— Donald Trump, remarks in Colorado Springs, Colo., July 29, 2016
This is a very long quote, but we wanted to provide a flavor of Donald Trump’s strange revisionist history regarding his mocking of a disabled reporter.
Clearly miffed that his imitation of New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski has resulted in a hard-hitting attack by the Clinton campaign, Trump offered a lengthy rebuttal in the middle of a campaign rally. As he put it, the Clinton campaign is run by “sick people.”
Much of what Trump says is Four-Pinocchios false. So let’s unpack his explanation.
First of all, this is the ad that the Clinton campaign is running in battleground states:
Readers may recall that the controversy started in November when Trump, without any evidence, asserted this claim about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And 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.”
He quickly earned Four Pinocchios for that claim, and yet stuck to it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that he was wrong.
Now, let’s go back to the recent rally in Colorado Springs, going through his explanation in detail:
“I said, ‘dancing, rooftops, street, whatever.’ And we couldn’t find too much stuff confirming what I said.”
That’s an interesting admission by Trump, in that he concedes his campaign was scrambling for some scrap of evidence that what he said was right. In other words, Trump mouthed off, and the campaign was having trouble confirming his remarks.
“All of suddenly someone comes up with an article and the article is written by this guy who said he met me many, many years ago. And the article is a great article for me. It talked about dancing, all the things. And I said, ‘here’s an article.’ I said I think he was with The Washington Post when he wrote the article. And he wrote this article. And it was great and I said here’s the article.”
The article, which appeared on Page 6 of The Washington Post on Sept. 18, 2001, described FBI probes in northern New Jersey in the wake of the attacks. In the 15th paragraph, it said 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.” (No mention of dancing, by the way.)
“And it really shut a lot of people up. It was pretty much on point, not 100 percent, but pretty much.”
Nope, not a single fact checker found this article to be significant. The language in no way confirms Trump’s claim of watching on television celebrations of “thousands” of Muslims. “Allegedly” indicates there is no video footage or other proof that celebrations actually took place.
“The author of this article was this guy. And the press started calling him. They are calling him a lot. And obviously the other side of things started calling him also, saying ‘this article is not good, because this is sort of confirming what Trump is saying. They were dancing, they were happy. This is not good.’ So all of the sudden, the guy — I think the article was almost 15 years old — he starts changing the article, that he made a mistake, he this, he that.”
This is total fantasy, especially the suggestion that the Clinton campaign was upset and somehow got to Kovaleski and made him change his story.
We’ve checked the records and Kovaleski conducted no on-camera interviews at the time. He simply gave the same statement to every news organization, including The Fact Checker: “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 obviously did not say he made a mistake and did not try to “change” the article. He simply said he did not remember anything that matched Trump’s description. In other words, he only confirmed what the article said — that “a number” of people were alleged to have celebrated, not thousands or even hundreds.
Kovaleski, incidentally, was not the only author of the article. The Fact Checker also contacted his co-author, Fredrick Kunkle, who said despite his shoe-leather reporting, the alleged celebrations could never be confirmed: “I specifically visited the Jersey City building and neighborhood where the celebrations were purported to have happened. But I could never verify that report.”
“I didn’t know what he looked like. I didn’t know he was disabled. I didn’t know it, I didn’t know it at all. I had no idea. So I started imitating somebody — I didn’t speak to the guy — somebody that was groveling. Everyone know what grovel is? At the time I did the act, I did the whole thing with groveling. And I said he’s groveling, he said, ‘no, no, the article, I was wrong on the article.’ I was doing a whole big number. ‘I was wrong, I promise you, I made a mistake when I wrote the article.’ He was groveling, grovel, grovel, grovel.”
Here, below, is a video of Trump speaking about Kovaleski on Nov. 24. Note that Trump first says the article was “written by a nice reporter.” (Kovaleski is indeed nice.) Then he goes on to mock him, jerking his arms in front of his body: “Now, the poor guy, you ought to see this guy, ‘Ah, I don’t know what I said, I don’t remember, I don’t remember, maybe that’s what I said.’”
Trump’s explanation in Colorado is simply not credible. First of all, we already confirmed that Kovaleski did not grovel or say he made a mistake. Moreover, Trump actually appears to paraphrase Kovaleski’s brief statement about not remembering that thousands of people celebrated. Trump now suggests he was just imitating a grovel, but that’s not what he was actually doing.
Instead, Trump is clearly imitating Kovaleski’s disability — the reporter has arthrogryposis, which visibly limits the functioning of his joints. Trump claims he did not know Kovaleski, but the reporter closely covered Trump’s troubled business dealings while he was a reporter for the N.Y. Daily News between 1987 and 1993.
“Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years,” Kovaleski told the Times in November. “I’ve interviewed him in his office,” he added. “I’ve talked to him at press conferences. All in all, I would say around a dozen times, I’ve interacted with him as a reporter while I was at The Daily News.” In particular, Kovaleski covered the launch of the Trump Shuttle, spending the day with Trump in 1989 when the airline launched with typical Trump brashness. (Within a year, Trump had to unload the debt-burdened airline because of a cash crunch in his business interests.)
“All of a sudden, I get reports that I was imitating a reporter who was handicapped. I would never do that.”
Actually, he clearly did, protestations notwithstanding. (The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Pinocchio Test
It remains a mystery why Trump feels the need to revisit past controversies, particularly ones that reflect poorly on his tenor and judgment. But, as the evidence shows, Trump clearly mocked Kovaleski — who in any case never “groveled” or in any way took back his reporting.
In an unremarkable statement, Kovaleski merely said that his reporting did not back up Trump’s statement that “thousands” of Muslims celebrated the fall of the Twin Towers — and then Trump attacked him.
What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail
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