How an Unfounded Claim That Clinton Is to Blame for the Plagiarism Scandal Gets Spread

The latest round of Trump camp say anything.

Anyone who has been following the Melania Trump copied speech story, which is everyone, should know it exists thanks to a tweet from Jarrett Hill, whose discovery of the similarities between Trump’s speech and a 2008 DNC speech by Michelle Obama was picked up by many, many publications, with proper and prominent credit given.

But Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, appearing on CNN’s New Day, had a different theory. “There’s no cribbing of Michelle Obama’s speech,” he told Chris Cuomo, following the denial with a deflection that gave Hillary Clinton a starring role as the real villain in all this. “These were common words and values that she cares about her family and things like that. I mean, she was speaking in front of 35 million people last night, she knew that. To think that she would be cribbing Michelle Obama’s words is crazy. I mean, it’s so—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. It’s not going to work.”

The classic Trump campaign deny/deflect strategy has been successful throughout the campaign thanks, in part, to interviewers who have allowed statements to live as fact, either failing to follow up or failing to double-down when a follow-up fails. See: Lesley Stahl‘s interview with Donald Trump and new running mate Mike Pence, and Margaret Sullivan‘s analysis on the missed opportunity for Stahl to call Trump out on his proven-false claim that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning.

Would Cuomo let Manafort’s reframing of Clinton as culprit exist as an unchallenged quote? Yes, yes he would. He didn’t bite on the Clinton claim, but did push back on Manafort’s nothing-to-see-here statements. “All I’m saying is the language is strikingly similar,” Cuomo said. “I’m not making a big deal of it. I know everybody’s talking about it this morning, but I don’t think it’s an allegation. It’s not some suggestion without proof. I think it happened. I don’t understand why the campaign doesn’t just own it and say people borrow phrases, that’s what happened, and move on.”

Probably because not owning things has worked out so well for the campaign so far, as has the say anything strategy.

In a perfect illustration of that point, the Clinton-blame meme persisted past Cuomo’s interview with Manafort, continuing into Cuomo’s interview with Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “So you’re here to counter, and now you’ve got a good situation,” begins Cuomo. “Now, you have this problem with Michelle Obama’s speech, seems like that language was borrowed, I don’t think that’s in dispute. Paul Manafort says, no, no, that’s not what’s going on here. You guys, the Clinton people, are going after Melania Trump because she’s a strong woman and you are planting the attacks that she cribbed from Michelle Obama. Did you have anything to do with this?”

“The Trump Organization is going to have to answer for the content of that speech, and the side by side is pretty clear, and the evidence, as you said, really isn’t in dispute, and so we’ll leave it to them to answer for the similarities between other individuals who have delivered speeches on that,” responds Wasserman Schultz.

And now, now, is when Cuomo wants to follow up. Not once, but twice. “Did team Clinton bring this to the attention of the media? Did you plant this story?” He asks. And again: “But what do you make of Manafort’s suggestion? Manafort’s suggestion is, this isn’t about what Melania Trump said. This is about, it was too good, so the Clinton people are going to attack it.”