It’s important when you’re a candidate for president – and even more so when you become the president – to know what not to say and when not to say it. That is, to know when to shut up.
It’s a skill Donald Trump shows no interest in mastering.
This is about judgment and about having a thick enough skin not to have to launch an intemperate response to every criticism that comes your way. Presidents and candidates for president are going to be criticized. That’s how it works. You have to learn to pick your fights, and a good one not to pick is with the grieving parents of an American soldier who was killed protecting his troops.
That’s what Trump has done, repeatedly criticizing Khizr and Ghazala Khan following Khizr Khan’s blistering indictment of the Republican presidential nominee at last week’s Democratic National Convention. Attempting to eclipse Khan is a fool’s errand.
Even if Trump was correct in his criticisms of the hero’s parents, judgment requires something more like silence than a reflexive verbal assault and petulant complaint that he was “viciously attacked,” and protesting, “Am I not allowed to respond?”
The answer is, yes, of course he is allowed to respond. But that doesn’t mean he had to. He had a choice.
Trump could have let the criticism of him recede or kept it alive through a politically inept and self-destructive attack on a Gold Star family. Indeed, that knee-jerk response has been his pattern throughout this campaign, and he continued it this weekend with a pointless and self-defeating criticism of Ghazala Khan’s silence during her husband’s presentation. She responded with an impassioned op-ed in the Washington Post.
It’s shocking conduct by a candidate for the nation’s highest office, but there is an example he can follow, though he won’t like it. Hillary Clinton, who has been in the public eye for a quarter-century, understands the concept of what not to say and when to shrug off the attacks that will inevitably come any candidate’s way.
Specifically, the mother of one of four Americans killed in Benghazi, Patricia Smith, gave a tearful speech at the Republican convention in which she personally blamed Clinton for the death of her son. Clinton has not responded, though she did at a debate in March, in which she expressed sympathy for Smith’s loss but said of the criticism only that Smith was wrong.
To be sure, Clinton has been criticized even for that comment, but it was restrained and respectful. Trump has been anything but restrained and respectful since the Khans’ appearance on the Philadelphia convention stage on Thursday night.
This has been a disaster for Trump, with even Republicans repudiating his remarks. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is no friend of Trump, but is a committed Republican. He slammed the nominee.
So did Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado. He served in combat as a Marine. So did Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee and a former prisoner of war – and criticized for that by Trump.
“I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement,” McCain said. “I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.”
The problem for Trump, and for voters, is that this isn’t simply a question of Trump’s inability to moderate his behavior in the face of criticism. It goes to Michelle Obama’s convention speech observation that “when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well-informed.”
Those qualities, undeniably essential for any president, have been utterly, disturbingly absent in Trump’s war with American parents who lost so much. It’s sad.