Columnist

If I had to pick Donald Trump’s finest moment as a presidential candidate, it would be the one during the sixth GOP debate of the primary season when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) attacked the frontrunner for his “New York values.”

Trump seized the high ground, not familiar territory for him. He movingly recalled the fall of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and the “smell of death” that pervaded the city for months.

“I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York,” Trump said, effectively demolishing Cruz.

So it was jarring — though not surprising — to wake up to his first tweet on this, the 17th anniversary of that day, and see that it was all about marking the victimhood of … Donald J. Trump:

And it got worse. As he arrived for the the Flight 93 September 11 Memorial Service in Shanksville, Pa., President Trump had the demeanor of someone who had scored a front-row seat at a World Wrestling Entertainment match:

But neither of these goes as far as his tweet about Rudolph W. Giuliani, now the president’s lawyer, in showing how much our president misunderstands what leadership means at a moment of national trauma:

Yes, Giuliani did a great job. But no, the mayor of New York City did not present himself that day as a true warrior, in all caps or otherwise. He was a consoler and unifier, calm and reassuring, preparing us for a shock that would only get deeper as we began to tally the cost. “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately,” Giuliani said.

“Tomorrow, New York is going to be here,” he guaranteed us. “And we’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to be stronger than we were before … I want the people of New York to be an example to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, that terrorism can’t stop us.”

And ironically, Giuliani did all this on a day that had been expected to be the beginning of the end of his political career and his relevancy. It was a primary-election day to choose his successor.

There are qualities that pass down, from one leader to another, at moments of trial. As Eric Pooley at Time Magazine wrote in the 2001 issue naming Giuliani Person of the Year:

There is a bright magic at work when one great leader reaches into the past and finds another waiting to guide him. From midmorning on Sept. 11, when Giuliani and fellow New Yorkers were fleeing for their lives, the mayor had been thinking of Churchill. “I was so proud of the people I saw on the street,” he says now. “No chaos, but they were frightened and confused, and it seemed to me that they needed to hear from my heart where I thought we were going. I was trying to think, Where can I go for some comparison to this, some lessons about how to handle it? So I started thinking about Churchill, started thinking that we’re going to have to rebuild the spirit of the city, and what better example than Churchill and the people of London during the Blitz in 1940, who had to keep up their spirit during this sustained bombing? It was a comforting thought.”

Trump has yet to face such a test, though we should assume at one point he will. If he does, let’s hope that he too will have that kind of understanding of leadership on which to draw. And that his first thoughts will once again be of what he saw in his fellow New Yorkers 17 years ago today.

Read more:

Charles Lane: We expected the war on terror to unite us. What went wrong?

Joe Scarborough: Trump is harming the dream of America more than any foreign adversary ever could

Michael Morell: We responded with urgency to 9/11. Now we need to respond as urgently to China.