After taking fire for an on-stage impression of a reporter with a congenital disability on Tuesday, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump spent part of his Thanksgiving denying the whole thing — and tossing another taunt the reporter’s way.
Serge Kovaleski drew Trump’s ire for challenging the candidate’s claim that thousands of Muslim residents of New Jersey had celebrated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. While discussing that controversy at a rally on Tuesday, Trump said “The poor guy, you gotta see this guy,” before launching into an apparent impression of the reporter that involved flailing his arms and shaking.
Kovaleski has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that causes children to be born with contracted joints.
“We think it’s outrageous that [Trump] would ridicule the appearance of one of our reporters,” spokeswoman for the New York Times, where Kovaleski now works, told Politico.
Trump tweeted a lengthy statement Thursday denying that he was doing an impression of the reporter. Trump says he’s never met Kovaleski and would never intentionally mock a person’s disability. Instead, he “merely mimicked what I thought would be a flustered reporter trying to get out of a statement he made long ago.” Trump also noted that “I have tremendous respect for people who are physically challenged and have spent tens of millions of dollars throughout buildings all over the world on making them handicapped accessible and ADA (Americans Disability Act [sic]) compliant.”
But the statement begins on a less conciliatory note. “I have no idea who this reporter, Serge Kovaleski is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence. I don’t know if he is [NFL player] J.J. Watt or Muhammad Ali in his prime — or somebody of less athletic or physical ability,” Trump said.
Trump also denied knowing Kovaleski. “Despite having one of the all-time great memories, I certainly do not remember him,” the statement says. But Kovaleski covered Trump at length in the 1980s while the reporter worked for the New York Daily News. “Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years,” Kovaleski told the Times. Trump also expressed familiarity with Kovaleski in the same South Carolina speech where he mocked the reporter, calling him a “nice reporter” before launching into his impression.
Kovaleski previously wrote for the Washington Post, where he co-authored a story in the wake of the 2001 attacks about law enforcement officials probing the Muslim community in northern New Jersey for leads. It includes a sentence noting that “law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops.”
Trump began touting that sentence in recent days as support for his false claim that thousands of Muslims celebrated 9/11 in New Jersey, which itself is meant to justify his call to shutter mosques and apparent support for keeping lists of Muslim Americans.
“There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey where you have large Arab populations, they were cheering as the World Trade Center came down,” Trump said to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos last week. When Stephanopoulos challenged him, Trump said he personally saw the celebrations. He also told a rally crowd that “I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”
Kovaleski’s story relays only that some people had been arrested for allegedly celebrating the attacks, not that thousands were doing so or that the allegations were even accurate against those who were sought out by police. Law enforcement officials in New Jersey say the reports of macabre celebrations of the attacks were false.
John Farmer, then the state’s attorney general, told the Times they investigated the rumors that very day and found no truth to them. Fearing riots if radical Muslims were indeed celebrating, Farmer was ready to mobilize the National Guard. “The word came back quickly from Jersey City, later from Paterson. False report. Never happened,” he said.