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Every delegate I asked about Melania Trump’s plagiarism gave basically the same answer

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

CLEVELAND — The Trump campaign has made nearly a half a dozen excuses for why Melania Trump sounded awfully like Michelle Obama last night, but one excuse has spread among the delegates in the Quicken Loans Arena like norovirus in the California delegation: Whatever you might think, Michelle Obama did not invent the English language.

The Donald Trump campaign spent most of Tuesday morning doing everything other than the obvious political move of admitting a mistake, throwing a speechwriter under the bus, and moving on. But it was the explanation put forth by Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson that seems to have stuck with supporters.

"I think it’s silly," said Priscilla Grannis, a delegate from Naples, Florida. "I’m not sure when the opponents decided to copyright words like ‘my word is my bond’ and ‘I say what I do and I do what I say’ and ‘my parents instilled values in me.’ These are phrases—"

"—Clichés," another Florida delegate, Maggie Maloney, also of Naples, broke in.

The excuses piled up from delegate after delegate. Everybody’s parents told them the same thing, right? So of course you’d go back to the well of the same phrases when speaking to an audience of parents.

"All this hoopla about plagiarizing Michelle Obama is so unfair," Maloney said.

Nathan Paikai, the chairman of Trump’s Hawaii leadership team, had the same response. "I don’t understand it," he said. "Somebody came up with an idea thinking Michelle Obama wrote the English language?"

And from pastor Shannon Wright, a Baltimore Republican running for city council president in her city: "There’s a set amount of core values, and a set amount of words in the English language. I don’t think she deliberately took parts of the speech."

The core criticism of Melania Trump’s speech — that she didn’t just use the same catchphrases but used them in virtually the same order with extraordinarily similar phrasing — didn’t seem to have gotten through at all.

The delegates are surrounded by media but aren’t necessarily consuming much of it themselves. Grannis said she’d seen a reference to the scandal on the scrolling chyron in the arena itself but hadn’t read anything about it in the press because the delegates’ days have been so busy.

Even the people who might have seized an opportunity to criticize the Trump campaign brushed it aside, although they at least used different words.

"This is just an effort to tear her down," said a delegate from Wyoming, who brushed away the question, saying she’d rather talk about the "heavy-handed" process used to deny the delegates from states that voted for Cruz the opportunity to participate in a roll call vote. The consensus that Melania’s speech was no big deal was so overwhelming that even Trump’s detractors downplayed it.

Only Wright, who is running for office and says she writes her own speeches, tried to fight the accusation on its merits: "When I write a speech, when they give it back to me it often does not look like I gave it to them," she said.

They were also united in their praise for Melania Trump: "Fabulous." "Elegant." "Gracious." "Well-spoken." Even, it seems, when the words weren’t her own.

Did Melania Trump plagiarize Michelle Obama?