CLEVELAND — The Trump campaign defended Melania Trump on Tuesday, insisting she didn’t crib parts of her prime-time convention speech from first lady Michelle Obama — but the snafu knocked Republicans far off the message they’d hoped to send.
The former campaign manager for Donald Trump said someone should be fired over the incident, but campaign officials said that wasn’t going to happen and said critics were being sexist in questioning Mrs. Trump.
“The fact that the speech itself is being focused on for, as somebody I think at CBS told me today, 50 words, and that includes ‘ands’ and ‘thes’ and things like that, is totally ignoring the facts of the speech itself,” Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort told reporters.
Mr. Manafort said the criticism was a sign that Democrats were afraid of Mrs. Trump.
“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,” he said. “But it’s politics. We recognize it and we’re just going to move on.”
Mrs. Trump, making her biggest appearance yet on the national campaign stage, had the task of introducing herself and her husband to voters. In her remarks, she spoke of her immigrant heritage, her pride in becoming an American and of hard work and passing on values to the next generation.
“My parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond, and you do what you say and keep your promise — that you treat people with respect,” Mrs. Trump said.
In 2008, Mrs. Obama had said: “Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values, like you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond, that you do what you say you’re going to do — that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them and even if you don’t agree with them.”
On Monday, Mrs. Trump went on to say: “That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son, and we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
Mrs. Obama went on to say in her 2008 speech: “And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values and to pass them on to the next generation, because we want our children and all children in this nation to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work hard for them.”
White House press secretary Joshua Earnest declined to label it plagiarism, saying that when Mrs. Obama spoke at the Democrats’ convention in 2008, “she received an enthusiastic reception and strong reviews because of her words, her life story and the values that she and her husband deeply believe in and try to instill in their kids.”
“I’ll let all of you weigh in on that and try to learn more about how exactly it was written,” Mr. Earnest said Tuesday.
But Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager who was dismissed last month, said Tuesday on CNN that the person responsible for the remarks making their way into the speech should be fired.
“Whoever was the staff person who wrote this speech should be held accountable … should be fired,” Mr. Lewandowski said. “I know accountability in the Trump campaign. I know what it’s like to be fired from the Trump campaign.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said at a Bloomberg breakfast that he, too, would probably fire the speechwriter if presented with a similar situation.
Attention on the passages in Mrs. Trump’s speech that echoed lines from Mrs. Obama’s address at the 2008 Democratic National Convention ended up dominating a good portion of the second day of the Republican National Convention — a day Republicans had hoped to spend talking about jobs and the economy.
But Janice Breitenstine, a GOP delegate from Texas, predicted that the issue would fizzle out.
“I’ve done a lot of writing and I know the first thing you do is research to see what’s been done in the past, so I’m sure somebody, some staffer did that kind of research and when you read something then a little bit later, those words are still flowing through your brain,” Ms. Breitenstine said.
“I think it’s a real big deal made out of absolutely nothing,” she said.