There are people in Donald Trump's extended circle who had four words of advice on the Khizr Khan controversy: Stop talking about it. Judging by the conventional wisdom of politics and life — when in a hole, stop digging — it was good counsel. But no one, not even people in Trump's circle, knew if he would agree.
That's why many were watching closely when Trump took the stage in Columbus, Ohio, Monday afternoon for his first campaign event since the Khan controversy exploded. Reporters, voters, staff — everyone watched to see what Trump might say about the firestorm that consumed his campaign in the previous 72 hours.
And Trump said … nothing. He stopped talking about it. Trump had been tweeting about Khan as late as 7:30 Monday morning, but in Columbus, Trump hewed close — as close as he gets in speeches that always take sideroads — to the theme of jobs, jobs, jobs.
"We are going to turn this state into a manufacturing behemoth," Trump told the crowd. He pledged to re-open an area uranium-enrichment facility that had shut down after the government cut off research grants. He denounced the movement of American jobs to Mexico. And he recognized the precarious economic condition of many in his audience. "A lot of you people think you have good jobs," Trump said. "Guess what? People at Carrier thought they had good jobs."
In other words, the performance was straight Trump, on message about the economy, plus the wall, Obamacare, regulation, and more. And no Khizr Khan.
If news organizations report the speech, they might choose to lead with Trump's statement that, "I'm afraid the election is going to be rigged." Maybe Trump tossed that in to change the subject. But the news in the Columbus speech was what was not there.
Meanwhile, some Trump supporters would like to see Trump not only become more thoughtful in dealing with attacks like Khan's, but become even more aggressive in pushing back on media coverage of the controversy.
"I cannot tell you in a rational way the depths of my disgust with the elite media and the degree to which I think they are totally in the tank," Newt Gingrich, who was on Trump's vice-presidential short list, told me in a phone conversation Sunday night. The former speaker described receiving a note from a respected journalist asking whether the Khan matter will be the thing that "finally disqualifies" Trump in the presidential race. "I called him back and yelled at him," Gingrich said. "When I hung up, my wife was staring at me and said, 'I have never heard you talk to a reporter like that.'"
Gingrich argued the press had worked itself into a frenzy over the Khan matter while spending too little time reporting Hillary Clinton's various problems. But Gingrich also felt Trump has to respond more effectively to attacks like Khan's. "He has to be more disciplined," Gingrich said of Trump. "He has to be more relentless in drawing the big choices, while they try to win with the small mistakes."
"They're going to run a soap opera of being terribly shocked by whatever random thing [Trump] does," Gingrich continued. "And he's got to stay big and let her and the news media stay small."
That is basically what Trump did in Columbus.
I asked Gingrich whether he thought Trump would actually follow such advice going forward. "Yes," he said. "I think he's a very smart man. This is not a guy who's gotten to this point by being stupid. But it's a different game. The general election is faster. He has August to practice. Think of August as Trump's exhibition season."