On the latest Keepin’ It 1600, Jon Favreau draws on his experience as a White House speechwriter to examine how Melania Trump gave that puzzling speech — which took phrases from Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC address — at the Republican National Convention on Monday. He discusses the process of writing a convention speech, who worked with Michelle Obama, and how Trump’s speech made it all the way to the teleprompter.
For more from Favreau and his podcast partner, Dan Pfeiffer, on the Republican National Convention, listen to the whole episode here. The transcript of this excerpt has been edited and condensed.
Jon Favreau: I thought to myself, “You could see it happening that a phrase or a stray sentence that you’ve written in a speech could have been somewhere else for two reasons.” One, when you write a convention speech, you read a whole bunch of other convention speeches to get your mind around what you’re doing. When we wrote Barack Obama’s convention speech in 2008, we read every past convention speech of every presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy. You just do that. So some of the phrasing can get in your head.
Number 2, speeches are full of clichés. Speeches are full of common turns of phrase, as much as you try to avoid them and you try to make everything fresh and unique. So sometimes, even if you haven’t subconsciously copied someone else, you just will because that’s the nature of political speeches. So, I could see a stray phrase or two.
Two paragraphs … [were] like exactly copied from Michelle — in a row. Someone ran that the chances of that happening are one in a trillion. It was complete mayhem [on Monday night].
I got more media requests at ten o’clock at night, West Coast time, than I’ve ever gotten for anything in my life — including reporters that asked me for Sarah Hurwitz, Michelle Obama’s speechwriter who helped work on that 2008 speech. I had worked with her on the Kerry campaign, so I knew Sarah. When Hillary dropped out, we hired her on the campaign. Michelle needed help with her convention speech. She was going to write a lot of it herself, but she needed some help, so we lent her Sarah Hurwitz, and she liked Sarah so much that she stole her away from us. She has been Michelle’s chief speechwriter ever since.
Someone asked what were our safeguards on the Obama campaign for plagiarism. Well, in 2008, for most of the time, the speechwriters were myself and Adam Frankel, then Ben Rhodes, and then at the end of the campaign, Cody Keenan and Sarah Hurwitz. I trusted that I wasn’t plagiarizing huge paragraphs at a time, and I trusted that those guys weren’t either. But if one of them had, and one of them snuck it by us, I don’t know that our research team or anyone else could have caught that. I don’t know.
The research team was so busy … trying to fact check the speech, make sure that the facts were straight. That’s what the research team’s job is. So, now, take all of this and put it on the Trump campaign, which is like a complete shit show anyway and can barely hire any staff whatsoever. Of course no one would catch it in that campaign.
But it appears that two … Republican speechwriters that are well known — Matthew Scully and John McConnell — they were part of a team of … speechwriters in the Bush White House. [Michael] Gerson and those two wrote all of George W. Bush’s speeches. Scully and McConnell, they’re very good speechwriters. They wrote a lot of George Bush’s best speeches. They also wrote Sarah Palin’s 2008 convention speech, which, I know it seems silly to think about now, but was a very effective speech. I remember watching her give that speech and was scared of Sarah Palin as the vice presidential nominee.
Scully and McConnell were brought in to draft the original Melania Trump speech. They sent a draft to the campaign. … They never heard from [Melania Trump’s camp] again, and then none of that speech was included in the final. … And it appears that Melania went with this woman [Meredith McIver] to help her rewrite the speech, and so it’s very possible that the final product was a result of collaboration between Melania Trump and this woman. After it was done, it was then sent to everyone else on the campaign, who probably just looked at it and said, “OK, looks good, let’s put it in the prompter.”