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Trump card: Melania’s learnt from master

Hours before Melania Trump made her debut at the Republican convention on Monday night, she had this exchange about her upcoming speech with the Today show’s Matt Lauer:

Lauer: “Did you practise it on the plane?”

Trump: “I read once over it and that’s all because I wrote it, and with as little help as possible.”

During her speech — a warm paean to her husband, Donald Trump, as well as family values, social pluralism and personal integrity — an observant blogger, Jarrett Hill, began tracking the similarities between her speech and one that Michelle Obama delivered eight years ago. Hill found bits of apparent pickpocketing that have since snowballed on social media and elsewhere into, as they say in the trade, “a thing”.

Trump’s skeletal campaign operation rushed to his wife’s defence, rebutting questions about plagiarism with this statement: “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. Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.”

Without specifying where, exactly, all of those “fragments” came from, the Trump campaign also called into question whether or not the speech was really the primary handiwork of Mrs Trump after all. She said she wrote it, while the campaign — igniting a new firestorm even as it tried to put out another — said that the “speechifying” actually took a village.

If Melania wrote the speech and the speech was plagiarised, then it was Melania who did the plagiarising. If Team Trump wrote the speech while pickpocketing the Obamas, then Melania did not write her own speech.

What a mess.

That’s why I would like to step into the breach and defend Mrs Trump. I’ll hazard a guess and say that she didn’t plagiarise anything because she didn’t write the speech herself. I feel confident about that assessment for a couple of reasons. First, Mrs Trump’s Slovenian elocution is evolving, making it unlikely that she could write such a polished major speech for a national event all by herself. Second, her key adviser on the public stage is Donald Trump, a world-class prevaricator who has never written any of his own stuff, either.

Tony Schwartz, who ghostwrote Trump’s urtext, The Art of the Deal, in 1987 told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in this week’s issue that Trump has constantly tried to steal credit for writing the bestselling autobiography — including when he declared, as he announced his presidential run last year, “We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal”. When Mayer interviewed Trump about the book’s provenance, he denied that Schwartz was the architect. Everyone else involved in the book’s publication said otherwise.

“He didn’t write the book,” Trump told Mayer. “I wrote the book. I wrote the book. It was my book.”

Mayer notes that part of Schwartz’s challenge in working with Trump on his non-fiction work of fiction was trying “to put an acceptable face on Trump’s loose relationship with the truth”. Schwartz said he ended up feeling like he had “put lipstick on a pig” while writing The Art of the Deal and that if he had his druthers, he would retitle it “The Sociopath”.

(Disclosure: I wrote a Trump biography, TrumpNation, for which he sued me because, among other things, it questioned the size of his fortune. The suit was dismissed.)

After Trump worked with Schwartz, he went on to write 15 more books, with other ghostwriters or co-writers hovering over most of them. That collection included such titles as Never Give Up and The Best Golf Advice I Ever Received.

Another book in that collection is Trump’s first political treatise, The America We Deserve, published in 2000. Trump’s name was on the book, but a ghostwriter named David Shiflett was the author. Trump used the book to frame his support for, as Shiflett noted, “diversity, inclusiveness and civility”. Shiflett wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last December: “Mr Trump and I made a pretty good team. He needed words, I needed money, and together we explored what he would do if he became president. I have long considered the resulting book my first published work of fiction.”

Trump’s present political opus is Crippled America, and he shares the following on his agent’s website: “This book is my blueprint for how to make America great again. It’s not hard. We just need someone with the courage to say what needs to be said.”

The Daily News (New York) reported last autumn that Crippled America was written by an uncredited ghostwriter and that building the blueprint for a better America was a haphazard affair. Trump “got this done on the road with a series of phone calls and snippets from campaign speeches”, the Daily News reported, citing a confidential publishing source. Trump has not publicly challenged the newspaper’s account.

Trump adopted the role of fabulist beyond the world of book writing. Over the years he has exaggerated or lied about his wealth, his dealmaking prowess, his buildings and properties, market interest in his condominiums, how much he gets paid to give a speech, and on and on. He even adopted the guise of a publicist to call reporters and brag about his popularity with women.

So when Melania Trump chatted with Matt Lauer and said that she wrote her convention speech largely on her own, it wouldn’t be entirely fair for the rest of us to take her too harshly to task. She has learnt at the knee of the master.

•Timothy L. O’Brien is executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View