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Donald Trump’s fight with the Khans is a reminder of his greatest weakness

Donald Trump And Mike Pence Hold Town Hall In Scranton, PA Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Today, Ghazala Khan published a Washington Post op-ed entitled, "Trump criticized my silence. He knows nothing about true sacrifice."

For Trump, it gets worse from there. Khan writes:

I cannot walk into a room with pictures of Humayun. For all these years, I haven’t been able to clean the closet where his things are — I had to ask my daughter-in-law to do it. Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me, I could hardly control myself. What mother could? Donald Trump has children whom he loves. Does he really need to wonder why I did not speak?

Donald Trump said that maybe I wasn’t allowed to say anything. That is not true. My husband asked me if I wanted to speak, but I told him I could not. My religion teaches me that all human beings are equal in God’s eyes. Husband and wife are part of each other; you should love and respect each other so you can take care of the family.

When Donald Trump is talking about Islam, he is ignorant.

A quick recap, in case you’re late to this: The most emotional moment of the Democratic National Convention was the speech by Khizr Khan, the bereaved father of Army Captain Humayun Khan. With his wife Ghazala by his side, Khan recalled his son’s character, his faith, his patriotism — and, ultimately, his courageous death in the service of the country he loved, and the fellow soldiers he was protecting.

Trump, for no reason at all, responded to this speech wondering whether Ghazala Khan hadn’t spoken on the stage because, as a Muslim woman, her husband wouldn’t permit her to talk in public. "If you look at his wife, she was standing there," he said, on national television. "She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say."

Trump’s slander of Ghazala Khan was cruel. It was factually untrue. But it was also deeply, profoundly counterproductive — a man so angry about being cut off in traffic that he crashes his own car in revenge.

The Democratic National Convention was, by all accounts, a rousing success. What Trump needed to do was move on from it as quickly as possible — get the press talking about something else, get voters thinking about something else.

Instead, he’s managed to not only extend the DNC’s dominance of the news cycle, but to extend the most powerful moment, and the most compelling speakers’, time in the spotlight.

It’s easy to forget now, but the Khans didn’t appear in the 10 to 11 pm hour carried by the networks. They were a sensation on Twitter, and I’m sure millions saw their words on Facebook, but the truth is most Americans, as of Friday, had no idea who they were or what they had said. I remember, after the speech, listening to Democrats lament that the Clinton campaign hadn’t put them higher on the schedule: The Khans were clearly the most effective anti-Trump messengers at the convention, but barely anyone would know it.

Luckily for the Clinton campaign, Trump has solved that problem for them. Now the Khans will be in the press for days. Clips of their speech will be played on every newscast nationwide. They will be guests on the biggest programs; they will write op-eds in the biggest papers. Their story will be told and retold, as will Trump’s dishonorable, petulant, and slanderous response. Trump will get the Khans more press and more visibility than the DNC ever did.

Even aside from its gauge as a measure of Trump’s cruelty, this episode reveals a few important truths about Donald Trump.

First, Trump is great at getting into the headlines, but he’s not great at getting the headlines he wants. He operates off of an all-press-is-good-press strategy that might have worked when he needed to stand out in a crowded primary but is a disaster now that he needs to win over undecided voters in Ohio. The National Review’s Reihan Salam had a good Twitter riff to this effect:

The second thing, as Salam says at the end of his argument, is that Trump is easily baited. He couldn’t swallow his hurt and anger over the Khan’s speech, he had to lash out, to fight back, to smear them in response. This doesn’t make sense if you understand the goal of an election as getting elected, but it does make sense if you understand the goal of an election as playing out an endless series of dominance games.

This is a point TPM’s Josh Marshall has repeatedly made about Trump. A need for dominance, Marshall writes, "is the key to understanding virtually everything Trump does. Whatever is actually happening he tries to refashion it into a dominance ritual or at least will not engage before performing one. You saw that in those numerous examples where he said he would participate in a debate but only after the other party wrote a major check to charity. It's primal."

The Khans’ speech hurt Trump. He watched it. He read the coverage of it. He felt slighted, inferior, humiliated. And so he needed to rebalance the scales. He needed to regain his dominance. He seems confused that anyone faults him for this — isn’t it obvious that they attacked him, and so he should get to attack them back?

This is the logic of a schoolyard bully, which Trump is. But it’s a dangerous mindset for a president.

Putting Trump in the Oval Office would open a huge vulnerability in our national security. It’s much easier to bait Trump than it is to attack the United States. Our enemies’ aim is often to provoke us into overreacting and overcommitting abroad because they can’t hope to seriously hurt us here. With Trump in control of the armed forces, the path to manipulating us into that kind of overreaction would be clear.