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Speechwriters explain how Melania Trump’s plagiarism might have happened

Republican speechwriters say the apparent lifting of a passage from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech is a sign of the Trump campaign’s “amateurism.”
July 19, 2016, 3:55pm
Photo via AP

Political speechwriters are mocking an apparent case of plagiarism by Melania Trump during her keynote address Monday night at the at the Republican National Convention, but they blame Donald Trump's amateurish campaign for the blunder more than his wife.

A passage of the Slovenian-born former model's speech was nearly identical to one delivered by future first lady Michelle Obama in 2008 at the Democratic National Convention.

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A side-by-side video comparison of the speeches shows Melania copying at least two lines from Obama's speech almost verbatim.

So that's pretty blatant, right? pic.twitter.com/EPnHME7afV
— Mike Hearn (@mikehearn) July 19, 2016

It took only moments for critics on Twitter, including speechwriters for Michelle and Barack Obama, to call out the glaring similarities.

Sarah Hurwitz, Michelle's head speechwriter, used to be Hillary's. So the Trump campaign plagiarized from a Hillary speechwriter.

— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs)July 19, 2016

When you write a big speech you read past examples, of course. But there would never be a reason to copy a chunk, even as a placeholder.

— Jon Lovett (@jonlovett)July 19, 2016

We spoke to two Republican speechwriters who said Melania's speech could have been a case of accidental plagiarism, but they also noted that it reflected the overall inexperience of her husband's campaign staff.

"I can kind of see how it happened," Barton Swaim, former speechwriter for South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and author of The Speechwriter, told VICE News. "It was stupid. I don't think it was done intentionally. I feel pretty confident that what happened was, some speechwriter in the innards of the campaign put together some thoughts, including Michelle Obama's speech as a template. In the process of passing that around, somebody started treating that as the draft of the speech, making changes to it.

Related:Melania Trump accused of plagiarizing Michelle Obama during convention speech

"It evidences an amateurism about that campaign," he added. "Someone in that operation should be cognizant of what was said before in a similar speech."

Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, echoed Swaim's assessment.

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"This is a campaign that is not built by political veterans," Latimer told VICE News. "The speech writer was probably looking at other speeches from candidates' wives. They came across Mrs. Obama's, Laura Bush's, probably some others, and then took her well-received speech, started rewriting it and left things in by accident."

Latimer said that as many as five or six people would have worked on a speech for former first lady Laura Bush. "You don't want to have too many writers because it makes the speech dead," Latimer said. "But there will normally be any number of people who would vet it, fact check it, approve it — make sure you don't say things that have been said by someone else."

'This is a campaign that is not built by political veterans.'

Overall, Latimer said he didn't have a problem with the speech..

"I find her likeable," he said of Melania. "She's a genuine person.. She said very general things that weren't specific. There was something charming about it. It was a nice speech."

In an interview with MSNBC Monday, Melania claimed that she had mostly written the speech by herself with "a little help" from speechwriters. But come Tuesday morning, the story from her husband's campaign was that it was the work of "Melania's team of writers."

For the record, Melania Trump claimed she wrote the speech she delivered tonight. — Alan Kestrel (@AlanKestrel750)July 19, 2016

A statement from Trump spokesman Jason Miller did not mention the apparent plagiarism, saying only that the speech "included fragments" of Melania's thinking, and that her "love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success."

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Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said he would "probably" fire Melania's speechwriter if it were up to him. At a Tuesday morning event with journalists in Cleveland, Priebus said that he didn't "blame" Trump, and that "some of these things are pretty common types of themes."

Bob Lehrman, an adjunct professor of public communication at American University and a former speechwriter for dozens of Democratic political figures, including Al Gore, said that by academic standards, the plagiarism of Obama's speech is a serious offense.

"It's ridiculous to say that it's not plagiarism," Lehrman said. "If she [Melania Trump] was a sophomore at AU, the rules would require that I report it, even if it's a single sentence." Reporting even a lesser degree of plagiarism could result in suspension, he said.

"It's the most effective part of the speech," Lehrman said. "It's a fireable offense."

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