Nightmare vs. no big deal: Melania speech controversy unfolds as if in two different worlds

Two starkly different reactions emerged Tuesday morning as the political world came to grips with evidence that Melania Trump, who testified to her husband’s loyalty and devotion in a poised, prime-time address Monday night, may have lifted language from a similar address Michelle Obama gave in 2008.

Democratic commentators characterized the evidence of plagiarism as a full-scale meltdown for Donald Trump’s campaign, saying it would tarnish the entire week-long event, which is designed to celebrate the nominee and champion his ideas for the country. Former top advisers to President Barack Obama’s presidential bids pounced instantly.

David Axelrod: “If I’m Melania speechwriter, I’m on my way to some wilderness hideout around now.”

They seized also on comments by Melania Trump on Monday that she had written the speech herself, saying it was proof she had either lied or was personally responsible for lifting the language from Obama’s address. “I wrote it with as little help as possible,” she told “Today’s” Matt Lauer on Monday.

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“Yyeah, plagiarism is bad.What’s worse is that she’s supposed to know Trump best & couldn’t write an original speech about him. Says somethin’,” posted Stephanie Cutter.

This wasn’t just a Democratic reaction, though. Some Republicans also said the consequences could be grave.

“Talking to operatives here, the mood is something between grim resignation and the Donner Party,” Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP consultant and a former top adviser to Jeb Bush, said on Tuesday morning.

Steve Schmidt, the senior adviser to the 2008 campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on MSNBC that the plagiarism accusation has “brought scandal on a potential first lady.”

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The second camp treated claims of plagiarism as essentially baseless, describing the borrowed phrases – about the value of hard work and the importance of keeping to your word – as universal ideas that of course would appear in remarks by two potential first ladies. Part of this reaction, too, was casting blame on Hillary Clinton.

The reaction was summed up by Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, who told CNN on Tuesday morning, “there’s no cribbing of Michelle Obama’s speech.”

“I mean, this is, once again, an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, how she seeks out to demean her and take her down,” Manafort added.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t put out an official statement, but her communications director flatly denied Manafort’s suggestion that the accusations were orchestrated by Hillary Clinton.

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“Nice try, not true. @PaulManafort, blaming Hillary Clinton isn’t the answer for ever Trump campaign problem.” responded Jennifer Palmieri.

Manafort said later Tuesday morning that, “we’re just going to move on.”

“There was no word-by-word,” he said. “There were over 1,400 words in that speech.”

Manafort said Trump was enthusiastic about going to bat for her husband, that it was her belief that the country was only getting a partial view of the presumptive Republican nominee and that it was “important to her personally” to set the record straight.

Several Republican leaders struck a similar, if less immediately antagonist, chord, mainly trying to downplay the issue.

“To me, it’s just a nothingburger,” said former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, who is also a past party chairman. “If I took the 10 most significant things that happened last night, I would not include this in the list.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican scheduled to address the convention tonight, said there were valid questions about the similarities but said the controversy was a distraction from the real issues highlighted by the convention. She praised the speech and said it was a sterling entrance by Melania Trump to the national stage.

Meanwhile, Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, took to “Today” to defend the speech, saying it wasn’t plagiarized because the vast majority of it – 93 percent, Christie estimated – was original.

In contrast to wall-to-wall coverage elsewhere, conservative media has aimed to deflate the controversy. Fox News, in its coverage Tuesday morning, labeled the story “Left Focuses on Melania.”

By Tuesday morning, sites such as Breitbart News were steering largely clear of the issue. An opinion writer in the Washington Times said voters don’t care about plagiarism – and pointed to plagiarism allegations that dogged Joe Biden during his campaign for the presidency in 1988. Biden withdrew from the race shortly after evidence of wrongdoing surfaced.

No one embodied the awkward, untenable space between these two positions more than Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Convention, who defended Melania Trump but also said he would “probably” fire the speechwriter responsible for the plagiarized portion of the speech.

“The distraction gets you off message a little bit this morning, but I think we’ll get back to action this afternoon,” he told reporters at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast.

The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, Karen Tumulty and Lateshia Beachum contributed to this report.