Politics

Trump Campaign's Melania Speech Defense Made Things Worse

Plagiarism denials invite criticism of "horrific staff work"

This wasn't the reaction presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and his wife Melania expected when they left the stage Monday night. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Donald Trump's advisers and surrogates stuck to their defense of Melania Trump in numerous television appearances Tuesday, insisting that similarities between her Republican National Convention opening night speech and one delivered in 2008 by Michelle Obama were purely coincidental.  

But the denials served only to cause the ripple of criticism over the plagiarism allegations to grow into a wave.  

Former Trump adviser Barry Bennett, also speaking on CNN, called the speech — and the Trump campaign's defense of it — "horrific staff work."  

"This is not a deniable offense," he said.  

Cable news outlets spent hours on the story Tuesday morning, juxtaposing clips of Melania's speech with archival footage of Michelle Obama delivering nearly identical passages at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.  

The hashtag #FamousMelaniaTrumpQuotes took off on Twitter, satirically attributing lines to the aspiring first lady such as the German R&B duo Milli Vanilli's lip-synced song "Girl You know It's True ," Ronald Reagan's, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," and George Washington's, "I have always considered marriage the most interesting event of one's life." And The Washingtonian ran the two speeches through an online plagiarism checker and found the likelihood that the similarities were inadvertent was "less than one in a trillion."  

Meanwhile, the campaign's public assertions that the speech was a success were overwhelmed by a stream of media leaks that Trump was, "furious," — attributed to a campaign insider on CNN — and a breakfast meeting comment Tuesday from Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus that he would have "probably fired," the speechwriter responsible.  

"I wrote a book called ‘Feeding Frenzy.’ Rule One was: To cut off a frenzy, tell the full truth as publicly and quickly as you can," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "My grade for the Trump campaign on Melania's plagiarism: F-. The worst grade possible."  

The gaffe comes as the Trump campaign attempts to steer him away from the brash persona that overwhelmed his Republican primary opponents, and debut a more statesman-like image at the convention that would appeal to the general electorate.   

It follows several high-profile examples of turmoil within the ranks, including reports that Trump had last-minute second thoughts about his vice presidential pick Mike Pence, the ouster of former campaign manger Corey Lewandowski after a video showed him yanking the arm of a female reporter, and the announcement last week that Trump is suing a former campaign aide for $10 million.  

Melania Trump, who has previously avoided speaking much in public, told NBC's Matt Lauer shortly before she went onstage Monday night that she wrote most of the speech herself, with "little help."  

The immediate reaction was positive, but within the hour, a Los Angeles-based Twitter user named Jarrett Hill began pointing out the similarities to Michelle Obama's speech, and the narrative drastically shifted. Hill's original post was shared more than 20,000 times. "OMG ," he tweeted later that night. "Um. This is becoming a thing."

Multiple news outlets pointed out that large sections of the two texts were strikingly similar with parallel word choices, structure and themes.  

Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller responded with a 2 a.m. statement that acknowledged that Melania Trump had taken inspiration from other, unspecified sources.  

"In writing her beautiful speech, Melania's team of writers took notes on her life's inspirations, and in some instances, included fragments that reflected her own thinking," he said.  

But on Tuesday morning, campaign Chairman Paul Manafort left no room for speculation.  

"There was no cribbing of Michelle Obama's speech," he said on CNN.  

Melania Trump had used "common words and phrases" and spoken about "values that she cares about," he said, adding that assertions that the speech was borrowed were "crazy."  

Trump insiders stuck to the party line throughout the morning.  

"I don’t think she plagiarized," Leslie Rutledge, the Arkansas attorney general scheduled to speak at the convention Tuesday night told CNN. "She used common words and phrases."  

"A lot of what I heard last night sounded like her," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who until last week was considered a front-runner for the Trump VP pick, said on NBC's "Today" show. "Having been friends with her for 14 years, that sounded like her to me last night."  

"I thought it was good," Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who also addressed the convention Monday night told CNN. "I thought it was from the heart."  

But Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican operative and John McCain's 2008 campaign manager, said Tuesday morning that "this is a plagiarized speech, hands-down, game, set, match on that. What an outrageous disservice to Melania Trump by the speechwriters on that campaign."  

"This is not a good first night, and now you have brought scandal to a prospective first lady in the form of her convention speech," Schmidt said. "Just an outrageous incompetence and disservice to her by that campaign."   

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz piled on. "The Trump Organization is going to have to answer for the content of that speech," she said on CNN.  

Trump famously made heads roll as the star of his business mogul-themed reality show where he made "You're fired" a national catchphrase. He reportedly has no plans to fire anyone this time.

Contact Akin at  stephanieakin@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at  @stephanieakin . 

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