Hanlon’s Razor, not evil intent, explains Melania Trump’s plagiarism

melania pony
Image: Mashable

Melania Trump’s speech just keeps getting more interesting. Now we know how it happened and why some Republicans say it’s as inconsequential as My Little Pony. But no matter how you spin it, this is a disaster, not a nefarious conspiracy to make Trump’s wife sympathetic.

The original speechwriters leak that they’re not responsible

The New York Times attempted to unearth the story behind how the passages in Michelle Obama’s speech got into Melania Trump’s. According to unnamed sources (the original speechwriters, perhaps?):

The Trump campaign turned to two high-powered speechwriters, who had helped write signature political oratory like George W. Bush’s speech to the nation on Sept. 11, 2001 . . .

The speechwriters, Matthew Scully and John McConnell, sent Ms. Trump a draft last month, eager for her approval.

Weeks went by. They heard nothing.

Inside Trump Tower, it turned out, Ms. Trump had decided she was uncomfortable with the text, and began tearing it apart, leaving a small fraction of the original.

What happened then? Apparently, a complete rewrite, leaving little of the original. According to the Times, Melania Trump turned to Meredith McIver, a former ballet dancer who worked on Donald Trump’s book Think Like a Billionaire. “Research for the speech, it seems, drew them to the previous convention speeches delivered by candidates’ spouses.”

While this is far from definitive, it’s plausible. If Melania Trump and somebody who doesn’t usually write speeches knocked the thing together and were sloppy about sources, as I speculated yesterday, that would explain how the purloined passages got in there.

Why didn’t somebody catch this? Pure incompetence. As the Times explained:

Republican speechwriters outlined the layers of formal scrutiny, apparently disregarded by the Trump campaign, traditionally applied to almost every draft of a major convention address. They described word-by-word fact-checking by a dedicated team of experts and computer software designed to catch plagiarism. Several online programs, like DupliChecker, are available at no cost.

“It’s pretty standard,” [veteran speechwriter Stuart Stevens] said of the software, which detects overlap in word choice and sentence structure. “We used it.”

An urgent priority: avoiding the slightest hint of oratorical theft.

“The most cardinal rule of any speech-writing operation is that you cannot plagiarize,” said [Matt] Latimer, the Bush speechwriter, who is now a partner at Javelin, a communications firm. If you do, he said, “you lose your job.”

Unfortunately for the campaign, they can’t fire Melania Trump.

If you want to know more about how speeches and plagiarism happen, I recommend Roy Peter Clark’s incisive writeup at Poynter.

As usual, the coverup is worse than the crime

It was embarrassing to watch Trump campaign operatives and other Republicans attempt to explain why this didn’t happen or doesn’t matter.

  • Chris Christie said the speech was 93% original. “Nearly free of plagiarism” isn’t the standard here — stealing is stealing. A yogurt that’s 93% fat free isn’t close to fat free, because it’s 7% fat.
  • Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort denied it. Sure, it’s possible that the speech just happened to include the same words, in the same order, as a convention speech by another candidate’s wife at a nominating convention. According to turnitin, a company with a service that checks academic papers for plagiarism, there’s a one in a trillion chance of exactly duplicating a 16-word phrase in a piece like this.
  • RNC strategist Sean Spicer used the “My Little Pony” defense. Spicer pointed out the similarity: “Melania Trump said, ‘the strength of your dreams and willingness to work for them.’ Twilight Sparkle from ‘My Little Pony’ said, ‘This is your dream. Anything you can do in your dreams, you can do now.’ ” Yes, the idea is common. But Twilight Sparkle didn’t use exactly the same phrasing. (And if Melania Trump had instead said “Anything you can do in your dreams, you can do now,” then she’d still be stealing, but from My Little Pony.)
  • And no, this isn’t the same as Joe Biden or Barack Obama. Joe Biden ripped off British Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock’s story. And he paid the price — he gave up the race for the presidency because of the accusations. Obama gave a speech that echoed what Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick had said earlier. But Patrick himself was the one who suggested to Obama that he use those words. Both of these cases are deplorable. But they don’t excuse Melania Trump’s uncredited word-for-word copy of her opposite number on the opposing team.

Please just stop it with your conspiracy theories

Some of my friends have suggested this is an elaborate plot to roil up the media against Melania Trump and get those on the fence to feel sympathetic to her. After all, Trump is supposed to be a master of media manipulation.

Or perhaps this was a speechwriter secretly punking Melania, one who the Times didn’t find out about. After all, the speech did include the phrase “He will never, ever give up. . . . And most importantly, he will never, ever let you down.” Did somebody just Rickroll us?

I’m not buying these conspiracy theories. This was the Trump campaign’s chance to introduce the mysterious Melania Trump to America. All she needed was to appear intelligent and avoid a big mistake. The rest of the speech almost did that, but all anyone remembers about it now is that it was ripped off from Michelle Obama. Those accusations continue to pollute Trump’s airtime at a moment when he’d really like you to concentrate on him, not how his wife and her speechwriters might have screwed up. If this is another Trump media plot, it’s a strangely ineffective, incompetent, and counterproductive one.

A better explanation comes from Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Donald Trump has been very smart in manipulating media in this campaign. He has also made plenty of mistakes. This is a mistake, people. And it’s one that speaks to the off-the-cuff carelessness of the whole Trump operation.

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