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Despite damning video evidence, Donald Trump’s campaign is fiercely denying allegations that Melania Trump plagiarized sections of Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic convention speech. President Obama's speechwriters just aren't buying it.
“As a speechwriter, you look at this and it’s just outrageous,” said David Litt, who wrote speeches for the commander-in-chief from 2011 until earlier this year. “It’s not like she used a few words … she used specifically the current first lady’s speech in a speech where she’s auditioning to be the first lady. The level of brazenness is remarkable.”
Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has called the allegations “crazy” -– even going as far as to declare on Tuesday that presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is somehow responsible for the controversy over Melania Trump's Monday speech at the Republican National Convention.
But Jon Lovett, another former Obama speechwriter, said team Trump’s effort to deny the speech was lifted from Michelle Obama is “pathetic,” adding, “Just admit someone made a mistake! But treating people like they’re stupid is the hallmark of Trump’s whole thing.”
Litt said there are plenty of safeguards for the Obamas' speeches, noting that they are fact checked rigorously and that researchers “go through every single line of the speech” checking numbers and dates. But there’s also the clear assumption you won’t lift passages from someone else. “There is a pretty clear set of ethics for speechwriters. You don’t do this, and you know there are consequences.”
“Usually you rely on having good people on your team, and you certainly don’t expect this on a speech that’s supposed to be so personal,” said Lovett.
It’s not yet clear who exactly wrote or helped Melania Trump with her speech or who—if anyone—went through it to check for any red flags. The wife of the presumptive Republican nominee indicated she largely crafted the speech herself, telling NBC’s “Today,” “I wrote it with as little help as possible.”
Michelle Obama’s spokesperson declined to comment. And of course, Democrats are hardly immune to plagiarism scandals themselves. Joe Biden's 1988 presidential bid was derailed after he was revealed to have plagiarized a British politician, and during his 2008 run, Obama himself was accused of lifting language from Massachusetts Democrat Deval Patrick.
Still, critics see Melania Trump's apparent plagiarism as far worse.
Jon Favreau, who served as Obama’s chief speechwriter from 2005 to 2013, tweeted after the speech, “Holy s***. They’re nearly identical. Someone is seriously fired,” noting Michelle Obama “wrote a lot of that 2008 campaign speech herself” with the help of the first lady’s head speech writer Sarah Hurwitz.
Hurwitz –- a former speechwriter for Hillary Clinton -- recently recalled helping the first lady with the speech at the 2008 convention in Denver, telling the Washington Post upon their second meeting, “She clearly said to me: ‘Okay, this is who I am. This is where I come from. This is my family. These are my values, and this is what I want to talk about at the convention,’” Hurwitz recalled. “I realized then that Michelle Obama knows who she is, and she always knows what she wants to say.”
Favreau also noted the irony that Hurwitz used to write for Clinton. “So the Trump campaign plagiarized from a Hillary speechwriter,” he tweeted.
Litt said what particularly stuck out to him was Melania Trump’s use of the phrase “your word is your bond,” which neardly identical to what Michelle Obama said in 2008. “That’s not something you go around saying randomly. I don’t think Melania Trump goes around saying that very often.”
Melania Trump said on Monday night that her parents “taught me to show the values and morals in my daily life. That is the lesson that I continue to pass along to our son. And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. 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.”
In comparison, Michelle Obama said in 2008 that she was raised to “treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them. And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. 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.”
Litt said, “So much about speechwriting is not just about the writing, but the transition. To leave one thought and land on the exact same thought — any claim that that’s coincidence shouldn’t even be taken remotely seriously.”