Back in 2009, web designer Matthew Ipcar, who’d created change.gov for the Obama campaign, led a small team tasked with relaunching the White House website. “We started from scratch,” he recalled. After drafting a 40-page memo articulating their vision, goals, and themes, Ipcar and his crew overhauled navigation, optimized typefaces, added image galleries, rewrote the presidential biographies, and introduced a “share your thoughts” section that encouraged users to interact with executive staff. “In the end,” Ipcar said, “we built something different from any previous head of state’s online presence. We were really proud.” (Disclosure: Ipcar is married to Slate columnist Michelle Goldberg.)
Eight years later, Ipcar and his former colleagues are less proud than dismayed. Trump’s administration has preserved the shell of the site while gutting it from within. Rather than construct a new template, the Trump administration focused on removing pages about LGBTQ rights, criminal justice reform, health care policy, and climate change. Trump’s web wizards also temporarily disappeared the judiciary branch from the portal’s Government section.
“I feel responsible for designing this beautiful thing,” Ipcar told me. “But it’s like a really good building—it has rooms and furniture and portraits, and it’s solid and it works. And now this other man is living in it.” The new guy seems like a bit of a slob. He’s careless when it comes to standardizing fonts and formatting across multiple pages. His copy is rife with grammatical errors and poor phrasing. “Art therapy is facilitated by art therapists who use art media as a method of treatment,” begins a sentence in Karen Pence’s online biography. The site now reads like an extremely patriotic fifth-grade book report. “Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the United States,” the president’s official bio explains. “He believes the United States has incredible potential and will go on to exceed anything that it has achieved in the past. His campaign slogan was Make America Great Again, and that is what he intends to do.”
Slate design director Jason Santa Maria describes the Trump iteration of the White House website as “brochure-ware,” a form of “one-way communication.” The Obama administration’s digital hub invited users to “send questions, comments, concerns, or well-wishes to the President or his staff using this form.” The new WhiteHouse.gov asks you to “follow President Trump on Twitter at @POTUS.”
Trump’s online embodiment isn’t just a bad website. It’s a microcosm of this administration’s laziness, sloppiness, and lack of imagination. This is Donald Trump’s life story: He helps himself to the fruits of other people’s labor, even as he denigrates those he’s cribbing from. As a businessman, he stiffed his contractors; NPR recently reported that three Washington-area companies are suing Trump International Hotel for more than $5 million in unpaid fees. The executive order draft that caused a stir last week when it appeared to revive Bush-era detention and interrogation policies almost exactly mirrors a campaign proposal from Mitt Romney’s camp. Sure, political documents often draw on language from past officeholders. But placed in the context of this president’s mulish mediocrity, the cloned order feels like yet another example of our C student in chief copying someone else’s homework.
Casual appropriation has been a hallmark of Trump’s political rise. Parts of Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention were swiped from an address by Michelle Obama. On Inauguration Day, the president’s Twitter background made use of photos from Barack Obama’s first swearing-in. In a perceptive and devastating essay for the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen noted that Trump’s inaugural ball cake amounted to a shoddy imitation of Obama’s, the only difference being that this dessert contained chiefly Styrofoam. “The cake may be the best symbol yet of the incoming administration: much of what little it brings is plagiarized, and most of it is unusable for the purpose for which presidential administrations are usually intended,” Gessen writes. “Not only does it not achieve excellence: it does not even see the point of excellence.”
The Trump team is marked by both a stubborn, fundamental absence of vision and a lack of moral qualms about taking other people’s stuff. All of this copying isn’t just a symptom of dullness or laziness or entitlement; it’s a complicated alloy of those things and more. It is brazen, like Trump’s ridiculous lies about voter fraud and his claim that Obama was born in Kenya. It reveals, too, the new president’s complacency, opportunism, and dearth of substance. (A tenacious plagiarism habit may also help doctors identify people with narcissistic personality disorder.)
It’s telling who is and isn’t allowed to get away with stealing other people’s work. When CNN discovered that conservative commentator Monica Crowley, whom Trump had tapped to direct strategic communications for the National Security Council, was a serial plagiarist, the White House at first defended her. “HarperCollins—one of the largest and most respected publishers in the world—published her book which has become a national best-seller,” the Trumpkins team trumpeted, invoking the POTUS-friendly metrics of ratings, sales, and prestige. “Any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.” But Crowley pulled herself out of consideration for the White House post soon after. Apparently she hadn’t quite mastered—or been permitted to exhibit—her leader’s shamelessness.
Or consider the tango that ensued when viewers realized that Melania Trump had airlifted into her RNC address sentences from her predecessor’s remarks at the 2008 Democratic convention. First, Paul Manafort and Sean Spicer vociferously denied that any literary theft had occurred. (Spicer memorably quoted a few gauzy lines on family and dreams from the My Little Pony character Twilight Sparkle before demanding, “Did Mrs. Obama plagiarize her, too?”) Then, as media outlets turned up the heat, Trump Organization employee Meredith McIver stepped forward to take the fall. She released a statement flagellating herself for including some choice phrasings Melania had highlighted for her. “This was my mistake, and I feel terrible for the chaos I have caused Melania and the Trumps, as well as to Mrs. Obama,” McIver said. The apology never acknowledged that Melania would likely have noticed the Obama language she’d so admired when it reappeared on her own teleprompter. Plagiarism is about impunity, and impunity means that when you can’t erase the consequences of your actions, you need to find someone else to absorb the punishment.
Trump, for his part, showed no remorse about lightly shaming his wife, along with the media, about the speech debacle. At the Al Smith Dinner on Oct. 20, he lamented that Michelle Obama’s oratory earned rave reviews from the biased press while Melania said the exact same things and “people got on her case.” The soon-to-be-president’s laugh line got a big round of applause. The man, it must be said, can take a joke: He’d lifted his quip, almost word for word, from a cartoon that appeared in Roll Call.