What the plagiarism controversy tells us about Trump’s campaign
CLEVELAND — Donald Trump claimed the Republican nomination Tuesday after flattening the establishment with his unorthodox campaign — but his convention is also exposing the downside of his freewheeling approach.
The Trump campaign descended into a familiar messiness after Melania Trump delivered a convention speech Monday echoing lines from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention address.
On the tumultuous day that followed, Donald Trump was furious. Melania Trump was humiliated. And the campaign, which had appeared to be on the path to becoming a more organized, disciplined operation, was back on its heels, dealing with swirling accusations and internal finger-pointing that yielded no real answers about what happened.
There was no immediate sign of a campaign shakeup Wednesday and it remains unclear whether the incident will have a lasting effect.
Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort continued to refuse to acknowledge Wednesday morning that parts of Melania Trump’s convention speech were lifted lines, saying the controversy is “not meaningful at all.”
“The speech was very effective and communicated those feelings,” Manafort told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “New Day.” “The controversy you’re talking about is not meaningful at all. She’s not a candidate for office. She was expressing her personal feelings about her country and her husband and why he’s best for the United States.”
It is yet another unsettling episode for the Trump campaign at a time when many top donors are closely watching Trump and his operation to determine whether it is worth their investment this fall.
Melania Trump’s convention speech was billed as one of the highlights of this week, one that could help humanize him and appeal to female voters concerned about his temperament. In the moment, it seemed like an elegant triumph for the Republican nominee, who proudly escorted his wife off stage after a kiss. But soon side-by-side comparisons of Melania Trump’s remarks and Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech were playing non-stop on the networks.
The trouble seemed to subside for the time being Tuesday when Trump won the roll call vote that officially made him the Republican nominee and a series of speakers — most notably New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — forcefully argued against Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
Still, the lack of vetting of Melania Trump’s speech was yet another example of the remarkable unevenness of the Trump campaign operation at this critical juncture. It is clear that Trump’s children, who are new to politics, are a driving force guiding their father, but sometimes appear out of their depth.
Manafort’s team has brought depth and experience to the team — and he pulled off an impressive feat last week by squelching a rebellion in the rules committee with a team of 100 lawyers. They have also worked effectively to sway Republican delegates who had once been hesitant to support Trump.
Skeletal communications staff
But the campaign’s skeletal communications staff campaign is still struggling to drive a daily message or even control the candidate’s insatiable appetite for media attention. Trump, for example, inexplicably called in to give an interview with Fox Monday night — missing a poignant speech by two survivors of the Benghazi attack.
On Tuesday, Trump aides and allies were at a loss to explain who wrote Melania’s speech and how the plagiarism had occurred. The campaign’s spokesman produced an incoherent statement at nearly 2 a.m. Tuesday that referred to “Melania’s team of writers” without identifying any of them. That directly conflicted with Melania Trump’s comment earlier to Matt Lauer on “Today” that she wrote her speech with “as little help as possible.”
When Manafort appeared on CNN Tuesday morning, he called the accusation of plagiarism “just really absurd.” He insisted Melania had used “common words” and not “cribbed” from Michelle Obama’s speech. Around the same time, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast he’d “probably” fire whoever was responsible for the plagiarized quotes.
In the next dramatic twist, Trump’s recently fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Manafort, his former rival on the Trump campaign, should take responsibility for the controversy, noting that Manafort was brought on to have oversight of every aspect of the convention.
“The buck stops at the top,” Lewandowski said. “I think it’s shameful that Melania Trump, who is such a great person, who represents her husband and would represent this country amazingly as first lady, is under this controversy because the staff didn’t do her well,” Lewandowski said.
Of Manafort, he said, “Whoever signed off, with the final sign off, and allowed this to go forward, should be held accountable,” he said. “I think if it was Paul Manafort, he’d do the right thing and resign.”
The Trump campaign then said no one would be fired or disciplined over the incident.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the speech writing process within the campaign said Trump’s son-in-law and trusted confidante, Jared Kushner, got the ball rolling in June when he enlisted two pre-eminent speechwriters, Matthew Scully, a speechwriter for George W. Bush, and his partner John McConnell, to draft Melania’s speech.
They delivered a prospective speech to the campaign that incorporated humor, some light teasing of the real estate magnate and a focus on her upbringing in Slovenia and efforts to become an American citizen, according to several sources who read the original draft.
The draft was well received by the Trump campaign mid-June. But somewhat mysteriously, Scully and McConnell were not consulted again.
The speech Melania Trump delivered on Monday night was an entirely different speech than what they had drafted, with the exception of a half-dozen lines. The controversial lines echoing Michelle Obama’s speech were not in Scully and McConnell’s original draft.
No clarity about who was responsible
Trump advisers said Tuesday that Melania had been guided by a number of different people throughout the process, but offered no clarity about who was responsible for the paragraph and phrases in question.
Donald Trump Jr. defended both Melania and Manafort during an interview with CBS This Morning Co-host Norah O’Donnell — batting away Lewandowski’s comments.
“There’s a reason Paul is in the position that he is today and Corey is not, and it is not because Paul is amateur hour,” Donald Trump Jr. said. “I think it is nonsense. I heard that other people ask ‘Oh, is the family on the outs with Paul?’ Total nonsense.”
Perhaps because of the possible backlash effect of speaking negatively about a Republican candidate’s wife who has been reluctant to seek the spotlight, Democrats largely avoided commenting on the controversy on Tuesday.
While the Trump campaign released talking points on how to respond, most surrogates did not appear to take the campaign’s lead.
Perhaps the most unusual response on the controversy came from former 2016 candidate Ben Carson, when he was asked about the plagiarism charge after addressing the Florida delegation breakfast.
“I think what we should be thinking about is 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,” Carson said. “That’s what we should be talking about. Not trying to make it controversy.”