CLEVELAND — When the opening night of the Republican National Convention ended here, Donald Trump’s advisers were exuberant — thrilled with Melania Trump’s sparkling debut and confident that Rudy Giuliani and a parade of other speakers delivered the ideal combination of fire, emotion and reassurance.
One hour later, they were in crisis mode.
The potential first lady’s address — the night’s highlight — was suddenly under attack because of apparent plagiarism. By morning, the campaign’s efforts at damage control added up to a series of conflicting explanations and recriminations. The episode reopened long-standing divisions among Trump’s advisers and allies who have been feuding all year.
Added to that were questions for Trump’s team about the choreography of opening night.
Why had they not ended the night with Melania Trump’s powerful speech?
Who had vetted the long and rambling speech by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, which prompted so many delegates to walk out that the closing act by Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa — a rare next-generation star willing to address Trump’s convention — came close to midnight in a mostly empty Quicken Loans Arena?
Why had Donald Trump called into Bill O’Reilly’s program on Fox News, resulting in the network cutting away from the emotionally resonant remarks by Patricia Smith, whose son Sean was killed in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya?
Then there were the day’s earlier developments: the brief revolt on the convention floor from rebellious anti-Trump delegates over a procedural dispute, as well as Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s decision to begin a week-long push for party unity by publicly chastising Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the Bush family over their refusal to support Trump.
The first 24 hours of Trump’s convention left Republican strategists — some of whom have long been at odds with Trump and his team — befuddled and concerned about the capacity of the Trump campaign to run a serious and effective general-election operation against the machinery of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Talking to operatives here, the mood is something between grim resignation and the Donner party,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP consultant who ran the super PAC behind the unsuccessful candidacy of former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
John Weaver, a GOP strategist who has feuded with Manafort, wrote in an email: “This was probably the worst first day of a national party convention since the Democrats gathered in Miami Beach in 1972. You would think it can only get better, but with this campaign, one never knows.”
Trump allies were hopeful Tuesday that the opening day’s problems would be forgotten by week’s end.
“Ultimately it comes to Donald Trump on Thursday night delivering a pointed, presidential speech, balloon drop, so that people can see Donald Trump in the White House,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview Tuesday.
Trump is not the first candidate whose convention has started with stumbles. But what has transpired over the past week can hardly be considered mere stumbles. The rollout of vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence was widely criticized as sloppy and detrimental to the Indiana governor, while last-minute planning for the convention program appeared to be chaotic.
Underscoring the concern coursing through the Republican Party is the fact that these were self-inflicted mistakes made in the two major events of the general election — the convention and the selection of a running mate — over which the campaign has near-complete control.
“I don’t think we should be Pollyannaish about the organizational shortfalls we’re witnessing here,” said Alex Conant, a senior aide with Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “Every aspect of the campaign is lacking, and I don’t think anybody should be surprised by the first 24 hours of the convention.”
The mood within Trump’s campaign turned from ebullient to dark quickly after the convention program wrapped late Monday night. Manafort and other campaign officials were seen shaking hands as they left the arena and receiving congratulations from fellow operatives — in particular for Melania Trump’s speech.
Then, once much of Donald Trump’s team was back at their hotel, CNN and MSNBC turned to intensive coverage and analysis of the plagiarism story. Portions of her speech were almost identical to parts of Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The passages focused on the value of hard work and honesty.
“It’s plagiarism. It’s flat-out plagiarism,” David Axelrod, the chief strategist of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, said just after midnight on CNN.
In overnight text messages and conversations, Trump’s advisers expressed indignation at the news coverage and immediately began to call the plagiarism allegations unfair and absurd, according to people close to the campaign.
Manafort and campaign spokesman Jason Miller worked to craft the campaign’s initial statement, which landed in reporters’ inboxes at 1:48 a.m.
“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,” read the statement, which was attributed to Miller. “Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.”
The statement conflicted with what Melania Trump told NBC News before her appearance Monday night. Asked by Matt Lauer whether she had practiced her speech, she said, “I read it once over, and that’s all because I wrote it with as little help as possible.”
Trump’s representatives reached out weeks ago to John McConnell and Matthew Scully, two respected speechwriters and veterans of George W. Bush’s White House, asking them to draft a speech for Melania Trump. Scully’s involvement was first reported by the New York Times.
McConnell and Scully produced a draft and delivered it to the campaign several weeks ago, after which it was in the hands of Donald Trump advisers. The Trump team decided to go a different direction and the speech Melania Trump delivered Monday night bore no resemblance to the original draft submitted by the speechwriting duo, according to a senior Donald Trump adviser who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
By sunrise Tuesday, the campaign was in overdrive to squelch the controversy. Rushing to Melania Trump’s defense was Manafort, who by design is the face of the campaign. He is Donald Trump’s chief defender, chief promoter, chief communicator and muscle. His titles have included campaign chairman, senior strategist and convention chairman.
Manafort’s tone in a series of interviews and at a news conference here Tuesday morning was defiant and dismissive. He declined to identify any individuals involved in the writing of Melania Trump’s speech, nor did he report that any disciplinary action had been taken.
Manafort insisted on CNN that “there’s no cribbing of Michelle Obama’s speech. These were common words and values that she cares about.”
In the news conference, he accused the media and the Clinton campaign of distorting her message. “It’s just another example as far as we’re concerned that when Hillary Clinton is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy the person,” Manafort said.
There is no evidence that the plagiarism allegations originated with the Clinton campaign. The first connections appear to have been made by a Huffington Post contributor.
Clinton spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri criticized Manafort for accusing the Democratic campaign. “Nice try, not true,” she said in a tweet.
In the tightly scripted world of politics, it is highly unusual for a mistake such as plagiarized paragraphs to slip into a speech of this magnitude, said Matt Latimer, another veteran speechwriter who worked in the Bush White House.
“It’s total amateur hour,” Latimer said of Monday’s episode. “In the Bush White House, this speech would have been drafted six to eight weeks ago and it would have been vetted by 15 to 20 people before the first lady ever saw it.”
Corey Lewandowski, a Manafort rival whom Trump fired as campaign manager a few weeks ago, said on CNN, where he is now a paid contributor, that Manafort should be held to account if he vetted Melania Trump’s speech.
“If he was the last person who saw this happen and brought this on the candidate’s wife, I think he should resign,” Lewandowski said.
Trump officials urged surrogates to parrot Manafort’s comments, but Republican leaders were hard-pressed to deliver a consistent response.
Priebus, who has been in daily contact with the Trump campaign for months, arrived at a Tuesday breakfast with reporters with no clear explanation and acknowledged that he had only “read the passages real quickly.” Asked whether he would fire a speechwriter under these circumstances, Priebus said, “Probably.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a staunch Donald Trump ally, effectively acknowledged some plagiarism even as he defended Melania Trump and the campaign, saying, “Ninety-three percent of the speech is completely different than Michelle Obama’s speech.”
Other defenders pointed to previous examples of plagiarism in political speech. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich noted that both President Obama and Vice President Biden have survived criticism over lifting the words of others.
Of the scrutiny over Melania Trump, he said, “It’s a little much.”
By late afternoon, there had been no direct word from Donald Trump himself. He was at home in New York and uncharacteristically silent on Twitter, his favorite medium at moments of crisis.
Here in Cleveland, Trump’s team tried to look ahead to the second night of programming. At the news conference, Manafort all but begged reporters to ask him about something other than Melania Trump.
“We’re just going to move on,” he said.
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.