Republicans scrambled to prevent a plagiarism scandal from overshadowing the coronation of Donald Trump on Tuesday after his wife Melania borrowed large chunks of her opening night speech from Michelle Obama.
Campaign officials did not deny the similarities between Trump’s speech to party delegates at the GOP convention in Cleveland and near identical segments delivered by the first lady during the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver – arguing instead that the words used were commonplace.
On Monday, Mrs Trump, a Slovenian-born former model, said her parents taught her “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”. Yet within minutes, commentators noted that Obama had also said in 2008 that she had been raised in Chicago to feel “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.”
Trump’s claim that she would pass these values on to future generations “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” also closely matched Obama’s wish to share those values “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”.
As delegates prepared to formally offer Donald Trump the party’s presidential nomination on Tuesday evening, the plagiarism controversy reopened internal wounds and undermined his campaign’s attempts to present a more polished appearance ahead of November’s general election.
A campaign source said responsibility for the plagiarism incident lay with a longtime aide to top Trump strategist Paul Manafort. The source said the aide had signed off on the speech and edited it.
Manafort declined to comment on the allegation during a rumbustious briefing with reporters on Tuesday morning, insisting instead that Trump’s use of commonplace language should not lessen the impact of her words.
“These are themes that are personal to her, but they are personal to a lot of people depending on the stories of their lives,” said the Trump campaign chairman.
“We don’t believe there is anything in that speech that doesn’t reflect her thinking and we are comfortable that the words that were used are personal, to her. The fact is that words like ‘care’ and ‘respect’ and compassion are not extraordinary words,” added Manafort. “And considering you are talking about family they are ordinary words. Obviously Michelle Obama feels very much similar sentiments towards her family.”
But Manafort’s longtime rival, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, took the opportunity to twist the knife in a television appearance on CNN Tuesday morning. “Whoever signed off with the final sign up he should be held accountable,” said Lewandowski.
Lewandowski added: “I think if it was Paul Manafort, he’d do the right thing and resign. If he’s the last person who saw this happen and brought this on the candidate’s wife, I think he’d resign because I think that’s the type of person he would be.”
Lewandowski frequently clashed with Manafort over the direction of the campaign and was finally pushed out after losing internal battles with both the veteran strategist and Trump’s three oldest children in June.
Reince Priebus, chairman of a Republican national committee that has also at times had strained relations with the Trump campaign, told Bloomberg he would “probably” fire the speechwriter concerned if it were his decision.
Privately, Trump was said to be furious at seeing his wife’s rare speaking engagement ruined, and his few senior allies in the party rushed to seek ever more elaborate explanations.
“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 orRepublicans, we share the same values,” former GOP candidate Ben Carson told reporters. “If we happen to share values, we should celebrate that, not try to make it into a controversy.”
Nevertheless, the incident threatens to overshadow Trump’s attempt to show a polished and united face after angry scenes on the convention floor earlier in the day when “Never Trump” rebels staged one last attempt to block his nomination.
On Tuesday, the convention was expecting to hear from House speaker Paul Ryan, who has yet to endorse Trump and has expressed concerns over comments from the presumptive nominee he said showed signs of “textbook racism”.
A chaotic convention schedule on Monday meant that retired general Mike Flynn, leading chants of “lock her up” about Hillary Clinton, forced rising Republican star Joni Ernst out of a primetime slot.
Ernst, a telegenic first-term senator from Iowa who recently retired from the army national guard as a lieutenant colonel, spoke after 11pm to an emptied convention center. Ernst was one of the few prominent elected officials to agree to speak at the convention and the scheduling snafu represented an unintentional insult and yet another sign of disorganization within the campaign.
The Trump campaign, however, brushed aside mounting questions on Tuesday and blamed the media for ignoring what it called the successful culmination of a year-long effort to win the nomination.
“The fact that the [Melania Trump] speech itself has been focused on for 50 words – and that includes ‘ands’ and ‘thes’ – is totally ignoring the facts of the speech itself,” Manafort told reporters, claiming the lines were not exactly “word-for-word” the same as Obama’s and furthermore were only part of a 1,400 word speech. “She was speaking before 40 million people and … to think that she was trying to do anything unnoticed is absurd.
“You are all focused on trying to distort [her] message. There is a political tint to this whole episode,” he added, claiming the media was taking its cue from Democrats. “It’s another example that when Hillary Clinton is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy the person. It’s politics.”
Online critics also highlighted a lighter hearted instance of apparent plagiarism, noting that Melania Trump’s claim that her husband “will never ever give up, and most importantly, he will never ever let you down,” echoed Rick Astley’s 1987 hit Never Gonna Give You Up – a song that spawned the internet meme “rickrolling” for popping up in unexpected places.(Dan Roberts and Ben Jacobs)
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