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Khizr Khan: Trump & Gen. Kelly’s Handling of Call to Gold Star Widow Exploited Her Grief

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As President Trump denies that he told the widow of a U.S. soldier killed in Niger that her husband “knew what he signed up for,” we spend the hour with Khizr Khan, one of the country’s best-known Gold Star family members, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004. Khan famously spoke out against Trump at last year’s Democratic National Convention and continues to do so. Khan has said the U.S. Declaration of Independence is “the story, really, of all colonized peoples everywhere and in every era.” He discusses his first experience reading the U.S. Constitution as a young man, noting: “It all made so much sense.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As President Donald Trump refuses to back down from attacks on the widow of a U.S. soldier killed in Niger, today we spend the hour with one of the country’s best-known Gold Star family members, whose son was killed in Iraq. As investigations continue into a deadly October 4th ambush in which five soldiers from Niger and four U.S. soldiers were killed while on patrol, the widow of one of the men is speaking out against Trump’s handling of the aftermath of the attack. The widow of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson said, during a condolence call, the president couldn’t remember the name of her husband. In an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America, Myeshia Johnson said she also heard President Trump say, quote, “He knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway.”

MYESHIA JOHNSON: What he said was—


MYESHIA JOHNSON: Yes, the president said that “he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways.” And I was—it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said—he couldn’t remember my husband’s name. The only way he remembered my husband’s name, because he told me he had my husband’s report in front of him. And that’s when he actually said “La David.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The week before, Trump falsely claimed his predecessors didn’t call the families of fallen soldiers. Last Thursday, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former Marine Corps general and a Gold Star father himself, defended Donald Trump and doubled down on his criticism of Florida Congressmember Frederica Wilson, who is a close friend of the Johnson family and was in the car when Trump made the call. She later told reporters what he said. Both the congresswoman and the widow are African-American. This is Kelly.

JOHN KELLY: He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist. He enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with, when his life was taken. That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.

It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation, absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore, as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, was sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone, as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield—I just thought that that might be sacred.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the convention over the summer that General Kelly refers to is likely last year’s Democratic National Convention, where one of the defining moments of the presidential campaign took place. That’s when Gold Star father Khizr Khan, joined by his wife, Ghazala, spoke about his son, Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in 2004 by a suicide bomber in Iraq. The Army posthumously awarded Captain Khan a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He was the highest-ranking Pakistani American to die in Iraq, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. During Khizr Khan’s speech, he criticized Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, and famously pulled a copy of the Constitution from his pocket, held it up for all to see, and offered to lend it to then-Republican candidate Donald Trump.

KHIZR KHAN: Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy, that with hard work and goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.

We are blessed to raise our three sons in a nation where they were free to be themselves and follow their dreams. Our son, Humayun, had dreams, too, of being a military lawyer, but he put those dreams aside the day he sacrificed his life to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son “the best of America.”

If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities, women, judges, even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls and ban us from this country.

Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will—I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words—look for the words “liberty” and “equal protection of law.” Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Khizr Khan speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. He joins us in studio for the hour. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Lives in the Balance,” written by Jackson Browne, performed by the late Richie Havens. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today we spend the hour with Khizr Khan, whose new memoir is just out this week, titled An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice. Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala are Gold Star parents whose son, Captain Humayun Khan, was killed in 2004 by a suicide bomber in Iraq. The Army posthumously awarded Captain Khan a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He was the highest-ranking Pakistani American to die in Iraq, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

AMY GOODMAN: Khizr Khan, of course, spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in honor of his son. During his speech, as you just heard in our last segment, he criticized Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and famously offered to loan the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, his pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Khizr Khan, I wanted to start with, well, first, welcoming you to Democracy Now!, and asking you about this controversy in Niger. You have four Special Forces who are killed in Niger. And you then have a condolence call that President Trump made to the widow of La David Johnson, one of the sergeants who was killed, the call made in the car on a speakerphone, and her dear friend, a mentor for La David Johnson, now-congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, was in the car. When they got out of the car to meet the body of La David Johnson, press were there, and Frederica Wilson said what President Trump had said to the widow that made her cry. And I’m wondering your thoughts. On the morning of the funeral of La David Johnson, President Trump did not mention La David Johnson in his tweets but went after the congressmember. Both the widow and the congressmember, Frederica Wilson, are African-American.

KHIZR KHAN: First, those four brave heroes, my sons, brave heroes, they were under most difficult circumstances, protecting my nation, making sure that we enjoy peace in this nation. Their sacrifice, their families deserve utmost dignity, respect and privacy. This call could have waited a few days, ’til after the burial.

Or—and that is where John Kelly, we pay tribute to his military service, his family’s sacrifice, but now he serves in people’s house. He is on people’s payroll. His responsibility is to make sure that this president, who lacks empathy, who lacks sympathy, leadership, is directed to act with dignity, directed to act about this moment with utmost respect to these families. This is what he should have done. He knows the lack of this president. He is inarticulate. He should have put the exact words in front of him to recite from there. That’s one thing.

Second, it was his responsibility, John Kelly’s responsibility, to make sure that the family that is being called is at peaceful place. It’s not—normally, these calls do not take place without protocol. The White House would call: “Where are you? President is calling. Could you take the call?” I hope that was done. If that was done, that was also botched, that this family is in the car, and this call is being made? They deserve most privacy, most encouragement, most support from this nation. That was not done. I don’t know why John Kelly should stay on public’s payroll if he is going to be providing this kind of leadership.

This is tradition of this nation. This military service is honored when military officers, when military personnel retires. They go home with dignity and honor and collect their pension. But if they step back in political life, they must provide the leadership for which they have been trained. That was not done. John Kelly stood with the most bigoted president in support of him, disrespecting this family. That is what my disappointment is from John Kelly. So I honor their sacrifice. These Gold Star families are the most honorable, respected and dignified families of this nation. And I pay my tribute to them, their sacrifice.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you—obviously, when you made your speech at the Democratic National Convention, candidate Trump then responded to your statements. And I’m wondering now, this sort of inability of either candidate Trump or President Trump to really develop clear empathy with Gold Star families—your reaction to how President Trump responded to you?

KHIZR KHAN: My wife Ghazala said it so right, that this president doesn’t know what sympathy, what empathy is. He is void of that. He is void of—the basic character of a leader is to empathize the people that he wishes to govern, that he wishes to lead. So that has become evident. Making up stories, making up facts, political expediency is the hallmark of this White House, including the president. Any situation, any moment where restraint is the order, that should have been the advice of John Kelly to president: restraint. But they indulged in political expediency. How could we exploit this moment, this moment of utmost dignity and grief of these families, to their advantage? And that is what was done. In our case, exactly same thing, regardless of who they were maligning at that time, a Gold Star mother. That moment was also moment of restraint, but he did not.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to the comment of, well, then-candidate Donald Trump, after you, standing next to your wife Ghazala, spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

DONALD TRUMP: I saw him. He was, you know, very emotional and probably looked like a nice guy to me. His wife, if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably—maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me. But plenty of people have written that.

AMY GOODMAN: Later, Ghazala Khan responded to Trump in The Washington Post, writing, quote, “Donald Trump has asked why I did not speak at the Democratic convention. He said he would like to hear from me. Here is my answer to Donald Trump: Because without saying a thing, all the world, all America, felt my pain. I am a Gold Star mother. Whoever saw me felt me in their heart. …

“The last time I spoke to my son was on Mother’s Day 2004. We had asked him to call us collect whenever he could. I begged him to be safe. I asked him to stay back, and not to go running around trying to become a hero, because I knew he would do something like that.

“He said, 'Mom, these are my soldiers, these are my people. I have to take care of them.' He was killed by a car bomber outside the gates of his base. He died trying to save his soldiers and innocent civilians.”

Talk more, Khizr Khan, about this attack on your wife. And what has come of it since the man who attacked her—and you—became president of the United States?

KHIZR KHAN: Well, this nation is witnessing the maligning of the dignity of the office of the presidency. These traits that we are witnessing, we witnessed as candidate Trump, and now we are witnessing as President Trump. There are some characters. And the reason I narrate this is—and I have listed that in my experience, having lived twice under martial law, under dictatorships, under those who are anti-democratic values, twice in my life—once in school, second time when I was in law school. This is what they do. And you connect the dots.

AMY GOODMAN: You grew up in Pakistan.

KHIZR KHAN: In Pakistan. And I narrate that story in the book in amazing detail. They go against the press. That is the history of all autocratic, all dictators. They go against the press. They malign them. I witnessed, with my own eyes, burning of the press, because they printed—they printed something critical of the general, of the military leader, of the dictator. Second thing they do, people’s representative in the assemblies are no good. “They ought to be thrown out. Only my people will govern the country.” They malign—they malign the people’s representative assemblies. Look what is taking place in United States today by this president. Then they go after the rule of law. “These judges are no good. I will appoint the judges.”

You connect the dots. Our democracy—our democracy is under attack, not only from outside, but from inside. I was witness to when Soviet Union disintegrated, and I tell that story in our book in detail, that they have not forgotten the grudge. America, rightly so, because I was witness to it—rightly so, America supported the disintegration of Soviet Union.

So the attack from outside and this divisive president, divisive White House, this is a collection of incompetence. John Kelly was secretary of homeland, implementing, supporting the illegal, unconstitutional executive orders of this president, which are in the courts. I stood then with the goodness of America. I stand now. I have submitted two briefs, first in the Ninth Circuit against the executive orders and one in the Supreme Court against the executive orders banning Muslims and all of this.

This incompetency is so visible now not only to us, but look what is taking place in these couple of weeks. The Republican leadership, the moderate, the most honorable members of our elected officials, are separating from this president and his policies. So this is what happened. That candidate became president, and look we are at. The direction of this country is as if there is no direction. We are going every which way, everywhere.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—in your book, you talk about your first exposure to American principles of democracy. You were in a market in Lahore, and you came across an old, beat-up copy of the U.S. Constitution. And could you talk about that and how that affected your viewpoint and then eventually resulted in your family immigrating to the United States in 1980?

KHIZR KHAN: Sure. We tell that story in our book. But, by the way, the purpose of writing this book was to not only tell this story, but to support in a scholarship, which is funded from the proceeds of this book at University of Virginia, under the name of Captain Humayun Khan Scholarship Fund. So, that’s a side issue.

But I was 22 years old. I was in second year of law school. I had taken a course, Comparative Studies of the World Constitutions. Four constitutions were included in that course: Constitution of Soviet Union—yes, Soviet Union, which is Russia now; Germany; Magna Carta, foundation of the British system; and Constitution of United States. So I got the materials, and the very first document sitting on top of these materials, title “Declaration of Independence.” I casually looked at it, placed the materials on the side of my dorm room metal desk in Lahore. I said, “Declaration of Independence? Independence is gained, given, bestowed, you struggle for, so your colonist feels mercy, and said, 'I had enough of this nation.' 'We will grant them independence.' But what are those people that declare their independence? Wow!” It was—it took my—I’m still—even today, I am in awe of that sentiment, what I had when I looked at the word “Declaration of Independence.” I continue to read it. And all 1,338 words in one standing, my—I took my—I remember very clearly I took my shoes off, because my feet were hurting. I was standing and reading. It’s a little difficult English for me. I was trying to understand all of it. Amazing awe. I still remain in awe of it. I did not do too well in that course, because I was so focused on these three documents, because next one was Articles and, thereafterward, the Bill of Rights. It all made so much sense.

And that is the story that we tell, and through these two books, we are trying to present it to America, to my—I am, as a grateful citizen of this—most humble, modest and grateful citizen, I’m trying to present to my nation is that these values, these principles, are worth standing for. And I pay tribute to Democracy Now! and your effort, voice of democracy. Democracy was amazingly expanded throughout last century. Smaller nation, rest of the world saw the dignity in democracy, and they were incorporating these principles. Those who do not like democracy, meaning authoritarian mentality, meaning the mentality like Donald Trump, mentality like Putin and others, decided to attack democracy, our values of human dignity. What is our election system? It’s equal dignity for all, that when we go to vote, nobody says, “You’re better, you’re less.” We’re all equal.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Khizr Khan, how did you end up coming to the country and getting your citizenship the same year as your son got his citizenship?

KHIZR KHAN: Yeah. I was a person of modest means with that love of these documents in heart. I could only dream at that time, when I was 22, when I read the Declaration of Independence, that maybe one day I’ll go and see what kind of people are these that declared their independence. And then I read the Articles. That is rule of law. Then I read the Declaration—the Constitution, the Amendments, the Bill of Rights. These are human dignities. Every human being that is on this planet Earth aspires to have those dignities and freedoms. Wow! These are written. These are part of principles of this nation. So I had that dream, but I had no means to come here. I went to Dubai to work so that I could gather enough funds. And I had amazing interaction with Americans that I’ll explain for the—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You worked for an oil company there for a time, right?

KHIZR KHAN: For an oil company. And we tell this whole journey in this book. Amazing interaction. I was in Dubai. I had slept—I had rented a room, bare room, no window, just four walls and a roof, from a cab driver, because I couldn’t afford—I went there empty-handed, empty pocket—from this cabbie, for two days, because I was to report for duty on Monday. So I go to work from Monday, and this—my first interaction with America is taking place now.

I entered the office of that oil company. And my boss comes, and we go to his office, and he’s explaining piles of files and what my work is going to be and all that. And he looks at me a second time. He said, “Khizr, you look tired. Where have you been sleeping? Where have you been staying?” I didn’t tell him, but I told him that I am at—I have rented a room and all that. What was taking place there for two days, I was sleeping on the floor, with my suitcase my pillow and my towel as my bed sheet. Two nights. And I tell that story to honor my readers and to honor our audience, to tell that all of that difficulty was worth coming to this nation.

He looks at me. He said—picks up his phone and calls somebody. And within 30 minutes, his blessed wife is there. And he says me, he said, “Khizr, let’s go.” I said, “Where are we going?” He said, “We want you to go your home.” And I was just taken aback, that “What home? I don’t have a home. I just have a room and a floor and four walls and my towel.” So they took me to a fully furnished one-bedroom apartment. And we walked in. I was awestrucken at the generosity of these people, two of them. It had everything that a person would need—towels, bed sheets. I have never seen so many pillows on the bed ever in my life. Spoons, forks, plates. And then she opened the fridge. She said, “There’s some bread and butter and jam for you to eat” and all that, “And we will see you tomorrow. Please rest.” I remain so humbled, so grateful for that moment, that even today, after so many years with having so many blessings in life and all that, that very moment from seeing the generosity of America, this person became symbol of America for me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—when, eventually, you come to the United States, you end up at Harvard, Harvard Law School. And your impression of your classmates at Harvard was not as—in the same vein as those first Americans you met. And you write in your book, “I was a child of the proletariat, of postcolonialism, of people who had to work in order to eat, who understood viscerally that the rich and powerful lived differently from the rest of us because I had suffered their edicts and whims.” And a lot of the people with you at Harvard Law School were from that elite of America.

KHIZR KHAN: They sat next to me, brother of a president of a country. I explained that experience detail-wise in the book. It was a amazingly dignified class and classmates and all that, but I was there, but I wasn’t there. So I became known to the professors and to my classmates as a socialist voice, because I always spoke against the exploitation of poor nations and from my perspective, whenever—and really, that is what is at the spirit of America.

And somehow, that is why this connection is so strong today, is stronger than ever before, in support of my nation, standing for these values, is fairness. This nation is embodiment of fairness, fairness of human beings, fairness of each other. And that is the story that we try to tell. And that is the hope that we carry with us. I’ve been to 162 communities thus far. And people are afraid, because of the circumstances, because of the direction our country has taken. And these communities are worried. These are faith communities, immigrant communities, political organizations, social and other organizations. But out of that fear comes hope, their faith in our Constitution, in our principles. And that hope will solve our problem.

We just celebrated 230 years of our blessed Constitution. We will continue. This Constitution will prevail. Its values will prevail. And that is the story that is—we have—there is something secret that we don’t — it’s not so obvious when you look at the book, but there is a message. First page and the last page has a message of this book that conveys our intention, how we wish to present this book.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to follow up with a question about your speech at the Democratic convention. You almost didn’t make it. You were invited to make the speech, but you asked all your friends, and they told you, “Don’t do it.”


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: “You’re going to become a political pawn.”


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But then you received a letter from a young girl that really changed your mind. Could you talk about that?

KHIZR KHAN: Yes. We were told in December—we heard the bigoted statement: “I’ll ban all Muslims, and Hispanics will be—are criminal, will be thrown out of here. And judges are partial. And women are not equal dignity.” So, wherever we would go, small kids—and we live in Charlottesville, Virginia, by the way—would come to us, knowing that I am a practicing lawyer. Their parents will bring—these are elementary school, middle school kids. They come to me, and they say, “Is this true? Will we be thrown out of here?” And I would hearten them that, “No, look, read the Constitution. Here is the 14th Amendment. Here is Section 1. We are all granted equal protection, equal dignity.” But the kids would not be heartened, and they would remain worried, don’t want to go to school. “We are bullied at school.” And all that. So that was happening this way.

Then, in January, we received a call that there is a tribute that DNC wishes to pay. And they had invited other Gold Star families, and the tribute being paid to them, as well, and Captain Humayun Khan is one of them. So we agreed that that is fine. A few days after that, we saw the tribute. It was wonderful, and that is what the tribute was played during the convention. Then came the invitation, that “We are inviting other Gold Star families to come at the time of tribute. Would you like to come?”

Something told me that this is not—I’m not a political person, but I have some sense that such events could get out of hand. So I asked our other sons. They told us, “Do not go. This is not your cup of tea. You are not made for these things. These are totally, totally out of your league.” We called some other—we thought that they are being protective of us, our sons—our friends, some little more politically aware friends. And they told us exactly the same thing, that “We know your nature. You’re humble, modest, peaceful people. Stay out of it. Do not go.”

And then came the letter that you mentioned. I went to check. So we asked for two days. We almost decided. Sitting in the room with Ghazala, we would talk. We would look at Captain Humayun Khan’s picture, and we would try to seek some guidance, some hint from somewhere. And we almost decided that—this is the second day—this afternoon, I’ll call and tell them that “Thank you. We are not coming.” So I go to the mailbox, check the mail. And there is a card in an envelope, name of the school on top—it’s a middle school—and then four names of the students of the fifth grade.

And this is the line that sent us there, that keeps us moving even today. Line said, “Mr. and Mrs. Khan, please make sure Maria is not thrown out of this country. She is our friend. We love her.” I read it twice, standing there, because inside, for two days, we had been praying some guidance. We are people of faith. We believe in divine guidance and divine wisdom. I read it twice. And I walked a little faster, went up in the home—at home in our living room, and I told Ghazala—I showed her. She read it, and she looked at me, and she said, “We will go.” And we went.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break. And when we come back, we want to talk with you about President Trump’s approach to immigrants and the Muslim ban and also your son fighting in Iraq. Khizr Khan is our guest. His memoir, out this week, it’s called An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice. And he has a second book for young people, This is Our Constitution: Discover America with a Gold Star Father. Stay with us.

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