CLEVELAND — Donald Trump’s plan to unite Republicans under a coherent campaign theme was thrown off kilter Tuesday by the revelation that passages from his wife’s keynote Republican National Convention speech apparently had been lifted from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention remarks.
Damage control over Melania Trump’s Monday speech consumed much of the Trump campaign’s attention on the second day of the convention, as the stunning episode rekindled questions about the campaign’s competence.
A collection of top Republicans who were already skeptical of Trump’s candidacy displayed increasing concern on panels and in hotel lobbies and in interviews with thousands of political journalists here.
Trump’s campaign refused to acknowledge anything wrong with the striking similarities in the language of a speech given eight years ago by Obama and the one delivered Monday evening by Melania Trump. In passages about keeping one’s word and achieving dreams, several short sentences and phrases were nearly identical or very similar.
The apparently poorly vetted address is among the highest profile failures of Trump’s iconoclastic campaign.
With no high-wattage speakers lined up for Wednesday night’s convention program to take the focus off the apparent plagiarism, the campaign risks Melania Trump’s speech becoming the defining moment of multiple news cycles and likely bleeding well into Wednesday’s coverage.
Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, tried to beat back the allegations during a Tuesday morning news conference.
“First of all, we think that Melania Trump’s speech was a great speech,” Manafort told reporters.
“It was well received by the American people, there is no — we don’t believe there’s anything in that speech that doesn’t reflect her thinking, and I don’t think that — we’re comfortable that the words that she used are words that were personal to her.”
Some of the very same words, in two closely similar passages, also were personal to Obama as she extolled the virtues of her family upbringing at her husband’s nominating convention in Denver in 2008.
In Denver, Michelle Obama said: “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.”
In Cleveland, Melania Trump said: “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.”
The nature of the controversy made it conducive to television news coverage — with networks and cable TV spending the day playing clips of Michelle Obama delivering her speech back-to-back with clips from Melania Trump’s version.
The constant coverage crowded out news that Donald Trump would officially became the party’s nominee for president Tuesday and the campaign’s theme for the day, which was supposed to be focused on jobs and the economy.
And it highlighted the vast gap between the pro-Trump flank of the party and the Republicans who’ve been much more reluctant to support Trump.
“I would expect whoever did it to resign,” Karl Rove, a Republican strategist, told The Wall Street Journal.
GOP political strategist Mike Murphy said Tuesday on MSNBC the speech overlap made the Trump campaign look inept. “It’s bad,” he said — and the campaign is not handling it well.
“One of the keys to presidential politics is let the steam out, change the channel,” he said of the emerging scandal. Murphy, who has long been skeptical of Trump, said the campaign tends to “just dig in” when it makes a mistake “because Trump has this feeling that as superman he can’t admit weakness. Well, we all know it was a plagiarized speech, it’s pretty obvious. . . . ”
Some junior staff member most likely made a mistake, but “now if they don’t fess up to it, this thing will go on for two or three days.”
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast that he would “probably” fire the person responsible for the speech.
But on “The Today Show,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tried to argue that Melania Trump’s speech should not be viewed as plagiarism.
“Not when 93 percent of the speech is completely different than Michelle Obama’s speech,” he said.
And in what was one of the odder moments, RNC spokesman Sean Spicer suggested on MSNBC that the language Trump seems to have lifted from Obama was so common that it was also used in a children’s book.
“Melania Trump said, ‘The strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them,’ ” Spicer said. “Twilight Sparkle from ‘My Little Pony’ said, ‘This is your dream.’ ”
A Trump spokeswoman offered yet another explanation.
“These were phrases that many people have used, whether you’re going to a motivational speech, whether you’re reading a book by a successful entrepreneur,’’ Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said on SkyNews.
Noting that the spouses of other nominees had spoken on behalf of their husbands, Pierson added that Melania Trump “really wanted to communicate to Americans in phrases that they’ve heard before, like Laura Bush and like Elizabeth Dole.’’
The flap is unlikely to change the minds of voters — but it made a class of Republican elites even more uncomfortable with the Trump candidacy.
The news that parts of the speech apparently were plagiarized spread in the early hours Tuesday morning after Republican delegates and donors had left the convention arena and fanned out to the many exclusive parties around the city.
In one held at a warehouse and sponsored by two dozen companies, attendees initially believed the plagiarism was some kind of joke being spread online.
Then, in quick succession, came a series of blows.
Yes, it was real.
And, yes, the lifted sections were, ironically, about “strong values.”
The worst part: The speech was cribbed from Michelle Obama.
Then party-goers held cocktails with one hand while gathering in clusters around iPhones to puzzle over a confusingly worded statement from the Trump campaign that landed in in-boxes at 1:48 a.m.
“In writing her beautiful speech, Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking,” according to the statement from senior communications adviser Jason Miller.
“Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.”