Why Melania Trump’s 2016 RNC speech was so controversial

Melania Trump is up at bat again, this time for the 2020 Republican National Convention. News outlets are busy speculating like high school English teachers. She’s aiming her speech “at erasing memories of 2016,” writes CNN. It’s a “chance for redemption,” notes The Washington Post.  

Are the memories flooding back? Memories of a beaming, white-robed Melania, giving what might have been a speech to elevate the convention, only to become its downfall? “This was an easy home run speech: a successful, attractive immigrant talking about her husband,” Matt Latimer, a White House speechwriter for President George W. Bush told The New York Times investigators afterward. 

Things went south when watchful journalists took to Twitter pointing out that significant parts of now-first lady Melania Trump’s speech were plagiarized directly from former first lady Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic convention, as CNN’s side-by-side comparison shows. In the wake of the plagiarism accusations, a ballerina, Meredith McIver, finally stepped forward to apologize for the “hysteria” she’d caused and take the blame. McIver, who ended up drafting portions of Trump’s speech, had apparently jotted down parts of Obama’s speech that Melania Trump had read to her, out loud, over the phone. Those same passages ended up in the final draft (via Time). No plagiarism checker was used.  

Okay, you’re thinking, so she plagiarized. Live, and learn. And the hubbub might have died down, had it not been for the Trump campaign’s response to the polemic. 

Why were people really mad about Melania Trump's plagiarism?

As The New Yorker pointed out, the media frenzy around the 2016 Republican National Convention should have centered around “Trump’s ideas about the country.” The fact that it turned into a who-done-it investigation into Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech? That had more to do with the Trump campaign’s response to plagiarism allegations than Melania Trump, herself. “It’s not the crime, but the cover-up,” wrote The Atlantic

Time did a piece on it. The Trump campaign went from unequivocally praising Melania and insisting that her words were original— to insisting that, despite similarities between Trump’s and Obama’s speeches, the words that Melania used were “not unique” (according to Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort) — to pointing out similarities between Trump’s speech and My Little Pony (according to Sean Spicer, then Communications Director for the Republican National Committee) — to finally accepting that pieces of the speech were taken directly from Obama’s. 

Did Manafort and Spicer know they were lying when they defended Melania Trump? Or did the Trump campaign “throw them under the bus” (as The New Yorker put it)? Whatever the case, the speech served as a microscope into what The New York Times would term “the slapdash” style of the Trump campaign and its “reliance on the instincts of the candidate over the judgments of experienced political experts.” 

And so, Melania Trump is up again. We’re all waiting, with bated breath, to see what headlines her speech will reel in this time. 

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