WASHINGTON — Hours after President Trump took to Twitter on Monday to denigrate the special counsel’s investigation as a “Phony Witch Hunt” and the Iran deal as a “MESS,” Melania Trump stepped into the Rose Garden and said she would focus her official effort as first lady on teaching children to put kindness first in their lives, particularly on social media.
In a speech delivered in front of her husband, Vice President Mike Pence, at least five cabinet secretaries and other senior officials, Mrs. Trump unveiled a program called “Be Best,” which she said would tackle opioid abuse, social media pressures and mental health issues among young people.
“Children deserve every opportunity to enjoy their innocence,” Mrs. Trump said.
Like the first lady herself, the full details of the plan were mysterious. Mrs. Trump’s program will primarily repackage projects that already exist, including an initiative by the National Safety Council to encourage people to be proactive with talking to their doctors about opioid abuse, and guidelines distributed by the Federal Trade Commission on children’s social media activity.
Mrs. Trump’s staff plans to continue to solicit ideas from places the first lady has visited, including a West Virginia clinic that treats infants born with opioid addiction and a Michigan school where students participate in a program to stress the importance of emotional intelligence and kindness.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, has been a help briefing Mrs. Trump on the opioid crisis, a White House official said.
“We can and should teach children the importance of social and self-awareness, positive relationship skills and responsible decision making,” Mrs. Trump said. “Let us teach our children the difference between right and wrong, and encourage them to be best in their individual paths in life.”
Recent first ladies have poured their efforts into focused programs. Michelle Obama was an advocate for nutrition and fitness, Laura Bush championed literacy, Hillary Clinton pushed for health care, Barbara Bush promoted reading, Nancy Reagan started a “Just Say No” antidrug campaign and Rosalynn Carter sought to lift the stigma of mental illness. But Mrs. Trump has not narrowed her interests down to one issue and is instead broadly focused on helping children.
“There are too many critical issues facing children today for her to choose just one,” her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said in an email about the first lady’s plans. “She wants to use her platform as first lady to help as many children as she can.”
In her speech, Mrs. Trump, who has remained media shy, delivered some of the longest public remarks she has as first lady. The event had a festive air: Under a sweltering afternoon sun in the Rose Garden, a military band played “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder before Mrs. Trump’s remarks and “Change the World” by Eric Clapton afterward. Guests snacked on cookies emblazoned with “Be Best” in red and blue.
Mrs. Trump came up with the logo and program name herself, her aides said.
Observers on social media seized on the event, noting that the link the White House sent out for the “Be Best” website initially delivered an error message, and that Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Trump’s immediate predecessor, had delivered a speech last year urging men to “be better.” During the 2016 campaign, Mrs. Trump took flack for a speech that appeared to be sourced, in part, from remarks Mrs. Obama made in 2008.
Initially, Mrs. Trump had backed away from her original promise to combat cyberbullying after the criticism leveled at Mr. Trump for his online insults. Knowing she would get criticized if she pursued anything related to social media, Mr. Trump suggested she take an easier path. But Mrs. Trump ultimately decided to make good online behavior a part of something broader, an East Wing official said.
Mr. Trump appeared pleased. “That was truly a beautiful and heartfelt speech,” he said in remarks in the Rose Garden after Mrs. Trump spoke. “It’s the way she feels, very strongly. America is truly blessed to have a first lady who is so devoted to our country.”
In her brief time at the White House — Mrs. Trump moved to Washington with her son, Barron, last June — she took her time establishing her own profile, with only a stilletoed misstep or two, literally: She piqued the public’s interest by wearing high heels on a trip to Texas after it was hit by Hurricane Harvey. She also drew positive attention for speaking against the racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead.
In January, after news broke that Stephanie Clifford, the pornographic film actress known as Stormy Daniels, was paid $130,000 before the 2016 election to keep quiet about a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump, Mrs. Trump cut back her public appearances. Her office dismissed her absence as a coincidence, while others close to the president said that Mrs. Trump had been angered by the news reports.
In recent months, Mrs. Trump has emerged more often without Mr. Trump by her side, although she has twice been seen avoiding or swatting the president’s hand away during public appearances. She is rolling out her platform even as Mr. Trump and his legal team have added new, confusing contours to the story surrounding Ms. Clifford.
If Mrs. Trump remains something of an enigma to most Americans, there is at least some evidence that the public has warmed to the wife of a president whose popularity remains at historic lows. In a CNN poll conducted May 2 to May 5, 57 percent of respondents said they held a favorable view of Mrs. Trump — up 10 percentage points from January — while 27 percent had a negative view.
She is still less popular than her two predecessors during the second year of their husbands’ terms: Mrs. Obama was viewed positively by 66 percent and negatively by 25 percent, according to a July 2010 Gallup poll, while Laura Bush was viewed positively by 67 percent and negatively by 8 percent, according to a May 2002 CNN/Time poll.
Yet the public has glimpsed less of Mrs. Trump than it had of the women who held the position before her. Brigitte Macron, the wife of President Emmanuel Macron of France, seemed to capture some of the challenges of her role when she commented that the American first lady was essentially trapped in the White House. “Melania can’t do anything, she can’t even open a window in the White House,” Mrs. Macron told the French newspaper Le Monde. “She can’t put her nose out.”
One person close to Mrs. Trump said that, like other modern first ladies, she has chafed against some of the boundaries of living in the White House. But, that person said, she has begun to embrace the possibilities of her role, particularly because she has been touched by letters she has received from children who have been bullied. According to two others who know her, she has adjusted to the role primarily because her 12-year-old son is happy in Washington.
“She’s a devoted mother,” Hilary Ross, the wife of Wilbur Ross, Mr. Trump’s commerce secretary and a frequent dinner guest of the Trumps’, said in an interview. “And if her son is happy, she is happy.”
Her son, who attends school in Maryland, was not in the Rose Garden as Mrs. Trump delivered her remarks. At the close of her speech, Mrs. Trump called her husband to the podium to sign a proclamation declaring May 7 “Be Best” day.
“Mr. President?” she asked.
Mr. Trump took the stage and signed the proclamation. After proudly showing off his scrawled presidential order to the crowd, the president reached for his wife and kissed her on the cheek. Mrs. Trump accepted the kiss, then automatically turned her head and offered him her other cheek.