Whether or not Melania Trump’s Republican National Convention speech was flagrant plagiarism is a legal question that won’t be answered here. But many in the public sphere have declared her as good as guilty. Take, for example, New York Public Radio’s Mike Hearn who tweeted footage of Melania’s speech right next to Michelle’s, saying “That’s pretty blatant, right?” and the news outlets that have been highlighting the same set of transcripts.
As it stands, the Donald Trump campaign is having none of it. Trump, the GOP presidential candidate, isn’t going to fire anyone on his staff. And rather than apologize or admit any wrongdoing, campaign manager Paul Manafort said that Melania was just using “common words and values,” suggesting that all similarities between the speeches were coincidental. Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson chimed in to deny all responsibility and poke fun at the comparison, telling The Hill that “this concept that Michelle Obama invented the English language is absurd.”
And Trump, apparently, thinks her speech deserves Twitter accolades.
It was truly an honor to introduce my wife, Melania. Her speech and demeanor were absolutely incredible. Very proud! #GOPConvention
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2016
But Sarah Song, Berkeley political science professor, says it’s irrefutable that the speech was copied.
“It’s undeniable that parts of Melania Trump’s speech were identical to Michelle Obama’s,” says Song. “Sure, stock phrases about the values of hard work and keeping your promises are what we typically hear in speeches by candidates’ spouses, but the speechwriters should have been more scrupulous here, especially because the public knows so little about Melania Trump and this was a big moment in the national spotlight. What should have been an easy opportunity for Trump to introduce his wife to the public has turned into a minor debacle.”
A debacle made even more complicated when Manafort, while not admitting any gaffes, managed to blame Hillary Clinton for Melania’s speech, saying, “This is once again an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, how [Clinton] seeks to demean her and take her down.”
This might be a good time to note that Clinton has yet to respond publicly at all to Melania’s speech.
Song says this behavior is to be expected—that the Trump campaign uses any opportunity to attack HillaryClinton.
“Notice how Manafort plays the ‘woman card’ to deflect criticism away from Melania Trump and onto Hillary Clinton, whom he implies is so megalomaniacal that she feels threatened when she isn’t the only woman in the spotlight,” Song says. “His remarks are intended to foster sympathy for poor, defenseless Melania and antipathy for the nation’s first female presidential candidate.”
So what does this mistake mean for Trump’s campaign? According to Dr. Lawrence Rosenthal, Chair and Lead Researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, there will likely be ripples but it’s hard to know what they will be.
— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) July 19, 2016
“Something will happen, but it will be unpredictable and unprecedented in the manner that Trump’s whole campaign has been unpredictable and unprecedented,” Rosenthal he said. In a “normal scenario” with other politicians, this mistake wouldn’t go away and would have a negative effect.
Rosenthal referenced Joe Biden’s plagiarism scandal of 1987, in which the VP withdrew from the race when NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd exposed him for copying the speech of British Labour Party politician Neil Kinnock. Other plagiarism allegations followed, suggesting he also stole bits of his speech from JFK, Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.
“It crushed Biden’s campaign,” Rosenthal said. But Biden’s campaign was judged with criteria “one brings to bear on political campaigns in general…. And much of that doesn’t seem to apply to the Trump campaign.”
Rosenthal predicts that Trump’s family and Melania in particular will now be under more scrutiny—and it would be easy to do—considering that her father (who still lives in Trump Tower) was a member of the Communist Party in Yugoslavia.
“It’s hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Melania who was just reading words written by the Trump campaign,” says Song. “Her speechwriters should have known better.”