On the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention, a little-known father of a fallen Army officer took to the stage to deliver a blistering indictment of Donald Trump’s conception of civil liberties and personal sacrifice.
Khizr Khan became quite famous in that moment. But it was only in the days after that his full impact on the campaign would be felt. Trump responded not by empathizing and politely disagreeing with Khan, but by questioning whether his wife stood silently by his side because of religious constraints and wondering whether the whole speech had been orchestrated by the Hillary Clinton campaign.
The whole episode proved monumentally insensitive and self-destructive. And there is a good case to make that the Trump campaign has yet to recover and maybe never will.
So it was a bit of a shock to see, some 18 days later, a prominent Trump surrogate doing his best to breathe life back into the Khan story.
“Mr. Khan is the one that went out and struck the first blow, and in a campaign, if you’re going to go out and think that you can take a shot at somebody and not have incoming coming back at you, shame on you,” former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) told CNN on Tuesday. “Because he had a son that was lost in this war against terror — that gives him a free ride to say whatever he would like against a candidate that he’s not for? That’s not proper, that’s not correct.”
Perry went on from there to note his sterling credentials when it comes to supporting veterans and their families. Which is true: they were the cornerstone of his largely forgettable second run for the presidency. But putting those aside, it’s still worth asking why he felt he had to go down this road at the very moment when the initial controversy seemed to be receding from view.
And the most compelling answer is the simplest: Donald Trump has terrible surrogates.
The same day that Perry was reviving the Khan story, the co-chair of Trump’s national veterans’ coalition was once more talking about killing Hillary Clinton. And no, “once more” is not a misprint. New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro had previously expressed his belief that Clinton “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason” for her use of a private email server. In an apparent attempt at clarification, he told a local outlet that he had not, in fact, called for her to be “assassinated” but merely meant that “she should be shot in a firing squad for treason.”
If you’re having difficulty finding the distinction here, you’re not alone.
Stressing on multiple occasions that you wouldn’t mind seeing your political opponent riddled with bullets is, of course, beyond the pale. On a much smaller scale, it’s also shows that you’re a bad functionary for a presidential campaign.
But these are the people whom Trump has relied on as his surrogates.
Baldasaro may be the most obsessively violent, but others are equally confounding. Katrina Pierson, the campaign’s national spokesperson, has become must-see television for her certitude in stating historical inaccuracies. Last week, she insisted that the war in Afghanistan started under President Barack Obama, despite his being a state senator in Illinois at the time. And just yesterday, Trump’s longtime counsel, Michael Cohen, helped create an instantly viral cable news moment when he repeatedly demanded to know who, exactly, was insisting that Mr. Trump was not doing spectacularly well on the trail. He quickly got the answer: every single poll.
There is an argument to be made that the impact of a campaign surrogate is overrated. Few, if any, voters cast a ballot because Pierson bumbled the history of the Afghanistan war. Cohen’s blank stares into the CNN camera will be forgotten by Election Day. Trump is far more responsible for making the Khan family an issue than Perry ever will be. And while Baldasaro’s comments are truly vile, it’s more notable that Trump himself has vaguely discussed Second Amendment enthusiasts taking action into their own hands.
But as a practical matter, all of these moments have harmed Trump. And their collective damage has added up. At a time when the Trump campaign would prefer to move the conversation away from their candidate and on to Clinton, these moments don’t allow for it.
For a brief moment, Trump appeared to recognize that this was, in fact, a problem ― one that only he could fix. In June, his campaign brought on board an operative to oversee and organize the surrogate operation. But two weeks into the job, that operative, Kevin Kellems, quit.
“While brief,” he said, “it has been an interesting experience.” Kellems didn’t return a request for comment.
Since then, nothing appears to have been done to mend this clearly problematic situation. In fact, just the opposite. Trump praised Baldasaro after his initial remark and the campaign has stood by Pierson through her various cable news adventures. Republicans outside the campaign have been left utterly confused. Some assume that Trump simply can’t recruit better talent, since few seasoned operatives have any desire to join a campaign that they view as a surefire loser.
But there is also a theory that Trump is either too cheap or simply doesn’t care.
“That’s the thing that bothers me. So let’s suppose he is a smart businessman, just for this argument’s sake. He has marketing and communications and advertising and finance people in his resort, golf courses, real estate ventures and other things. He moves almost none of them over, save a lawyer and a digital/policy guy, both of whom are unhinged?” said Rory Cooper, who was a top operative to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
“Part of it is that nobody will work for him. Too career risky even if not out of principle,” Cooper continued. “But he could surely throw enough money at some good people if he was really trying. And yeah, that’s a strong signal that he’s not.”
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said incorrectly that Khan’s son was a Marine; he was in fact an Army officer. Also, due to an editing error, it misidentified Eric Cantor as the former Senate majority leader; he is the former House majority leader.