At a town hall conversation focused on the opioid addiction crisis Thursday, first lady Melania Trump broached several topics: online bullying, the danger of opioids and the holidays — including those red trees that garnered attention after the White House’s decoration unveiling earlier this week.

Trump said that she wishes the media would “focus more on what we are doing, and what we will achieve,” than on the “unimportant stuff.” As for the crimson trees, she acknowledged that “everyone has different tastes, but I think they look fantastic.”

She’s made combating the opioid crisis part of her platform, and in remarks at the top of the event, she urged the students to consider fighting the addiction epidemic “an opportunity to save lives.”

“I think, nowadays, it’s much easier to get the drugs. They prescribe, sometimes, too many drugs at once,” she said. “You can see also it’s a black market. It’s very dangerous.”

First lady Melania Trump speaks during a town hall meeting on opioid addiction at Liberty University. (Steve Helber/AP)
First lady Melania Trump speaks during a town hall meeting on opioid addiction at Liberty University. (Steve Helber/AP)

The event, which took place at Liberty University — a Christian college whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., is a staunch supporter of President Trump — attracted thousands of cheering students. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen joined the first lady on stage as well.

Her remarks on the holiday decorations came during a question-and-answer session with former Fox News host Eric Bolling. Bolling’s son died last year from a mix of cocaine and the painkiller fentanyl.

The Trumps called Bolling afterward to express their condolences, and they remain friendly. In their back-and-forth onstage, he asked the first lady several personal questions, including whether she ever gives the White House chefs a night off so that she can whip up a casserole.

“Not really,” she told him, saying, “when you are first lady, there’s no free time.”

Trump’s work on the opioid crisis

In her time as first lady, Trump has visited hospitals treating children of opioid-addicted mothers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia to raise awareness about the addiction crisis. In September 2017, she hosted a roundtable at the White House, where she met with administration officials and people affected by opioid addiction.

But Gary Mendell, a former business executive who founded a nonprofit organization combating addiction, said that despite her stated intentions, Trump’s efforts haven’t yet registered in the public consciousness.

“I don’t think she or the president can say they’ve been out there leading the charge,” said Mendell, who founded the New York-based advocacy group Shatterproof.

The first lady, he said, is in a perfect position to de-stigmatize opioid addicts. “Half the country thinks this is bad people doing bad things, instead of good people who have a chronic disease,” he said. “Having someone with her leadership out there in front, highlighting these stories and changing the way we think about this disease — that would be so valuable and she would be so good at it.”

Such an approach would allow the first lady to skirt policy issues, which she has typically been reluctant to delve into.

At the Liberty event, she said she decided to make tackling opioid abuse part of her initiative because: “It’s very important that we educate [the] next generation, and very important we educate them and tell them how dangerous the drugs are and can be. It really can mess you up for the rest of your life."

“I am here to shine the light and to talk about it,” she said.

Former first ladies taking on drug abuse

Compared with her predecessors, her advocacy has been minimal. She has attended policy-oriented events on the topic alongside President Trump, who signed a budget deal this year that included $4.6 billion to fight the opioid crisis and supported bipartisan legislation that expands treatment and prevention programs. Other moves have been seen as largely symbolic, such as his creation of a commission on the subject and his decision more than a year ago to declare the opioid crisis a “national emergency.”

Melania Trump isn’t the only first lady to take on drug abuse. While serving as first lady in the 1980s, Nancy Reagan urged children to “Just Say No.”

There are parallels between their campaigns, said James Benze, a professor at Pennsylvania’s Washington & Jefferson College who wrote a biography of Nancy Reagan. Both women responded to nationwide drug epidemics (Reagan launched her campaign amid the crack-cocaine crisis), and both represent the softer side of their husbands’ policies.

But Reagan’s work was far more robust than Trump’s has been, Benze noted. Reagan made 1,200 appearances to promote her campaign, and did a cameo on the sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” to talk about drug abuse.

“When Nancy Reagan rolled out ‘Just Say No,’ she and her husband did a live infomercial during prime time,” Benze said. “It’s just not the same thing in terms of visibility.”

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