Let’s say it up front: Plagiarism is wrong. It’s wrong when journalists do it. It’s wrong when high school students do it. And it was wrong when Melania Trump at the Republican National Convention last week plagiarized the words of First Lady Michelle Obama in her opening night speech before a television audience of 23 million people.
Melania Trump’s plagiarism is still an issue this week. That is so not because of how it happened, or because it is a “gotcha” moment for opponents of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — although there was plenty of that to go around, including from parts of the media that focused on the presidential hopeful’s wife’s speech to the relative exclusion of domestic and foreign policy concerns. The speech remains an issue because of how the Trump campaign responded to the charge. And it is that response, more than any aspect of the episode, that raises questions about how a Trump administration will function in the 24/7 pressure cooker of the White House.
Mrs. Trump, her speech writers and handlers, and the Trump team made an embarrassing, rookie mistake in a very public setting. While it would have been unpleasant, they could have simply admitted the mistake and moved on. But, that’s not how the Trump campaign decided to respond. Instead, they rolled out the heavy artillery, and tried to minimize the offense or explain it away: “Ninety-three percent of the speech is completely different,” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, said Melania Trump plagiarized only 50 words, “and that includes ‘ands’ and ‘thes’ and things like that.” Trump himself tried a different spin, and tweeted: “Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!”
There is nothing about plagiarism that is “good news.” And the notion that it is okay to copy another’s words without attribution is itself wrong and sends the wrong message — especially with the lame excuse that “ninety-three percent is completely different.”
The doubling down by Trump and Co. in defense of now admitted copying has a disconcerting ring of familiarity to it. We have been told repeatedly that Trump is a tough guy, who doesn’t back down. And now we see that his campaign doesn’t back down, either. “He will punch back 10 times harder,” Melania Trump has said. Which begs the question of how a President Trump would respond to the rough and tumble of congressional politics, or the even less friendly challenges of foreign leaders or international trouble makers.
A plagiarized speech by a politician’s spouse may not be a big deal in and of itself, but since Donald Trump aspires to the highest post in the land, he’s going to have to find a better way of responding to the natural, justified and inevitable scrutiny that comes with the office.