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Trump Keeps It All in the Family

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Every time you think someone is finally in control of Donald Trump's campaign, something happens.

First, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was ousted. Then, Paul Manafort took charge. The new management vowed that there would be professional staff, that Donald Trump wouldn't be Donald Trump (or at least the sore-winner Bad Trump), that bygones from the primary would be bygones, and that the time for calling opponents names and boxing them out would be over. 

So much for that. In case anyone still had any doubts, the fact that no one's been held accountable for Melania Trump's partially plagiarized speech on the opening night of the Republican National Convention should be the final piece of evidence that the campaign still isn't quite ready for the big time. 

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Trump just can't let go, and the cost of his iron grip has grown astronomically. A major purpose of the convention, Manafort said at a Bloomberg breakfast on Monday, was to show the Trump that Americans don’t know -- the full, caring, generous fellow who helps those in need.

Melania was supposed to be exhibit No. 1 in that effort. She practiced for weeks for her prime-time slot on Monday night. Breaking with convention convention, the nominee himself introduced her, appearing on stage in silhouette, with blue smoke curling at his feet, a new haircut, and yielding the spotlight to her with a chaste kiss. I was sitting amid delegates cheering wildly as she spoke. Little did they know, they were applauding two paragraphs from Michelle Obama's address at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. It could only have been worse if she had been quoting Hillary Clinton.

Mistakes happen, but in an organization with people in charge, there is someone to call to account. The mistake gets owned up to and the blot is rubbed away within a news cycle. A mistake in prime time on the biggest night of your convention, probably would require someone to get fired to go away. Even if it was the least favorite intern, a head would roll. Transparently sacrificial, it would still help.

Instead, Manafort is adamant that no one's getting the axe. There will be no hunt for the cancer on the campaign to paraphrase John Dean during Watergate. That's not because no one should be, but because it might mean pointing the finger of blame at a member of the family. At the heart of Trump's lack of a campaign is a crypto-campaign in the grip of his nearest and dearest, an arrangement that is worse than the most back-stabbing, intrigue-filled political operation because you can't get rid of your kids, your wife, your in-laws, or all of them. 

Like family companies, which fail disproportionately once they grow, a campaign without structure may work for a while as a small operation with a strong, authoritarian personality at the helm. But move beyond the Mom and Pop stage and the unclear lines of authority, informal meetings with no records, and a back channel as the channel of choice just produce chaos. If the boss is married, there's pillow talk. If he's married multiple times, there are multiple families. There could be a stepmother, evil or not, or two. 

Much of the press corps spent Tuesday in a Where’s Waldo hunt to identify a Trump speechwriter who might be responsible for ruining Melania's big night. One problem: There’s no such person.  Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is the shadow campaign manager, juggles many balls and sometimes works on speeches, as does outside speechwriter Matt Scully. Inside, there are staff members -- Rick Gates and Stephen Miller who have the kind of jobs that in other campaigns would have included speechwriting -- but word is they weren’t involved. Lewandowski, Manafort's predecessor as campaign manager, went on CNN and held his successor accountable. “ Someone at the senior levels of this campaign has reviewed what Melania Trump was going to say and signed off on that," he said. "If it was Paul Manafort, he'd do the right thing and resign."

The borrowed passages from Obama’s speech could be the result of sloppy staff work. But a quick check on readily available software would have immediately revealed a prima facie case of plagiarism and the purloined paragraphs would have been dropped. It makes you wonder how such a basic misstep happened.

It’s well known that it's not all Kumbaya in Trumpland.

One theory ascendant is that there is bad blood that started as the presumed nominee took on his first serious job -- picking a running mate -- and boiled over when Melania's first choice, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, was nixed. Under this scenario, Christie wasn't popular with Trump's daughter Ivanka because he was the prosecutor who got her father-in-law, a New Jersey real estate developer, sent to jail for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions. Melania is said to have been so annoyed by the decision not to tap Christie that she declined to show up at the event where Trump announced that he was putting Indiana Governor Mike Pence -- the Ivanka faction's favorite -- on the ticket. (Melania pleaded that she was working on her speech.)

Given his fondness for conspiracy theories -- Senator Ted Cruz’s father knew Lee Harvey Oswald, Vince Foster was murdered, Obama may be Kenyan and may be sympathetic to terrorists and cop-killers -- you’d think that Trump would be all over the Melania affair, sending his in-house counsel or chief of staff, if he had either, to look for someone who might want to sabotage her speech.

For now, though, Trump is barreling through, sending out Manafort to blame the media and say there are a lot of similar words in the English language and only so many ways of organizing them. Next question, please.

Every campaign and convention, Democratic and Republican, has an ultimate arbiter of speakers, what they say, and how long they take to say it, before he or she takes the stage. This famously didn't happen with Clint Eastwood in 2012. He was such a celebrity that he wouldn't submit to such a thing, with the disastrous consequences that we know. 

But most comply with the vetting because it can save everyone -- especially the candidate -- a lot of grief.

Well, Trump had promised us a convention unlike any before. There are three nights to go, but this may be the one promise he keeps.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at