CLEVELAND—Before she spoke at the Republican National Convention Monday, Melania Trump told Matt Lauer about how she’d drafted it.
“I read it once over, and that's all because I wrote it with as little help as possible,” she said.
It turns out one of the few people who helped her out, wittingly or not, was the woman she wants to replace as first lady, Michelle Obama. A passage in Trump’s speech bore a striking resemblance to the one Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. Obama said:
Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them.
And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children—and all children in this nation—to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Here’s Trump’s version:
From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect. They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily lives. That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son. And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Another passage used similar descriptions of integrity, compassion, and intelligence.
Needless to say, the borrowings were discovered soon after the speech was delivered and took on a life of their own. Jason Miller, a senior communications adviser to Donald Trump, issued a statement defending the speech after 1 a.m.
"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,” Miller said. “Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.”
It’s tough to blame Melania Trump, an inexperienced public speaker who delivered a strong speech in a second language to a packed convention. But the fact that the plagiarism got through looks like an indictment of the Trump campaign—first, on her speechwriters for either inserting or failing to catch the borrowing, and second in their response, which has inflated the story. Party conventions are (typically) tightly stage-managed events, engineered to avoid things like this, but Trump and his team, with no experience running them, seem to have skipped over some steps.
Meanwhile, the response overnight and Tuesday morning has fanned the flames. Campaign manager Paul Manafort simply tried to deny in on CNN Tuesday morning. “Well, there's no cribbing of Michelle Obama's speech,” he said, in spite of the campaign statement. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie offered an amusing backhanded defense:
Chris Christie on @TODAYshow: "93% of the speech is completely different from Michelle Obama's speech. They expressed some common thoughts."— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) July 19, 2016
As the old political axiom goes, it’s not the crime but the cover-up. The plagiarism is a strange unforced error, but how many voters really care about Melania Trump borrowing a few sentences? With a quick apology, the story might fade quickly. But the Trump campaign’s insistent denials are taking some of the wind out of an otherwise successful speech that was the high point of an otherwise inconsistent first night in Cleveland.