Culture

An Interview with the Laid-Off Reporter Who Scooped Everybody on Melania Trump's Plagiarism

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Melania Trump, wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, waves as she arrives to speak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Monday. Mike Segar/Reuters

Jarrett Hill is an unemployed 31-year-old journalist who got laid-off from his TV reporting job in Florida last year.

He also just broke the biggest story of the Republican National Convention—despite not setting foot anywhere near Cleveland.

Hill was watching a live stream on his laptop at a Starbucks in Culver City, California, when he noticed that a line in Melania Trump's speech bore suspicious similarities to Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention address. After googling a few phrases, he realized it was outright plagiarism. 

Hill dashed off a few tweets and, within hours, drew national attention to the Trump campaign's bizarre blunder in front of 23 million viewers. His side-by-side comparison has been retweeted 25,000 times and discussed at every level of the political establishment.

On Wednesday morning, a Trump speechwriter took responsibility and apologized, though the Republican candidate rejected her offer of resignation. (Other Republicans have creatively deflected questions about the speech or denied wrongdoing.)

We chatted with Hill about how he spotted Melania's plagiarism, whether he's secretly a Clinton campaign operative (he's not!) and the "whirlwind" of the past few days.

What was your night like on Monday when you watched Melania Trump's speech?
It was a relatively plain night. I started recognizing some words coming from Melania. It was definitely a situation where I expected there to be something [unusual] to happen that night.... I never expected this to be what would happen.

You were sitting in a Starbucks when you tweeted out this observation?
Yeah. I was doing what I call "semi-livetweeting." I was just tweeting thoughts. But I was halfway tuned in, halfway tuned out. Some of the other speeches were a little upsetting to me in the things they were saying. I'm undeniably a Democrat and I don't pretend to not be, but I just wanted to see what [Melania] was going to say. This was her first big moment.

How were you so familiar with Michelle Obama's speech that you were able to recognize those similarities?
The best way that I can describe it is when you hear a song that you haven't heard in a long time and you begin to recognize the lyrics pretty quickly. It wasn't that I recognized the entire speech—she said a lot of different things in that speech—but it was really just that last phrase that stuck out to me. I remembered thinking that it was such a beautiful piece that [Michelle Obama] said. I believe I wrote it down back then because I really liked it. When she said, "The only limit to the height of your achievement is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them." That was a quote that I remembered being really beautiful.

Had you recently watched Michelle Obama's speech?
No! To be honest with you, if you had asked me what she said in 2008, I don't even know that I would have remembered much from the speech. It wasn't like I'd memorized it or recited it or anything. I just really remembered that quote. 

What do you think of the Trump campaign's various denials of the plagiarism charge?
It's what I anticipated. We've seen this from them so many times. I keep using the old phrase, "Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining." Well, they're always peeing on our legs and telling us it's raining. We can see what happened here. It's not like, "Oh, what a coincidence!" or "Oh, that's so strange!" It's like, "No, you guys stole that language!" Stole might be a strong verb, but at least it's copied from the speech.

As of this morning, your scoop prompted the first ever public apology or acknowledgment of wrongdoing from the Trump campaign.
I guess I'm realizing that as we're discussing it. That's pretty interesting! I don't even know how to process that, to be honest with you. As I said, I'm realizing that as we're discussing it. We've not really heard an apology or heard anything like that from them in the last year and some change. I don't know what to do with that, to be honest! [laughs] I dont know what to say to that.

What have the past 36 hours been like for you?
The last 36 hours have been ridiculous. I mean, "whirlwind" is the word I've used a lot. It's been a lot! I did 14 interviews yesterday, between television and print. I did four interviews—three of them were international—the night of. It's been very, very busy. 

Have you faced any harassment over your role in this?
I think "harassment" might be a little strong. I have gotten messages from people telling me that I'm a terrible person, it's not that big of a deal, I made it up, it's not really plagiarism, Michelle Obama doesn't own English—those kinds of things from people I assume are Trump supporters. 

You scooped the entire political media on this. Are you going to continue covering the Trump campaign?
I've been a very politically aware and involved person for quite a while. So this was not out of the ordinary for me. I will definitely be tracking the political campaigns, and probably with a little more commentary.

You're unemployed?
That's correct.

Have you gotten job offers as a result of this?
I've gotten a few outreaches that are starting to trickle in. I wouldn't say, "Oh, I have a job offer." I've gotten a few pieces of interest.

Anything else you want to say about how this speech controversy unraveled?
I really just wanted [Trump's campaign] to be honest and say, "We screwed up." It seems like that's happening. Another important thing to say is, I've read a lot that I'm a Clinton operative or I'm in the pocket of the Clinton campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish I was on the Clinton payroll, but that's not true. I've not even been reached out to by the Clinton campaign or by the White House. 

Are you a supporter of Hillary Clinton?
I have been a strong supporter of the Obamas for a long time. I am a registered Democrat. I am for Hillary Clinton at this point. So, yes.

What did you think of the other speeches we've seen at the convention so far?
This is what we expect from the RNC. We expect them to be attacking Hillary Clinton. Last night, I thought Chris Christie sounded like—it felt like the Salem witch trials. I can't imagine if she were in the room. I would have been worried about her safety. 

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