Melania Trump’s rollout this week of her “Be Best” initiative focusing on children was intended to give the first lady an agenda all her own. Instead, it revived accusations that Mrs. Trump’s ideas were really coming from somewhere else.
Observers on Twitter quickly pointed out that one of the primary materials with “Be Best” branding, a booklet on social media guidelines called “Talking With Kids About Being Online,” had been circulated by the Federal Trade Commission during the Obama era. As the story spread, Mrs. Trump’s communications director published an extraordinary statement on Tuesday that admonished the news media for reporting on the plagiarism claims.
“Our office will continue to focus on helping children, and I encourage members of the media to attempt to Be Best in their own professions,” the communications director, Stephanie Grisham, wrote, “and focus on some of the children and programs Mrs. Trump highlighted in her remarks yesterday.”
— Stephanie Grisham (@StephGrisham45) May 8, 2018
Before the official “Be Best” rollout on Monday, aides had been upfront to reporters when asked about the fact that Mrs. Trump’s office was repackaging items, including the Federal Trade Commission booklet, from other programs. Among program materials distributed to reporters covering the event was an initiative by the National Safety Council intended to encourage people to talk to their doctors about opioid abuse.
Mrs. Trump’s staff plans to continue to solicit ideas for the initiative, which focuses on opioid abuse, social media pressures and mental health issues among young people, from places the first lady has visited. Those include a West Virginia clinic that treats infants born with opioid addiction and a Michigan school where students participate in a program to stress the importance of emotional intelligence and kindness.
But critics did not buy the defense. Mrs. Trump enjoys higher popularity ratings than her husband, but she has been accused of plagiarism before. In 2016, a large part of a speech she delivered at the Republican convention appeared to be taken from remarks Michelle Obama, her immediate predecessor, delivered in 2008. On Monday, observers also noted that Mrs. Obama had delivered remarks in 2016 urging men to “be better.”
Like her husband, Mrs. Trump is also viewed by many as having baggage related to the Obamas, stemming back to jabs she took at President Barack Obama while her husband was promoting the conspiracy theory that Mr. Obama was not an American citizen: “It’s not only Donald who wants to see” Mr. Obama’s birth certificate, Mrs. Trump said during a 2011 interview. “It’s American people who voted for him and who didn’t vote for him.” Mr. Obama eventually released his long-form birth certificate.
The East Wing is known to lash out when faced with coverage the first lady views as unfair: In October, Mrs. Trump directed her office to release a scorching statement criticizing President Trump’s first wife, Ivana, for jokingly referring to herself as the first lady. But East Wing aides who had worked to execute a tightly scripted and controlled kickoff — and who are particularly sensitive when observers draw comparisons to the Obamas — had not anticipated the negative reaction to the booklet.
Different versions of it have circulated since at least 2009, and the booklet is meant to be distributed, as the Federal Trade Commission noted in its own news release on Monday: “We’re excited that the first lady is sharing this important information with families across the country,” an agency official, Nat Wood, wrote in a statement.
In the version the East Wing distributed on Monday, the only original part appeared to be a brief statement signed by Mrs. Trump.
“The lessons in this booklet can help kids act thoughtfully and kindly,” Mrs. Trump wrote in a statement at the front of the booklet, which was labeled on the back with the Federal Trade Commission’s logo and web address. “The internet — and technology in general — are powerful forces for good.”
The statement was accompanied by her official portrait.