Melania Trump’s Plagiarism Fiasco

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Posted in: Politics

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.

  • Ted Harvatin

    Democrats made Joe Biden VP. They didn’t mind his plagiarism. I smell yet another double standard.

  • gator

    I agree completely-both Melania and the speechwriter knew the source and are guilty of plagarism.

  • Brian Aplin

    Unfortunately, none of this matters in regards to the upcoming presidential election. And if you think that what a “presidential” spouse has to say is such a strong indicator of the quality of the president/nominee, perhaps you should publish a coinciding article that examines Mrs. Clinton’s remarks about the victims of her husband’s repeated sexual harassment and marital improprieties in the wake of the “Monica Miscue.”

  • Brian Aplin

    Oh yeah, and if you want to christen Mrs. Obama for the eloquence and insightfulness of her speech at the 2008 DNC, perhaps you should reconsider just how wonderful her choice of words were when she criticized Gabby Douglas, a pre-teen at the time who had just won gold for her country in the individual all-around gymnastics competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, a feat not previously accomplished by any American gymnast. On light night television, when asked what Gabby, her teammates and family had done to celebrate achieving such a miraculous accomplishment, she said they celebrated by going to McDonald’s. But before she could even finish her reply, the First Lady decide to chime in to critique young Miss Douglas for wanting to go to McDonald’s because statements like that were not in compliance with the First Lady’s “Get Active” initiative for a healthy young America. If that young woman hadn’t earned a supersize fry for that, I’m not sure how the concept of a reward-based system is supposed to work.

  • sweetsuzee

    For you to be ignorant enough to truly believe that Mrs. Trump went out of her way to intentionally “plagiarize” rather than show respect for thoughts she agreed with, is outrageous, inconceivable and insufferable. No one would be that dumb considering all of the facts including who, when, where and why. Common sense screams out loud that the opponents would be all over this like a fly on dung. Michelle Obama should be extremely flattered; the news media should shut their mouths; and, you should question your underlying hatred. I am a registered Democrat who has been turned off by my own party in recent times. This just sealed the deal !!

    • G.N.M.

      Good post. You summarize this issue clearly.

  • fclardy

    How did plagiarism effect Joe Biden’s political career when he used part of a speech made by British Labour Party Leader Neal Kinnock. At the time there were allegations that Biden lifted entire passages from speeches by Hubert Humphrey, and John and Bobby Kennedy. Biden was forced to withdraw from the presidential race, but all is forgotten by the press and you.

    Here we have a lady who is not a skilled politician or speech writer who through admiration for Mrs. Obama may have used some phrases from a speech by President Obama’s wife. You have been out of the law since you were disbarred. But you haven’t forgotten how to make a straw man argument. Do you see the hypocrisy in your criticisms, and you desire simply to make an issue when the two situations are not analogous. By the way professor Posner focus was mainly on copyright fraud. I submit your reliance on those parts of his work,you cite as precedent, is misleading, because you only cite the portion of his book that supports your argument. If you were still a lawyer failure to cite favorable precedent is unethical, that is if you were still a lawyer.

  • Victor Grunden

    Ghost writers are common anymore and that is the greatest deception of all. Did Michelle Obama actually write that speech? Probably not. Didn’t Richard Nixon in his “i’m Not A Crook” or “Checkers” speech utter something about your word being your bond? But as for O’bama’s word being his bond, Barvck what happened to transparency, ethics and posting all bills for review on the government website for review for passage?

  • Frank Willa

    Mr. Dean, thank you for your analysis. It does cut through the double talk that both women, at the time, noted where the Obama words came from, and now look to let it fade in the news cycle. In my view, how Judge Posner sees plagiarism is off the mark. When some one takes the ideas of another they may well affect the victim in serious ways that impact their life for years to come. The plagiarist may receive professional advancement over the victim, or increased compensation for an idea implemented that either saves an organization money or increases in revenue to that company. The damage done to the victim can be profound, leaving a sense of despair, or caught in a career position where the “thief”becomes their work supervisor, and a loss of justly due recognition that can not be undone; and it advances a “end justifies the means” – a break down of justice and fairness. How could the judge not get the “equity” of this; courts are supposed to consider matters of law and equity.

  • Hmm… On one hand I feel like this is just another act in the three-ring circus of Trump’s campaign. I can even see how he is milking it for free publicity and manipulating the mass media to keep himself in the headlines. Not a minor factor insofar as his entire campaign should be described as the Donald wagging the media as though it were his dog’s tail.

    On the other hand, I think this plagiarism incident is clear evidence of some of the worst flaws that should disqualify Trump from serious consideration as president. Bad management, no, make that incompetent management led to the incident. Trump cannot even manage his own wife’s involvement in his own campaign, and we’re supposed to believe he can manage all the complexities of the White House? However I think Trump’s response is even worse, because it shows just how little he respects rules and laws when they conflict with what he WANTS. John Dean has spoken about authoritarianism, and what stronger evidence could you ask for? (Okay, there are those thousands of lawsuits involving Trump, but I want to stay focused on this particular plagiarism thing.)

    Not sure if this incident was the trigger, or my source is something in “The Path” by Puett and Gross-Loh, but I feel like a key insight to understanding today’s so-called Republican Party and how that party wound up in Trump’s pocket involves an ontology of laws:

    (1) Some laws support or even encourage change

    (2) Some laws prevent bad changes

    (3) Some laws try (but always fail) to prevent any change

    (4) Some laws encourage bad changes

    If there is any thing that is clear about recent campaigns, it is that the voters WANT CHANGE. The confusion arises when you try to figure out what kind of changes they want, what kinds of changes the politicians are promising, and what kinds of changes they will actually deliver. Not sure I should claim the voters (especially Trump voters) are so smart as to understand this, but change is going to happen. (Personally, I favor evolutionary change over revolutionary, but that topic would be another loss of focus.)

    Time to apply that ontology to a few ideologies:

    (1) Using Lincoln’s intro, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was mostly about the first type of laws, and the Civil War was basically fought over the change from slavery to no slavery.

    (2) Today’s so-called Republicans of the mainstream stand for “government of the corporations, by the lawyers, for the richest 0.1%” and they focus on the second kind of laws to keep themselves at the top. Hey, if you’re on the top of the mountain, the big bad change is to fall down.

    (3) I think Trump’s focus is more narrow, and he wants “government of, by, and for the Donald”, which tends to sink to the level of the third kind of law, even trying to protect himself from getting old or dying, and many of his most extreme supporters are coming from this perspective.

    (4) The ultimate reduction is down to “government of, by, and for #1”, which involves fourth category laws that encouraged banks to gamble and become “Too Big to Fail”, as described in Sorkin’s interesting (but shallow) book of that name. (Obviously this plagiarism thing has rattled my cage, but focus…)

    It has become clear that Trump wants to change backwards or not at all. Won’t work, but the attempt will be disastrous. Forward Hillary? (Sadly, not so much, but focus, focus.)

    • Brett

      Dear shanen, if you feel this way about Mr. Trump and the Republican party, you must feel that way about Joe Biden, Barack Obama and the Democrat party, as they both committed plagiarism in speeches. As for being fit for president, Mr. Trump is much more fit than his opponent, who was “extremely careless”, according to the FBI Director, with top secret U.S. information (which was criminal, see 18 U.S.C. Section 793(f)), and is a pathological liar (look at her many lies about the email fiasco and her lies about Benghazi, which was to cover President Obama in his false narrative in the 2012 campaign that he was doing a great job fighting terrorism). I ask you to apply the standard you advocate when you walk into the voting booth.

      • Are you sincerely ignorant or just so detached from reality that I can only regard you as insane? Or do you have some secret reason for your bizarre lies? Maybe you’re a paid Russian troll or you hate America and want the worst possible “leader” in the White House?

        Anyway, only one question for a Trumpist: Who do you hate most?

        Excuse me for not sticking around for the answer. Bye.

  • AKLady

    Always someone else’s fault. The DSM-5 defines that as antisocial behavior disorder.

  • Tawanda The Avenger

    the donald is behind this, make no mistake about it. he meant to embarrass Melania globally, which he accomplished. is she getting ready to give the donald the old heave-ho, and this is “pre-emptive” strike ? My money says yes.

  • Mark Siegel

    Ever since you were found guilty of having committed felonies on behalf of the Nixon Administration, you’ve been doing the usual con job of kowtowing to the liberal intelligentsia in order to gain newfound respectability. Funny how your involvement in Watergate — and the way in which you ratted yourself into suffering minimal accountability for it — changed your ideology.

    Didn’t you once write a novel in which “happily” ends with some Donna Brazile type becomes POTUS? There’s a cancer upon the body politic and you’re part of it.

    So THIS is a major scandal? Yes, we know. Republican scandals are huge and are a poor character reflection on those involved. Democratic scandals are picayune and are not a reflection upon the character of those involved. Yes, we know. You don’t need to keep writing the same article over and over again.

    And this is supposed to be a legal forum. God knows why these opinions are allowed to pass as “legal” opinions rather than political ones.

  • Brett

    Oh, the hypocrisy of John Dean. Did he complain so vociferously when Barack Obama plagiarized in 2008? I’m thinking the answer is no. And how highly offensive this Dean guy is. While I am not what I would call a Trump supporter, using the words of Mr. Dean, I support him over Ms. Clinton (how could you not, given her pathological lying and criminal behavior with top-secret government information (see 18 U.S.C. Section 793(f))?), and I am not low-information or not well-educated as Mr. Dean so offensively asserts. Indeed, if I am not well-educated then Mr. Dean is not well-educated, as we share similar educations. Too bad Justia can not find an author with better, basic writing skills than this guy.