Donald F. McGahn. (Albin Lohr-Jones/Bloomberg)
Opinion writer

President Trump is never at a loss for words. So why do so many people in his orbit seem to have trouble finding theirs?

Melania Trump lifted from a speech that had been delivered by Michelle Obama.

Monica Crowley backed out of a senior position on Trump’s National Security Council after evidence of plagiarism was found in her book, columns and PhD dissertation.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency, put most of a letter sent to him by an oil company onto his own official letterhead and sent it to the EPA.

And now we have another case of curiously repetitive prose — by none other than the man who just became Trump’s White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn.

On Nov. 19, 2015, McGahn, then a partner with the firm Jones Day representing the Trump campaign, filed a brief with the Federal Election Commission that looked like a cut-and-paste of a brief filed by another respondent 15 days earlier. A chunk of more than 300 words, essentially the entire analysis, is a word-for-word reproduction of the other brief.

Melanie Sloan, a consultant and longtime ethics watchdog, found the nearly identical briefs while reading FEC filings and was stunned to see the wholesale duplication of an argument filed “by another lawyer for a totally different client,” she said.

The case involved was relatively minor. But Lawrence Noble of the Campaign Legal Center, who was general counsel of the Federal Election Commission for 13 years, said such a “shortcut” was a rare occurrence. “It is not unusual for different parties to coordinate, but I don’t remember seeing many where they copy it word for word,” he said.

The author of the first-filed brief, Andrew Herman of the firm Miller & Chevalier, told me “this is not a case of plagiarism” but the “product of a joint defense between the parties.” He didn’t explain how they collaborated, or which firm drafted the language. Respondents in FEC cases are permitted to coordinate their responses.

But Trevor Potter, a Republican former chairman of the FEC, said this does not explain the near-identical briefs. “Joint defense agreement are not uncommon and allow two defendants with common interests to share information within the attorney/client privilege,” he said. “However, that has nothing to do with filing nearly word-for-word identical legal briefs with the FEC. That is a different issue and seems very unusual.”

One lawyer who has argued enforcement cases before the FEC for more than two decades said he had never seen an argument copied word-for-word like this. The lawyer, who was not authorized by his firm to be named, said submitting a nearly identical brief is “at the very least bad form.”

Kevyn Orr, the Jones Day partner in charge of the firm’s Washington office, declined to comment. My email inquiries sent to the White House press office and to McGahn received no response.

The filings, made public by the FEC last week on the eve of the inauguration, are a postscript to one of the stranger tales of the campaign: the hiring of actors, reportedly for $50 apiece, to cheer at Trump’s June 2015 kickoff event at Trump Tower, and the campaign’s alleged failure to pay the firm that helped organize the event, Gotham Government Relations. The Trump campaign paid up after a complaint was filed with the FEC alleging an in-kind contribution to Trump from Gotham. The FEC decided the remaining stakes — a few months’ worth of interest on $12,000 — did not merit action. After Trump’s victory, Gotham announced it was opening a Washington office.

Most of McGahn’s brief repeats the Gotham brief verbatim.

“The Complaint is legally deficient and must be dismissed because it fails to clearly and concisely recite any verifiable facts that constitute a violation of the Act or Commission regulations,” Herman wrote.

“The Complaint is legally deficient and must be dismissed because it fails to clearly and concisely recite any verifiable facts that constitute a violation of the Act or Commission regulations,” McGahn wrote for Trump.

“At best, the Complaint is nothing more than a few sensationalized and erroneous news reports dressed up as a complaint,” Herman wrote.

“At best, the Complaint is nothing more than a few sensationalized and erroneous news reports dressed up as a complaint,” McGahn wrote.

And so on. In one case, McGahn’s brief dropped a word but left the comma that followed it, garbling the sentence.

If the two men worked jointly, as Herman said, the incident is not a case of unauthorized use of another’s words but a slapdash legal filing. Given that one of the men involved is now the top lawyer in the White House, that’s not entirely reassuring.

Twitter: @Milbank

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