Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016 electrified viewers around the world — and ignited then-candidate Donald Trump‘s first headline-making feud with a family of a slain U.S. soldier. But Khan, the father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat, reveals in his new memoir, An American Family, that the moment almost didn’t happen at all.
Khan was invited by Hillary Clinton‘s campaign to give a speech about his son at the convention in July, a little more than three months before the November election. There, Clinton would also be paying tribute to Khan’s son, Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in 2004 during the Iraq War and was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
In his memoir, out Tuesday, Khan, a lawyer who immigrated from Pakistan to the U.S. in 1980, explains that after weighing the pros and cons with wife Ghazala Khan and other members of his family, he decided to decline the offer to speak at the convention.
“It wasn’t worth it,” he writes in his memoir, citing the “ugly” political climate and fears that he and his family could become targets for Trump and his supporters.
“Being Gold Star parents was no insulation,” he continues. “He had mocked a disabled reporter. He had mocked Senator [John] McCain, one of my son’s heroes, for suffering through years in a prisoner-of-war camp, years Trump spent avoiding the war altogether. … Would his more fanatical followers harass my sons, my grandchildren, Ghazala and me?”
Khan resolved to call the Clinton campaign that afternoon and turn down the proffered podium.
But before he could, something remarkable happened that changed his mind.
Khan recalls walking outside to check his mailbox and noting with some surprise that it was empty “except for a single small envelope … addressed simply to ‘Mr. Khan.’ ”
“There was no stamp and no return address,” he writes.
The card inside appeared to be written by a child’s hand.
“Dear Mr. Khan,” it said. “You are a lawyer. Can you please not let them deport Maria? She is in fifth grade and she is our friend. Thank you.”
The plea appeared to be a reference to Trump’s campaign promise to deport undocumented immigrants.
“I stood by the mailbox, reading the note a few times or maybe just staring at it,” Khan writes, recalling how he asked himself in that moment, “What would Humayun do?”
The answer came readily.
“Ghazala and I both knew what Humayun would have done in our position,” Khan says. “The day I found the note in my mailbox, a child asking for help in a more hateful America, I called the Clinton campaign and accepted their invitation.”
Days later, in a taxi with Ghazala on the way to the convention, Khan made another significant decision.
Noticing he had accidentally brought his pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution with him, an idea dawned on the lawyer. Wouldn’t it be powerful, he thought, if he pulled the book from his pocket during his speech when he planned to challenge Trump: “Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.”
It would ultimately become a moment that commanded the world’s attention — and Trump’s.