The Trump campaign’s latest explanation of Melania Trump’s now-admitted plagiarism in her speech to the Republican National Convention reeks of continued cover-up, not to mention further compounding the situation by admitting that not only did Melania know she was cribbing First Lady Michelle Obama’s eloquent words but so did the Trump Organization writer Meredith McIver.
It has been widely reported that Melania did not want to give a speech at the convention, but Donald insisted. Professional writers were employed but she did not like their drafts. So she relied on Meredith McIver, a long-time employee of the Trump Organization, to assist her in completing her draft. It was when working with McIver, according to the latest explanation, the problem occurred. This is the fourth, or fifth depending how you count, official statement regarding Ms. Trump’s purloining of Michelle Obama’s thoughts and words. We’ve heard from everyone except Melania.
It appears that Melania has been thrust into the political limelight by her misogynistic and narcissistic husband, where he has left her to twist slowly in the wind. The handling of this situation tells us more about Donald than Melania. For Trump’s low-information, and not well-educated, already committed supporters, this plagiarism is not likely a big deal.
But Trump needs to reach well-educated white voters to have any chance of winning—those mothers and fathers who have college educations, and are working hard to be sure their children also have college educations. These are people who understand plagiarism, and that there are two places that plagiarism is a big deal. On college and university campuses, and with the news media. So this story will not be over until all the facts are known, which is not the case at present.
The Nature of Plagiarism
It is pretty difficult to get through high school, not to mention college or university, without understanding the nature of plagiarism, which is defined in many dictionaries as appropriation of the language, ideas, and thoughts of another when representing it as one’s own work. In his well-known work, Stolen Words: The Classic Book on Plagiarism, Thomas Mallon, one of America’s more gifted authors, acknowledges: “No, it isn’t murder. And as larceny goes it’s usually more distasteful than grand. But it is a bad thing.” When examining plagiaries infamous and otherwise Mallon notes in passing that it has been observed that the criminal “to whom the plagiarist compares most closely is the kleptomaniac,” given that they both steal what may not be needed.
Federal Judge Richard A. Posner, because of his interest in intellectual property, has written articles (e.g., “On Plagiarism,” The Atlantic, April 2002) and a book on the subject: The Little Book On Plagiarism (2007)). He sums up plagiarism as “a species of intellectual fraud” and reminds that “[c]oncealment is at the heart of plagiarism,” explaining that it is “not mere failure to acknowledge copying” the work of others. Rather plagiarism requires the copying, Posner explains, that is not only deceitful but misleading. The person hearing or reading the purloined material will think it is original. In Melania’s case, those hearing her speech would be misled by believing these were her lovely thoughts and fluent words, and appreciate her more for her eloquence. However, Judge Posner does not believe plagiarism should be a crime. He says the harm it causes is too slight to call on the “clumsy machinery of the criminal law,” and criminal sanctions will not likely be a deterrent. The judge concludes: “Plagiarism is thus the kind of wrongdoing best left to informal, private sanctions.” Scandal, of course, is a form of social sanction.
Judge Posner notes that plagiarism “is considered by most writers, teachers, scholars, and even members of the general public to be the capital intellectual crime.” [Emphasis added.] This explains why “[b]eing caught out in plagiarism can blast a politician’s career, earn a college student expulsion, and destroy a writer’s, scholar’s, or journalist’s reputation, though whether it has any of these effects depends on a host of extraneous factors.”
To judge Melania’s plagiarism we need to understand what actually occurred.
Melania Trump’s Plagiarism
Let’s set aside the bogus responses initially provided, when the obvious plagiarism was discovered, like the conspicuous misstatements of campaign chairman Paul Manafort: “There’s no cribbing of Michelle Obama’s speech,” he told CNN the morning after the incident: “These were common words and values, that she cares about her family. To think that she would be cribbing Michelle Obama’s words is crazy.” Or Chris Christie’s characterization: “93 percent of the speech is completely different from Michelle Obama’s.” Or Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson’s flat rejection of plagiarism when saying, “This concept that Michelle Obama invented the English language is absurd.” And RNC spokesman Sean Spicer’s defense of the plagiarism on CNN by suggesting Michelle Obama may have found the words in the kid’s book, My Little Pony. For the sake of discussion, I’ll assume these people did not know what, in fact, had actually occurred, so Donald Trump let them say whatever came to mind.
It was not until the second day after Melania’s speech that the following statement was issued by Meredith McIver. Set aside the fact this was issued on Trump Organization letterhead and Ms. McIver is one of his corporate employees with no known relationship with the campaign, for this may be a violation of the federal campaign laws. (A number of formal complaints have been filed so this will get sorted out eventually.) Anyway, McIver stated:
In working with Melania on her recent First Lady speech, we discussed many people who inspired her and messages she wanted to share with the American people. A person she always liked is Michelle Obama. Over the phone, she read me some passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples. I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech. I did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches. This was my mistake, and I feel terrible for the chaos I have caused Melania and the Trumps, as well as to Mrs. Obama. No harm was meant. [Emphasis added.]
In short, both Melania and McIver knew they had cribbed from Michelle Obama. Could Melania have read the passages to McIver and forgotten the source of the material when she read them in her own speech? Not possible. Could McIver have written them down, then added them to the speech, and forgotten where they came from? Not possible. Based on McIver’s statement it appears they conspired to plagiarize Michelle Obama, which only makes it worse. McIver’s statement that she did not check Mrs. Obama speeches is a red herring for she says that Melania “read me some passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech.” Melania told her where the passages had come from, so she knew they were from Michelle Obama’s speech.
Finally, McIver claims, “This is my mistake….” But this effort to take the hit for the boss’s wife does not work, based on McIver’s statement. Did Melania, who speaks several languages, not know the concept of plagiarism? Well, the media of Slovenia, her country of birth and where she grew up, certainly understood it and according to the Hollywood Reporter mocked her about it on Twitter:
“Before you send the angry mob after Melania, try to remember that in Slovenia plagiarism is not only encouraged, but the national pastime!” one user (@lukemones) wrote.
Another joked: “Please understand, plagiarism is not a crime in Slovenia. Indeed, coming up with a new idea is what’s illegal. #IStandWithMelania” (@NotErsanIlyasov)
McIver, an English major graduate of the University of Utah, certainly understood it. (While she graduated in 1976, today as undoubtedly then, plagiarism was a ground for dismissal from the university.) While Ms. McIver offered her resignation, Donald Trump did not accept it.
I am with Judge Posner who says “plagiarism requires cool appraisal rather than fervid condemnation or simplistic apologetics.” The McIver statement is an effort to close the matter with simplistic apologetics. But the statement raises many more questions than it answered, and until knowledgeable reporters have an opportunity to question both Melania Trump and Meredith McIver, this matter will not be resolved. For good reason, the news media feels strongly about plagiarism, so it is difficult to envision how this is going to go away until fully resolved based on a “cool appraisal” of the actual facts.
At present, the truth is being covered up by the Trump campaign and family.