The first day of the Republican National Convention had it all: protests, comedians trolling conspiracy theorists, convention floor rebellion, bizarre speeches by former New York mayors, and, to top things off, a nice little nightcap of plagiarism.
Melania Trump, wife of the Republican candidate for president Donald Trump, gave a headlining speech during the primetime hour (10pm US Eastern time) of the convention’s first night. Immediately following the speech, pundits generally applauded Trump’s poise, especially for someone not used to public speaking. And given the combative tenor of several other speeches that evening, hers appeared compassionate and measured by comparison.
But it soon emerged that some of her words were apparently plagiarized from a speech US first lady Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic convention in 2008. (The blunder was first noticed shortly after the speech ended by journalist Jarrett Hill on Twitter.) Several passages in Trump’s speech were taken nearly word-for-word from Obama’s, as you can see from the video above.
The Trump campaign is not admitting any wrongdoing. “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,” a statement released on Trump’s website said. “Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.”
RNC chairman Reince Priebus, however, said he’d “probably” fire whoever was responsible. (Priebus does not have any power to do so, and Trump’s campaign has already signaled that no one will be fired.)
Awkwardly for the Trump campaign, Obama’s 2008 speech was written by Sarah Hurwitz, a former speechwriter for Hillary Clinton:
The question remains: How did this happen? It’s hard to imagine that political operatives would think this could go unnoticed in today’s media climate. So, what went wrong, and who is to blame?
Let’s start with the likeliest explanation: Either Melania Trump or one of her speechwriters lifted passages from Obama’s speech, knowing that they were good lines. While Melania Trump claimed to have written the speech herself with “as little help as possible,” that seems unlikely given that Trump’s campaign’s statement mentioned a “team of writers” and that major political speeches are rarely written by the person actually delivering them (the Obamas are a rare exception).
The plagiarism may well have been unintentional; perhaps someone inadvertently inserted the phrases after a long night watching Obama clips on YouTube for inspiration. But whatever the intent, plagiarism is still plagiarism. The fact that Trump’s campaign did not prevent the easily avoidable mistake from occurring is almost unbelievable.
Almost. This is, after all, the Trump campaign, which has yet to prove even a basic level of competence.
Other than that explanation, here are a few other theories of what happened, ranked in order of likelihood:
A Trump speechwriter plagiarized Obama on purpose to sabotage the campaign
The strongest piece of evidence to support this theory is exhibit A: The Rickroll.
Not only did Trump’s speech plagiarize Obama, but it also contained a stealthy “Rickroll”—that is, lyrics to the 1987 pop sensation “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley, which became an internet meme years ago.
“He will never, ever, give up,” Melania Trump intoned, using the lyrics, but not the cadence, of the British pop singer. “And, most importantly, he will never, ever, let you down.”
If a disgruntled Trump staffer wanted to make the campaign look bad, plagiarizing your opponent’s speechwriter and then Rickrolling the world seems a pretty good way to go.
The Trump campaign orchestrated the whole thing to generate sympathy
We know one thing about Donald Trump—he relies on the media to get his message out. His campaign could have stolen from the Obama speech knowing that someone would catch it and the media would eventually turn it into a major story. Why would he do such a thing?
Well, one possibility is that it might generate sympathy for Melania Trump. Even if she were the person spouting the plagiarism, the entire situation makes her seem like just a cog in the machine, an innocuous person caught up in the whirlwind of American politics, and a target of unfair media criticism. That might seem completely crazy, but remember that part of Donald Trump’s brand is that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing—that he’s a man of the people, a “populist” who’s definitely not a politician.
Or, maybe, the plagiarism was a misdirection so that the media wouldn’t focus as much on the other speeches during the convention, some of which were not the greatest advertisements for the Republican party.
Trump’s aides knew about it in advance but they just didn’t care
If Donald Trump’s innumerable gaffes weren’t enough to quell his support to this point, his wife’s plagiarism won’t be the nail in his coffin. His people could have actually caught the plagiarism beforehand, but let the speech go on as planned, not particularly worried about the blowback. Perhaps they didn’t believe it was plagiarism. Perhaps they believed Trump’s supporters wouldn’t believe that it was plagiarism. Or that they just wouldn’t care.
Donald Trump doesn’t really want to win the election
Some have theorized that the candidate doesn’t actually want to be president. He could be not-so-subtly trying to kill his own campaign.
It actually wasn’t plagiarism; Hillary just made you think it was
Despite the countless and damning line-by-line comparisons and videos of the passages online, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort called the plagiarism charges “just really absurd.” Displaying a supreme confidence in Hillary Clinton’s Machiavellian abilities, Manafort blamed her for the accusations. “This is once again an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton she’ll take her down,” he said on CNN late last night. “It’s not going to work.”
Aliens did it
Fearing a Trump presidency would destroy Earth and make the planet uninhabitable for future colonization, an advanced race of aliens mind-controlled Melania Trump and forced her to copy Michelle Obama’s speech, knowing this ultimately would lead to her husband’s defeat in November.
Read more from Quartz on the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.