Messaging

Trump Campaign Struggles to Put Plagiarism Controversy to Rest

A rare address by Trump's wife creates more controversy for the candidate.

Melania Trump 2016 vs. Michelle Obama 2008: Their Words

Donald Trump's presidential campaign struggled Tuesday to contain the fallout from revelations that portions of his wife's Monday night speech before the Republican National Convention were lifted from an address delivered eight years earlier by Michelle Obama. 

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Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort began his day by defending Melania Trump while leaving plenty of questions unanswered about the origin of her speech. 

"To think that she would do something like that knowing how scrutinized her speech was going to be last night is just really absurd," Manafort told CNN. 

While Trump himself did not publicly comment on the charges of plagiarism, his son absolved Manafort for the imbroglio, and placed the blame solely on the speech writers. 

“Having never done this before, you have to work with speechwriters. Those are the people that did this, not Paul," Donald Trump, Jr. said in an interview with CBS's Nora O'Donnell. 

Throughout the day Tuesday, Trump's surrogates and supporters found it nearly impossible to avoid the topic. 

"The distraction gets you off message a little bit this morning, but I think we'll get back to action this afternoon," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast with journalists. Priebus added that if it were his decision, he would "probably" fire whoever wrote Mrs. Trump's speech. 

But Trump's campaign is hoping that the controversy will simply blow over, and has no plans to fire anyone, CNN reported. Nor have they identified the person responsible for inserting the lines into the speech that echoed those of Michelle Obama's address to the 2008 Democratic National Convention. 

Around the Quicken Loans Arena Tuesday, the talk among convention goers centered on the speech, even by Trump's staunchest supporters. Stopped by a television crew, Texas Representative Louie Gohmert said he thought the controversy over the speech was overblown, but conceded that Trump may be compelled to let a staff member go. 

Other campaign surrogates attempted to spin the striking similarities between the two speeches in various ways. Ben Carson, Trump's former opponent in the Republican primary, said he saw the overlap as a sign of bipartisanship.

“If Melania’s speech is similar to Michelle Obama’s speech, that should make us all very happy because we should be saying, whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, we share the same values,”  he told reporters Tuesday morning, Politico reported. 

On Tuesday evening, the party has a chance to deliver a rush of good news for Trump, with delegates expected to vote on formally nominating him. But there remains potential for further disorder as anti-Trump factions plan to disrupt what is often a climactic moment for nominees as the nation watches.

Far Off-Message

The rare public speech by Melania Trump on Monday was intended to draw a more intimate portrait of a man who has built a blustery persona over years in the public eye. Instead, it created a headache for the presidential candidate and his party after it was discovered her words strongly echoed Obama's.

Donald Trump greets his wife, Melania, during the RNC in Cleveland on July 18, 2016.
Donald Trump greets his wife, Melania, during the RNC in Cleveland on July 18, 2016.
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

“There’s no feeling on her part that she did it," Manafort said, adding that he blames Hillary Clinton's campaign for trying to “take her down” because Melania Trump threatens the presumptive Democratic nominee.

That was at odds with Manafort's assertion, in an interview on CBS, that "I don't think Donald Trump feels that there's anything to fire someone about." To the Associated Press, Manafort said, "Frankly if I knew somebody did it, I would fire them too," but that he didn't see plagiarism in this case. "There were a few words on it, but they're not words that were unique words."

Several people -- including some outside the campaign -- were involved in the speechwriting process, said a senior Trump aide who asked not to be named, in a signal that the campaign was looking to assign blame elsewhere. 

Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager who left the staff last month amid signs of a power struggle with Manafort, said whoever signed off on the speech should be held accountable. "I think if it was Paul Manafort, he would do the right thing and resign," Lewandowski said on CNN.

Trump, Jr. made it clear that he sided with Manafort in their feud. 

“There's a reason that Paul is in the position that he is in today and Corey's not," Trump, Jr. told CBS. 

Obama Parallels

"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," Melania Trump, 46, said as she told her life story in the convention speech Monday night.

Eight years ago, Michelle Obama told her own story: "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," she said in Denver. 

Michelle Obama then spoke of setting "out to build lives guided by these values, and to 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."

Melania Trump tracked those lines closely as well. "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."

In an interview with her husband and NBC's Matt Lauer before delivering her remarks at the convention, Melania Trump said, "I wrote it, with as little help as possible.''

The comparison between the speeches was first made on Twitter by Jarrett Hill, a television and radio producer in California.

Danger Warnings

The speech capped an opening day for the Republican convention that was marked by a noisy, though unsuccessful rebellion by a renegade faction of delegates opposed to Trump's nomination who disrupted what should have been a pro forma vote on convention rules.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s exuberant speech was among the best received in the arena, earning big applause for his shouted denunciation of Islamic terrorists.

"What I did for New York, Donald Trump will do for America," he said.

But the fear among many Republicans is the prime time production only superficially wallpapered over divisions within the party that were brought out into the open earlier in the day.

Republican delegates were greeted Monday night with a slate of speakers who argued the real estate developer and reality TV star had the strength to confront the nation’s security challenges.

Willie Robinson, the star of reality show "Duck Dynasty," said Trump would have the back of average Americans.

"He may not always tell you what you want to hear. You may not always agree, and it may not always be politically correct," he said. "But Donald Trump will always -- always -- tell you the truth as he sees it."

And Scott Baio, known for his role as Chachi Arcola on the sitcom "Happy Days," said Trump could fix a country "in a bad spot right now."

"Is he a messiah? No, he’s just a man," Baio said. "A man who wants to give back to his country."

'Hillary for Prison'

Other speakers included Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL and author of the book Lone Survivor, and Pat Smith, the mother of one of the four Americans who died in the terrorist attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

Smith earned one of the loudest receptions of the night when she angrily denounced Clinton, saying she blamed the former secretary of state "personally for the death of my son."

"Hillary for prison," she said. "She deserves to be in stripes.”

The low-wattage celebrities and two Marines involved in the Benghazi attack, who gave a disjointed and lengthy blow-by-blow account of their night under fire, also opened the convention to criticism that production fell short of Trump’s promise in May to deliver a "spectacular convention" with top-tier entertainment. 

That the biggest political names on Monday evening were former Texas governor Rick Perry, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Senator Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican known for his ardent opposition to immigration reform, was indicative of the anti-establishment flavor of the night.

It stood in contrast to comments from some top Republican leaders, who continued to offer only conditional support to their presumptive nominee. House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters at a Wall Street Journal lunch in Cleveland that Trump may be a conservative -- just "not my kind of conservative."

"I come from a different part and wing of the party,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “There are different kinds of conservatives, that’s for darn sure."

Quiet Streets

Despite discord within the party, the streets of Cleveland were largely quiet on the first day of the convention, although protests were expected to intensify throughout the week.

Among the more spirited protest of the day was a parade of more than 1,000 people that snaked its way from 45th and Superior down to 12th and Chester, close to the convention site. The protest was a collective of groups that included the Black Lives Matter movement, activists against everything from racism and poverty to as more generalized anti-Trump sentiment. Others espoused socialism, environmentalism and campaign finance reform.

It remained non-violent, and one notable feature was the presence of cameras both in the hands and on helmets of the marchers, to the helmets of the body-armor clad police officers who formed a phalanx alongside the parade.

-- With assistance from John McCormick, Mark Niquette, Jennifer Epstein, Elizabeth Wasserman, Ben Brody, and Jennifer Jacobs.

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