Why the plagiarism allegations against Melania Trump matter for her husband's campaign

The allegation that a chunk of Melania Trump’s Republican convention speech had been lifted from Michelle Obama — a charge that overshadowed much of Day 2 of the GOP event here — almost certainly won’t change anyone’s vote.

That doesn’t mean it won’t affect the Trump campaign.

The problem for Donald Trump and his allies is lost opportunity. The whole purpose of a modern political convention is to serve as a 96-hour-long advertisement for the nominee and party. The aim is to spend every minute of those hours pounding home a few basic messages.

Even in the best of times, Trump has little patience with that sort of discipline.

To be sure, his seemingly freewheeling, unconstrained style forms a big part of Trump’s appeal to his core constituency. But even Trump’s allies agree that his most faithful supporters, who have proved willing to stick with him through any controversy, are not numerous enough to win the general election.

At the convention, “he has to convince some of the doubters” that he “can deliver” on his promises, Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to the campaign, told reporters Tuesday.

That effort to reach out to the uncommitted is where the apparent plagiarism interferes. The issue is not that voters necessarily care about whether Melania Trump, or more likely someone working for her, lifted parts of her speech, but that the controversy got in the way of the message Donald Trump wanted — and needed — to convey.

For a brief moment, Melania Trump’s speech seemed like a clear fit with the convention’s message — a simple, human rebuttal of the image Democrats have tried to foster of her husband as an unsteady, bigoted and dangerous man. But within minutes of her conclusion, whatever benefit the campaign had reaped began to curdle.

The agent of the undoing was a recently laid-off television reporter, Jarrett Hill, who had watched the speech at a Starbucks in Culver City and had been struck by a phrase that reminded him of Obama’s 2008 speech.

Eight years ago, he had thought the speech was “really beautifully written,” he recalled in an interview Tuesday.

“I believe I even wrote it down or typed it,” he said, “obviously having no idea that eight years later I’d hear them again from a woman who wanted to be first lady speaking at a convention in front of 40 million people.”

Hill’s tweets Monday night reporting what he had discovered spread at Internet speed through the cavernous media filing center here.

The side-by-side comparison left little doubt that one passage of Trump’s speech — ironically a section dealing with honor and integrity — had been largely copied from Obama’s.

In both speeches, for example, the section began with the speaker saying that her parents had impressed on her certain “values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say.” Both went on to talk about the need to pass those values to the next generation and teach them that "the only limit" to achieving their “dreams” is "your willingness to work for them."

Similar plagiarism controversies in recent years have seriously damaged careers, both in politics and academia. In 1988, for example, then-Sen. Joe Biden was among the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination until aides to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis noticed that he had lifted part of a speech from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.

When the Dukakis operatives tipped off a reporter to the story, the resulting controversy forced Biden to drop from the race.

Nothing so dramatic is in the offing this time, but the evidence of copying undermined one of Trump’s strengths — that he is the candidate of authenticity.

The controversy also overturned one of Trump’s great advantages in his campaign to date — his ability to use his celebrity and mastery of social media and the cable television news cycle to shape his message without having to worry much about being filtered by the media.

At a convention, the media coverage of a campaign is at a peak, with thousands of reporters eager to find any bit of news that breaks from the campaign’s prepared script.

The plagiarism charges — easy to understand and quickly illustrated by side-by-side video — were perfect fuel for a media fire, and the Trump campaign’s shifting explanations served only to fan it hotter.

At first, before the speech was delivered, Melania Trump had insisted, in an interview with NBC News, that she had written the speech personally, with “little help.”

That was implausible from the start — writing a speech to deliver in a huge, noisy convention center before a television audience of tens of millions is a specialized skill that campaigns don’t typically entrust to candidates or their families.

By the morning after the speech, Trump campaign aides had largely abandoned that claim, although they would not say who had written the speech.

Instead, various factions close to Trump pointed fingers at each other — reprising the staff intrigue that had threatened to debilitate Trump’s campaign earlier in the campaign.

On CNN, where he now works as a commentator, Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager until his ouster last month, suggested that his rival, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, should “do the right thing and resign" if he had signed off on the speech text.

Donald Trump Jr. defended Manafort in an interview later in the day with CBS, saying that “you have to work with speechwriters. Those are the people that did this, not Paul.”

Manafort, speaking to reporters at the campaign’s daily briefing, tried to dismiss questions about the speech. He blamed Clinton and the media for bringing attention to “50 words, and that includes and’s and the’s and things like that.” 

“There’s a political tint to this whole issue and certainly we’ve noted that the Clinton camp was the first to get it out there and tried to say that there was something untoward about the speech,” he added.

Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, shot back on Twitter: “Nice try, not true.”

”Blaming Hillary Clinton is not the answer for every Trump campaign problem,” she wrote.

There was no evidence that the Clinton campaign had been involved in the initial spreading of the story, although they certainly joined in the Democratic glee once it became widely publicized.

Even as Manafort tried to minimize the problem, fellow Republicans urged the campaign to stop digging in.

GOP Chairman Reince Priebus called it a potential firing offense for someone on staff.

"If there was a mistake there ... we're better served, and Donald Trump's better served, to just admit it and move on," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told CNN. 

"It's a shame this is now the story," said Capito, who was to speak Tuesday at the convention.

By then, of the convention’s 96 hours, more than 18 had vanished into the maw of Melania Trump’s speech. That’s time Trump will never get back.

Los Angeles Time staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and Noah Bierman in Cleveland and Brittny Mejia in Los Angeles contributed to this article.

david.lauter@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

5:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information and quotes from Tuesday’s events.

This article was originally published at 9:35 a.m.

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