mess up your body, and nothing positive comes of it.”
Mrs. Trump’s tour firmed up her commitment to “Be Best,” which addresses social media, well being and the opioid crisis, and which has faced setbacks from the start: The momentum of a Rose Garden debut in May was slowed when Mrs. Trump fell ill from a kidney condition soon afterward. And since then, she and her 12-person East Wing staff have had to deal with a departing policy director, a lengthy government shutdown, and countless chaotic news cycles engulfing President Trump’s White House.
When Mrs. Trump embarked on this week’s trip, she made it clear that she would not be talking about anything she deemed off topic when she ignored a reporter’s shouted question about the testimony of Michael D. Cohen, her husband’s former personal lawyer. Last week, Mr. Cohen told Congress that he deeply regretted lying to Mrs. Trump about an alleged affair between her husband and the pornographic film star Stormy Daniels.
Mrs. Trump instead tried to keep her message trained on “Be Best.” But by Tuesday, the second and final day of her trip, she took a moment at the town-hall-style event in Las Vegas to chide the news media for dedicating time to other coverage besides the opioid crisis.
“I challenge the press to devote as much time to the lives lost and the potential lives that could be saved, by dedicating the same amount of coverage that you do to idle gossip or trivial stories,” Mrs. Trump said.
The first lady did not specify which stories she considered unwelcome, but, like her husband, she pays close attention to her news coverage, poring over the headlines on social media. That private behavior tends to conflict with her public admonishments: Mrs. Trump has castigated the news media for focusing on her image, including matters of her personal style, despite relying on it as a powerful messaging tool — with mixed results — in the past.
Modern first ladies, said Anita McBride, who served as Laura Bush’s chief of staff, have faced intense pressure to field questions about their private lives while trying to build substantive policy platforms without the luxury of a West Wing-size staff. Mrs. Bush’s National Book Festival survived, in part, because it was co-opted by the Library of Congress. And several partners helped push along Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, including her efforts to find funding for salad bars in schools.
Even so, both women faced questions regarding anything but those platforms.
“It’s not just her,” Mrs. McBride said of Mrs. Trump. “It’s this constant focus on the clothes and the private life.” But any first lady, she added, must endure scrutiny about what she called “that mystery behind the walls of the White House.”
In recent months, Mrs. Trump has continued to try to reinforce the idea that her behind-the-scenes efforts are more important than surface curiosities. In December, she hired Art Harding, who previously worked on policy issues at the United States Agency for International Development, to fill the role of policy director, Stephanie Grisham, Mrs. Trump’s communications director, said in an email.
Ms. Grisham said the East Wing was also working on partnerships that are meant to help Mrs. Trump’s “Be Best” message endure. Those partners include Lily’s Place, a West Virginia clinic that treats babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, the National Institutes of Health and Microsoft.
The opioid crisis is one issue that administration officials and those close to the crisis say Mrs. Trump has succeeded in spotlighting.
Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, said that Mrs. Trump decided to fold the subject of opioids into her portfolio in the summer of 2017, and has regularly been at the president’s side since he declared the matter a public health emergency that fall.
“This is the one public policy issue that they work on together,” Ms. Conway said. “The first lady lending her voice and visibility is priceless currency.”
Others say Mrs. Trump’s willingness to lend her image has led to a noticeable increase in awareness around neonatal abstinence syndrome, a condition in which babies are born in opioid withdrawal — one suffering from the condition is born every 15 minutes, according to government statistics.
As deaths from drug overdoses skyrocket, the Trump administration’s handling of opioid addiction has not escaped the reaches of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which announced on Wednesday that it would hold a hearing to determine if the White House had been deficient in its approach to national drug policy. Even so, Jessica Hulsey Nickel, the founder of Addiction Policy Forum, a group of organizations working to elevate awareness of the opioid crisis, said Mrs. Trump’s work was a “gift” for people struggling to find resources.
“To pay attention and to shine a spotlight on the moms and babies affected by this disease who are often overlooked,” Ms. Hulsey Nickel said, “that’s important and it deserves recognition.”
As she closed out her “Be Best” tour in Las Vegas, Mrs. Trump shared her thoughts on the opioid crisis with Eric Bolling, a friend of the Trumps whose son died after an accidental opioid overdose in 2017. Mr. Bolling said that interest in the town-hall-style events he hosts as part of an initiative by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the country’s largest broadcaster, “blows up” when he is able to announce Mrs. Trump’s participation.
“You can probably fake a lot of things, a lot of initiatives,” Mr. Bolling said. “But you cannot fake empathy.”
In the end, even Mr. Bolling could not resist asking Mrs. Trump a round of personal questions. She told him that her days involve renovation projects — including the White House bowling alley — overseeing the White House residence staff, working with the White House Historical Association and managing her son’s schedule.
Mr. Bolling’s comparatively casual line of questioning prompted dozens of off-topic headlines, including those that focused on the preferred Trump family dish — spaghetti, Mrs. Trump guessed — over the importance of the opioid crisis.
After Mrs. Trump returned home, the East Wing chided the news media for veering off topic.