A crowd gathered on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, waving tiny American flags as they waited for Melania Trump to ring the opening bell Monday in celebration of her Be Best campaign. The first lady, who was in town for President Trump’s address on Tuesday to the General Assembly of the United Nations, was greeted by cheers and applause as she marched through the aisles of lights and numbers as if it were a catwalk of yore, in a black, belted Prada dress.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a small group of protesters stood at the famed Wall Street bull statue, carrying signs that read, “Kids Are Not Props,” and a chalkboard with the repeating line, “Teacher said don’t lie, don’t bully. Teacher said don’t lie, don’t bully.” They were parents of children at the United Nations International School (UNIS), furious that the private school allowed a select group of third- and fourth-graders to appear at the stock exchange for a photo op with the first lady.

At her appearance, the day before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would announce an impeachment inquiry of her husband, the first lady spoke only to the NYSE president and the children, a magnificently diverse representation of New York City’s melting pot in headbands, tulle party dresses and adorable tiny suits and bow ties. Bright and talkative, with last names ranging from Shakdher to Fang, they could have walked straight off the set of “Honey, I Shrunk the UN Security Council.”

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As adults buzzed around the first lady like mosquitoes armed with camera flashes and boom mics, she asked the children their names and ages and spoke affirmations in soft, sweet tones: “Follow your dreams, and be best at what you do.” 

The Be Best logo was projected behind her, blazing from screens above the stock exchange floor, on tote bags filled with further Be Best swag handed out to each kid. (A hat, a T-shirt, and, to one boy’s great delight, a mouse pad.)

This was supposed to be an educational trip about the stock exchange. “What did you learn?” she asked the kids.

“We ate breakfast,” said Joey Ramos, who was charged with reading the UNIS mission statement. A little girl, Elena Moon, followed him, reading aloud a handwritten letter explaining what UNIS meant to her: “We like to tell people to be kind. Please help UNIS spread the mission of love around the world.” 

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In the hour she was there, the first lady took no questions from members of the media, who could hear only bits of what she was saying. This has become routine for Melania Trump’s relatively busy month, where she’s been making an increasing number of public appearances but saying very little or nothing at all.

She’s been present — at the state dinner for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that President Trump said she planned, with her husband in a moment of silence on the White House lawn on Sept 11. She’ll be photographed standing, often surrounded by children, often impeccably dressed, but what does she stand for? 

“I see it as a test run for the 2020 campaign,” says Lisa M. Burns, a professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University. “She needs to be out there doing some things during the campaign, and it seems like, especially with this recent spate of activity, they’re really kind of testing the waters.”

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Melania Trump’s last round on the campaign trail flamed out in 2016 after allegations that her Republican National Convention speech was plagiarized from Michelle Obama. In 2018, she took a pass on joining her husband as he traversed the country making a final push for Republican candidates during the midterm election. But this June, there she was, introducing her husband at his first 2020 reelection campaign rally in Orlando, standing out in unmissable head-to-toe bright yellow.

As Burns and others who follow the first lady’s schedule explain it, this period of time — three months before the Iowa caucuses, with the shadow of the Mueller report no longer looming — is as good a time as any for her to get some practice under her belt. (The knock she took for that infamous “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?” jacket she wore on her way to visit migrant children detained at the border seems to be fading.) A June 2018 Quinnipiac poll showed her as far more popular than most other major players in the Trump administration, including Vice President Pence. And according to a March 2019 Economist-YouGov poll, Melania Trump’s favorability rating beat that of every other member of the Trump family.

“Unlike Ivanka Trump, Melania Trump is not seen as as much of a divisive figure because she didn’t take an official job in the administration,” says Lauren A. Wright, an associate research scholar in politics and public affairs at Princeton University. “Just by separating herself from other White House staff members, which Ivanka has not done, she has reserved a little bit of that apolitical capital.”

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Being more present, though, is not without risks. The Monday morning she rang the stock exchange bell, the Dow fell 10 points, dogged by concerns about the lack of progress on trade talks between the United States and China. Impeachment talk over her husband's dealings with Ukraine was lingering. His address to the United Nations would be a bold return to the event where, last year, world leaders burst out laughing when he bragged that his administration had done more in two years than "almost any administration" in American history

And then there were those angry UNIS parents. “She happens to be the representative of the Trump administration, whose modus operandi is lying and bullying, two of the biggest, most basic lessons we teach children to avoid in life,” said Adam Pincus, whose daughter is in UNIS kindergarten. 

Their objections were varied and not in­cred­ibly unified, though. A flier they passed out said they’d welcome the first lady’s visit if it were at the school and no cameras were present. Another parent, who asked not to be identified because she’s already been attacked by “Trump trolls,” said she would have protested a photo op with Michelle Obama at the stock exchange, too. But, she added, “it makes me extra-angry that it’s Melania. Every family at the school was [protesting the immigration bans] at JFK or Battery Park. We have Syrian kids, Iraqi kids, Iranian kids, trans kids. This runs deep for us.”

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But while that parent felt sure that the first lady’s NYSE appearance was a ploy to project an image of strength at a time of economic uncertainty, it’s not clear that anyone in the administration was thinking that far ahead.

The interesting part to scholars is that she does seem to be in an uptick of activity compared with her first year in the role. The question is, why?

“For those of us who follow the first lady, it’s been harder [than with previous first ladies] to really assess what Mrs. Trump is doing,” says Myra Gutin, professor of communication at Rider University. “There’s sometimes no rhyme or reason to it.” 

Wright, the Princeton scholar, cites a study she did that shows that Melania Trump made eight speeches in 2017, as opposed to Michelle Obama’s 74 and Laura Bush’s 42 in their first years. 

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“In recent times, she would qualify as probably the least active first lady since Bess Truman,” Burns says, “so that’s going back to the ’40s or ’50s.” (Truman spent most of her husband’s presidency living in Missouri.) 

And with so few words spoken, and so few appearances made, every time she steps out her door becomes a news event. A Melania picture says a thousand words, whether she likes it or not, because a picture is all she’ll give. 

Slowly but surely Melania Trump has been toe-dipping into more of the ceremonial events that traditionally fall to first ladies, Wright says. (According to her Instagram account, she started prepping White House Christmas decorations in July.) It’s almost as if she’s learning to get over her media aversion by treating her role as a four-year red carpet. Speaking events might have been sweet spots for lawyers-by-training Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, or former librarian Laura Bush, but photo-ops are Melania Trump’s comfort zone, as a former model and non-native English speaker. Baby step, baby step, pose, platitude; baby step, baby step, pose, platitude. 

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Hostess at the state dinner in a flowing sea green gown. Giving short, prepared remarks at the opening of the Kennedy Center’s Reach expansion, even though she and her husband have skipped the typical presidential appearances at the Kennedy Center Honors because too many honorees threatened to boycott if the president attended.

Far more careful on social media than her husband, the first lady even recently tweeted about the dangers of flavored e-cigarettes. Though she hasn’t spoken publicly about the issue, she did sit in the Oval Office nodding along in a news conference as President Trump vowed to ban them. (And spoke for her in such a way — “She has a son, together” — that made it sound like he’d momentarily forgotten their 13-year-old Barron is his son, too.)

The rare policy stance earned praise from Meredith Berkman, co-founder of Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes: “It’s wonderful to think that there is a Momvocate in chief who really cares and understands that this is not a partisan, political issue.”

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Yet, even speaking out on behalf of children is complicated for this first lady. While the Trumps were preparing for the state dinner, elsewhere in Washington, thousands of children and teens were skipping school to march on Capitol Hill. “You will die of old age,” they chanted. “I will die of climate change.”  

President Trump would go on to tweet sarcastically about 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s address to the U.N. climate summit.

Melania Trump tried to cut the ribbon to reopen the Washington Monument after a 3½ -year closure for repairs, but the ribbon would not cooperate. Really, this was a matter of too many scissors rather than any lack of ribbon-cutting know-how on the first lady's part. As referees reviewing the tape would see, she'd waited patiently as cute fourth-graders from Amidon-Bowen Elementary, a public school in Southwest Washington with an overwhelming majority of black students, counted backward from five.

But the people with scissors to her right and to her left either jumped the gun or cut faster. The red, white and blue ribbon that park rangers had arranged so carefully deflated like a punctured balloon. Several feet of it got caught on the first lady’s scissors, flailing in the breeze. The situation had gone from tension to not enough tension to a different kind of tension altogether.

Some might have laughed off the incident with a joke. (Photo-ops go wrong. Like that pith helmet she wore on her Africa trip last year. Or those stilettos and $4,000 skirt she wore to plant a tree. Or that infamous jacket.) She seemed perplexed, before handing off the flailing ribbon and plastering on a smile.

“I think there have been some very unfair critiques of her lack of public activity,” says Wright, pointing out that the job is not even a job. It’s unpaid, unofficial, and not mentioned in the Constitution. “There’s no requirement that she sets aside her life and just turns into a full-time advocate for her husband.”

Burns has studied every first lady of the 20th century and says that, with the exception of Nellie Taft, none of them wanted the job. She likes that Melania Trump is not performing the role according to any previous template. 

“I certainly think that when we get the first man in this position, we’re going to see a lot of, ‘Oh, well, he doesn’t have to worry about state dinners. We don’t want him picking china patterns.’ Why not? Who said these women had any interest in china patterns? But we still said they should do it.”

See what Melania Trump has been wearing as first lady

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Oct 7, 2019 | First lady Melania Trump and President Trump, center, flanked by Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, right, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, in the State Dining Room of the White House before a social dinner with senior military leaders and spouses. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Richard Morgan contributed to this report.