Two days after delivering one of the most memorable speeches of the 2016 campaign season — a moment one commentator described as the “fulcrum” of the election — Khizr Khan was checking into a District of Columbia hotel, preparing for television appearances Sunday morning and still trying to come to grips with the sudden spotlight.
“I was in line, and a group of people gathered behind me and one of them said, ‘Sir, can we shake your hand?’” Khan said in a phone interview from his hotel room in Washington late Saturday night.
Khan was still overwhelmed by the response to his speech. He had paid tribute to his son Humayun Khan, a 27-year-old Army captain killed in Iraq in 2004, and he had asked Donald Trump whether he had ever read the U.S. Constitution or visited Arlington National Cemetery. All of it had amounted to the most direct and personal challenge so far to the GOP presidential nominee’s rhetoric concerning Muslim immigrants in America.
Khan said it is the massive response to his speech, not the speech itself, that is “causing the trouble to Trump.”
“They begin to see this person who can hardly speak correct English, who has an accent — and they are saying, ‘How dare he say something of that profound nature?’ Not profound in their eyes, but profound in how many people have responded,” said Khan, a Harvard-trained lawyer who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In a series of statements Friday and Saturday, Trump responded to Khan’s speech, first telling The New York Times that he wondered whether Khan’s wife, who stood silently by his side as he spoke, was “allowed” to speak, a response that drew widespread, bipartisan condemnation. In a written statement later Saturday, Trump — who has proposed suspending Muslim immigration to the U.S. — elaborated that Khan’s son, who was posthumously awarded a Gold Star and Purple Heart, was a “hero” who should be “honored.” He went on to say that “the real problem here are the radical Islamic terrorists who killed him, and the efforts of these radicals to enter our country to do us further harm.”
Khan said in response to Trump’s latest statement that “this is faked empathy.”
“What he said originally — that defines him … People are upset with him. He realizes, and his advisers feel that [his original statement] was a stupid mistake. That proves that this person is void of empathy. He is unfit for the stewardship of this great country. You think he will empathize with this country, with the suffering of this country’s poor people? He showed his true colors when he disrespected this country’s most honorable mother … all the snake oil he is selling, and my patriotic, decent Americans are falling for that. Republicans are falling for that. And I can only appeal to them. Reconsider. Repudiate. It’s a moral obligation. A person void of empathy for the people he wishes to lead cannot be trusted with that leadership. To vote is a trust. And it cannot be placed in wrong hands.”
In response to Trump’s attack on his wife, Khan said the Republican nominee’s words were “typical of a person without a soul.”
Khan said his wife didn’t speak because she breaks down when she sees her son’s photograph — a huge one of which was projected onto a screen behind the stage at the convention.
“Emotionally and physically — she just couldn’t even stand there, and when we left, as soon as we got off camera, she just broke down. And the people inside, the staff, were holding her, consoling her. She was just totally emotionally spent. Only those parents that have lost their son or daughter could imagine the pain that such a memory causes. Especially when a tribute is being paid. I was holding myself together, because one of us had to be strong. Normally, she is the stronger one. But in the matter of Humayun, she just breaks down any time anyone mentions it.”
Khan said he asked his wife whether she wanted to address the convention.
“I asked her, ‘Do you want to say something? Thank you? We are glad?’” Khan said. “She said, ‘You know what will happen. I will sob.’ Would any mother be able to utter a word under those circumstances?”
Khan also said that he is now turning his attention to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, appealing to them to repudiate what he considers to be Trump’s divisive rhetoric. He said the matter of Trump’s candidacy has become a moral issue beyond policy or political disagreement.
“I am saying to them that this is your moral duty — and history will judge you … This will be a burden on their conscience for the rest of their lives,” Khan said near midnight Saturday.
Khan said that Trump with his proposal to suspend Muslim immigration into the U.S. is simply “pandering for votes.”
“This is my country, too,” he said, adding that Trump “lacks understanding” that most Muslims are victims of terrorism, not perpetrators — and they condemn it. “He lacks awareness of these issues. He doesn’t realize there are patriotic Muslim Americans in this country willing to lay their lives for this country. We are a testament to that.”
Khan said that since his speech Thursday he’s received an unexpected flood of emails from judges, lawyers and others around the country who he thinks have become emboldened since his appearance.
“What has caused this stir is how those words have strengthened the hearts of people,” he said. “These are scholars, very prominent judges, prominent lawyers – one said very clearly: ‘I have never voted Democrat. I will vote Democrat this year. I want you to know that somehow you have touched my heart.”