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By Alan Gathright October 20, 2016
Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson October 20, 2016

Donald Trump says Hillary Clinton is 'wrong' to say he mocked a disabled reporter

Once again, a comment by Donald Trump has become a point of contention in a presidential debate. This time, it revolved around remarks Trump made almost a year ago about a disabled reporter.

At one point in the third presidential debate in Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton said, "He also went after a disabled reporter, mocked and mimicked him on national television."

Trump interrupted, "Wrong."

So who’s right? Here’s the background, which we have looked at before.

At at a campaign rally in South Carolina on Nov. 24, 2015, Trump referred to New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski. At the time, Trump was taking heat for his widely debunked claims that he watched in Jersey City, N.J., as  "thousands and thousands of people were cheering" the collapse of the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

To defend this account, Trump cited a Sept. 18, 2001, story co-written by Kovaleski, who was a Washington Post reporter at the time. Near the bottom of the story, the Post reporters wrote 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 while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river."

However, the reporters couldn’t verify the celebrations actually occurred, as Kovaleski later explained.

"I certainly do not remember anyone saying that thousands or even hundreds of people were celebrating. That was not the case, as best as I can remember," Kovaleski told the Washington Post Fact Checker in November 2015. Remember, Kovaleski wrote that "a number of people" -- not thousands -- were allegedly seen celebrating.

At the rally where he discussed Kovaleski, Trump said, "You gotta see this guy" and wildly flailed his arms, his right hand flopping at an odd angle as he shouted in a weird, agitated voice: "Ahh, I don’t know what I said! Ahh, I don’t remember!"

Kovaleski has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition which limits the movement of his joints and has left his right hand sharply angled at the wrist. Kovaleski speaks with a normal voice and doesn't wave his arms around. (Watch a video of him talking about his ground-breaking reporting on the murder cases against former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez.)

Many observers took Trump’s comments and motions as mocking Kovaleski. The New York Times rebuked Trump in a statement: "We think it's outrageous that he would ridicule the appearance of one of our reporters." And people who share Kovaleski’s condition -- formally known as arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, or AMC -- and their families launched a social media campaign with the hashtag "AMCStrong."

Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, an advocacy group, said that Trump "clearly was mocking his disability. That was very, very obvious, because he disagrees with all kinds of people at other times, and he doesn't use that voice or wave his arms like that." (Reiskin said she was giving her view since her nonprofit group can't endorse or oppose candidates.)

Reiskin said such behavior by Trump "portrays people with disabilities as incompetent. That if you can't control your speech or part of your body that you're not competent, which is very destructive" to the image of disabled people facing stereotypes and discrimination, she added.

But Trump denied it. He tweeted, "Clinton made a false ad about me where I was imitating a reporter GROVELING after he changed his story. I would NEVER mock disabled. Shame!"

Featured Fact-check

He also said in a statement at the time, "I merely mimicked what I thought would be a flustered reporter trying to get out of a statement he made long ago."

Trump insisted that he couldn’t have known the man was disabled because "I have no idea who this reporter, Serge Kovaleski is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence. … Despite having one of the all-time great memories I certainly do not remember him."

Kovaleski countered that as a reporter for the New York Daily News in the late 1980s and early 1990s he regularly covered Trump. He told the Washington Post he was sure the businessman remembered him -- and his condition.

"Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years," Kovaleski told the New York Times.

In fact, Kovaleski recalled spending the day with Trump in 1989 when the reporter and other journalists flew with the billionaire on the "inaugural voyage" of the Trump Shuttle airline.

In addition, Trump spoke familiarly about Kovaleski at the rally, calling him a "nice reporter." He also described him as "the poor guy" and indicated he knew Kovaleski’s appearance ("you gotta see this guy") before launching into his imitation.

After our fact-check appeared, the Washington Post Fact Checker reviewed both Trump’s original comments and subsequent ones he made on the same subject in Colorado. The Fact Checker concluded that "Trump clearly mocked Kovaleski" and it gave Trump its lowest rating, Four Pinocchios.

In the meantime, some Trump supporters have shared other examples in which Trump has shaken his hands and used an odd tone of voice to refer to other people.

In one video, Trump is shown referring to one of his primary rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, with flailing arms and an exaggerated voice. (See it here.) In another, he uses similar, if more subdued, motions when referring to an unnamed general. (See it here.)

However, neither of these examples support Trump’s denial in the debate. In the videos, Trump was clearly mocking both Cruz and the unnamed general. In fact, the video about the general -- produced by a Trump supporter -- says explicitly that he was mocking the general.

In other words, the most you could say about these bits of evidence is that they demonstrate that Trump is an equal-opportunity mocker. They don’t help refute Clinton’s charge that Trump mocked Kovaleski.

The Trump campaign did not respond to an inquiry after the debate.

Our ruling

Trump said that Clinton is "wrong" to say he mocked a disabled reporter.

Trump may deny that he intentionally mocked Kovaleski for his disability, but many Americans believe his remarks amounted to mocking, and we concur that that’s a reasonable -- indeed, perhaps the only -- interpretation of his actions. The notion that Trump’s comments about Cruz and a general undercut Clinton’s claim don’t hold water, because all three examples constitute mocking, whether a disability was involved or not. We rate the statement False.

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Says Hillary Clinton is "wrong" to say he mocked a disabled reporter.
In a debate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Our Sources

Donald Trump, remarks in the third presidential debate, Oct. 19, 2016

PolitiFact Colorado, "Pro-Clinton Super PAC ad says Trump 'mocked' disabled reporter; evidence supports claim," June 13, 2016

Washington Post Fact Checker, "Donald Trump’s revisionist history of mocking a disabled reporter," Aug. 2, 2016

YouTube, Donald Trump comments on Ted Cruz, accessed Oct. 20, 2016

YouTube, Donald Trump comments on an unnamed general, accessed Oct. 20, 2016

New York Times, Serge Kovaleski "Connecting Crime Scenes Present to Past," July 2, 2013

New York Times, "A Definitive Debunking of Donald Trump’s 9/11 Claims," November 24, 2015

Washington Post, "Northern New Jersey Draws Probers' Eyes," September 18, 2001

Washington Post, "Trump’s outrageous claim that ‘thousands’ of New Jersey Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks," November 22, 2015

"Donald J. Trump Statement on Reporter Serge Kovaleski," November 26, 2015

Senator Mark Kirk statement, "Why Donald Trump is wrong for Illinois – the Land of Lincoln," June 7, 2016

Washington Post, "Trump draws scornful rebuke for mocking reporter with disability," November 26, 2015

New York Times, "Donald Trump Says His Mocking of New York Times Reporter Was Misread," November 26, 2015.

New York Daily News, "Reporter Serge Kovaleski, whom Donald Trump says he’s never seen before, spent the day with the billionaire while covering his 1989 airline launch for the Daily News," November 27, 2015

CNN Video, "Trump mocks reporter with disability," November 26, 2015

Interview with Justin Barasky, spokesman for Priorities USA Action on June 7, 2016

Interview with Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition on June 9, 2016

Interview with Dawn Russell, spokeswoman for disabled advocacy group, ADAPT, on June 9, 2016

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More by Alan Gathright

Donald Trump says Hillary Clinton is 'wrong' to say he mocked a disabled reporter

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