By DARLENE SUPERVILLE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — It was a moment eight months in the making: Melania Trump bounding down the White House lawn to the vegetable garden made famous by her predecessor.
Clad in a red plaid shirt, her eyes obscured by dark sunglasses, she greeted members of the local Boys and Girls Club who came to help her harvest and plant new crops. One skeptically asked, “Are you Melania Trump?”
“Yes, I’m the first lady” came her cheerful reply. It included two words Mrs. Trump has been using more often lately: first lady.
She says “my platform” a lot more, too.
As Mrs. Trump becomes more comfortable with her new role, she is speaking out about how she envisions using that platform to help children. She’s going beyond cyberbullying, which she’d identified during the presidential campaign as an issue that she would tackle if her husband became president but on which she has yet to announce any formal plan of action.
In a recent flurry of solo public appearances from the United Nations to an international sports event in Canada to the White House, Mrs. Trump has provided clues about her plans in a role that has thrust her into a spotlight far different from the bright lights she grew accustomed to during her career as a fashion model. She tweeted Monday that she’ll be in West Virginia on Tuesday to visit a care center for babies born addicted to opioids.
The first lady called on attendees at a U.N. luncheon last month to set good examples for children. She invited experts and people affected by drug addiction and opioid abuse, including a recovered addict, to the White House for a listening session and told them she plans to “use my platform as first lady” to help as many kids as possible.
During a visit to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico with her husband, Mrs. Trump told Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress that she was “passionate” about trying to help more communities on the island and asked how she might be able to do that, according to Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón.
The first lady also took her first solo trip — to Canada — to cheer Americans participating in an athletic competition for wounded service members and veterans.
And, on that sunny afternoon in the garden that was the brainchild of former first lady Michelle Obama, she encouraged the children helping her to make healthy eating a priority.
“I’m a big believer in healthy eating because it reflects on your mind and your body,” she said before telling the group to “come with me and have some fun.” She later pulled leeks from the ground and clipped an artichoke from a nearby plant. “I encourage you to continue and eat a lot of vegetables and fruits so you grow up healthy and take care of yourself. … It’s very important.”
The first lady showed some pique Monday when Donald Trump’s first wife, Ivana, referred to herself as “first lady” in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Ivana Trump said she tries not to call her ex-husband too much because “I don’t want to cause any kind of jealousy or something like that because I’m basically first Trump wife. I’m first lady, ok?”
Melania Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, called that comment “attention-seeking and self-serving noise.”
Mrs. Trump is a unique first lady: a native of Slovenia and former fashion model fluent in several languages. But like her predecessors, she’s still going through an adjustment period.
She was rarely seen in the weeks after the inauguration, and was usually at Trump’s side when she did appear in public. In an unusual move for modern first ladies, she and Barron, the couple’s now-11-year-old son, lived at the family’s Trump Tower penthouse in New York for several months after the inauguration so he wouldn’t have to switch schools in the middle of the year.
They joined Trump at the White House in June, and Barron startd sixth grade at a private school in Maryland after Labor Day.
“I still have a feeling she looks at this and says, ‘Am I really in this position?'” said Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University who writes about first ladies.
Others attribute the first lady’s more visible, though still low, profile to her satisfaction that her only child is OK after the big move.
“The more comfortable she becomes in the position, the more great work she’s going to be able to do,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide.
Melania is the most popular Trump in the White House, according to a recent CNN survey in which 44 percent of those polled said they have a favorable opinion of the first lady. Mrs. Trump bested the president, stepdaughter Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Ms. Trump’s husband, in the late-September poll.
It’s typical for first ladies to be more popular than their husbands, who are called upon to sound off on a host of difficult issues. Christopher Ruddy, CEO of the Newsmax website and one of the president’s longtime friends, said he thinks the American people respect the fact that the first lady put her son’s needs first.
“She wasn’t just going to rush down to Washington because her husband was elected,” Ruddy said.
Even Trump, who has experienced some of the lowest public approval ratings of a first-year president, has called attention to his wife’s popularity.
“She’s become very, very popular, I’ll tell you that,” Trump said after she introduced him at a recent event at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. He said she has become an “incredible emissary” for the American people. “Very proud of her.”
But the higher profile brings sharper scrutiny, too.
On Trump’s first trip to Texas after the hurricane, the first lady’s decision to wear stilettos as she left the White House was panned on social media. Many criticized her footwear as inappropriate for the circumstances, leading Grisham to lament the focus on shoes during a natural disaster. Mrs. Trump changed into sneakers for the arrival of Air Force One in Corpus Christi.
Trump defended his wife’s shoe choice, saying in an interview with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Trinity Broadcasting Network Saturday that she has “taken tremendous abuse.”
“She wants to look, out of respect for the White House, wants to look good leaving the front entrance to the White House. So she dresses up, she puts on formal shoes, high-heels, and she leaves the White House going to Texas,” Trump said.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap