On Tuesday, Trump elicited laughter, applause and even a whistle from a crowd in Southaven, Miss., as he impersonated Ford, mocking her for being certain about her alcohol consumption — “I had one beer,” Trump parodied — but foggy about other details, such as what neighborhood the house was in and how she had gotten home.
“I don’t remember,” the president said, spoofing Ford’s testimony. Meanwhile, a man in the audience — bearded and bespectacled, wearing a white shirt and tie — turned to a fellow Trump supporter and bumped him with his elbow. They locked eyes and then smiled and began to clap, as captured in video of the speech.
To boisterous applause, Trump continued. “I don’t know,” he said, imitating the uncertainty professed by Ford, who nonetheless told lawmakers last week that she could say with “100 percent” certainty that it was Kavanaugh who had forced himself on her 36 years ago. The judge denies ever committing sexual assault.
Trump’s bit put him at the center of the explosive new debate about the treatment of women who come forward with accounts of sexual violence.
But it also showed the president resorting to an old routine, using theatrics honed on “The Apprentice” — one big impersonation of a rough-and-tumble business world — to entertain as well as to degrade, aims that frequently intertwine for Trump. He has impersonated everyone from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to the terrorists who killed 130 people in and around Paris in 2015. He has even impersonated himself, as have comedians the world over.
The riff about the woman standing in the way of Kavanaugh’s swift confirmation delighted his audience but elsewhere drew rebuke, including from one of Ford’s attorneys, Michael R. Bromwich, who tweeted that it was a “vicious, vile and soulless attack.” Steve Cortes, a former Trump campaign operative, said on CNN, “I don’t think it’s helpful.”
Others defended the president’s comments. Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, observed on Twitter that Trump “didn’t mock Professor Ford. He pointed out many of the inconsistencies in her account.”
Tuesday’s performance may have crossed a line, or at least Democrats are counting on voters to see it that way. Shortly after the president’s performance, Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist, posted a digital advertisement — a still of Ford, eyes closed, swearing an oath, paired with audio of Trump’s impersonation — that he said would run in Alaska, Arizona and Maine, the home states of crucial centrist senators.
But Americans who find their president’s humor distasteful have already had opportunities to register their objections. The former reality TV star has often used impersonations to score political points. Some of them plainly target individuals because of their ethnicity, gender or disability. Others are just bizarre.
A year before the election, in November 2015, Trump contorted his body and stammered as he ridiculed Serge Kovaleski — a New York Times reporter with a congenital joint condition — for his recollection of an article he had written in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks. Trump was attempting to use the article to bolster his widely debunked claim that the strike had been met by celebrations from “thousands and thousands” of Muslims.
“Now, the poor guy — you’ve got to see this guy, ‘Ah, I don’t know what I said! I don’t remember!’ ” Trump said at a campaign rally in South Carolina, jerking and flailing in an apparent imitation of the journalist. The then-candidate defended himself by saying he didn’t know Kovaleski, though he had previously labeled him “a nice reporter,” suggesting a degree of familiarity.
After a pneumonia diagnosis forced Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, off the campaign trail, Trump derided her at a campaign event in Pennsylvania. He fake stumbled away from the lectern before returning to say, “But here’s a woman — she’s supposed to fight all of these different things, and she can’t make it 15 feet to her car. Give me a break.”
He had earlier mocked Clinton for her stiffness, impersonating the Democrat at a rally in Connecticut. “Good afternoon Bridgeport, how are you?” he asked in a wooden tone. “This is crooked Hillary Clinton.”
With Clinton, it went both ways. In 2015, the then-candidate imitated Trump’s “stream of consciousness” in an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show.” Exaggerating her vowels and gesticulating with her hands, she said, “You know, this is a huge election, you never know what might happen. Let’s get rid of the people that don’t agree with us and only talk to the people who do.”
“That was a good impression,” Fallon said, perhaps grading on a curve.
Clinton isn’t alone among Democrats to get the Trump treatment. Just this summer, at a rally in Pennsylvania, the president impersonated “Crazy Bernie,” shouting and flailing his arms in an impression of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Trump hasn’t held his fire when it has come to Republicans, either. In 2016, he pretended to guzzle water to poke fun at Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who was overcome with thirst when delivering the 2013 rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union. He also pretended to be a listless Jeb Bush, another Republican primary opponent.
Trump also has not limited himself to domestic political figures.
Last year, in a speech in St. Charles, Mo., Trump scolded the leaders of Asian countries for insufficient defense spending. He then proceeded to mimic the reaction of his counterparts when he had confronted them on a recent trip to the continent. “And they looked like this, you know what this is?” he asked, hunching his shoulders and putting his hands together to make himself appear diminutive, as he looked from side to side and gave nervous nods. “That means they know they’re getting away with murder,” he said.
Accents are a favorite. He has affected an Indian accent to imitate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, The Washington Post reported in January. During the 2016 campaign, as he railed against trade imbalances and the outsourcing of American jobs, Trump said he had once called a credit card company under the guise of checking his account but really to confirm the identity of the person on the other end of the line. “I said, ‘Where are you from?’ ” Trump recounted, and then seemed to imitate an Indian accent as he said, “ ‘We are from India.’ ”
“ ‘Oh great, that’s wonderful. That’s all I need to know,’ ” he responded, as he told an audience in Delaware.
During a speech last year marking Hispanic Heritage Month, he reflected on storm-related devastation in Puerto Rico, adopting an exaggerated Spanish accent to pronounce the name of the U.S. territory.
He approvingly imitated a British accent in 2015, after taking a question at a news conference from a reporter for Britain’s ITV television network.
“Yes, the motor industry,” Trump said, repeating a portion of the journalist’s statement back to her, according to Business Insider. “That’s a beautiful way of describing it. The motor industry . . . Where are you from?”
“London,” the reporter answered.
“England,” Trump said. “I love that. What a beautiful accent.”
He angered many in Europe, however, when he argued for the defensive utility of firearms by imitating the gunmen who killed 130 people in the 2015 Paris attacks, including 90 at the Bataclan theater. “If just one patron had a gun,” Trump said, “the terrorists would have fled or been shot.”
Saying the attackers had moved slowly, he tried to illustrate the point. He used his hand to imitate a gun and fake-fired as he said: “Boom! Come over here!” In reality, the gunmen used automatic weapons to spray bullets into crowds of people.
Trump has also taken on one of the most popular subjects of all: himself. In a recurring bit that dates from his time as a candidate, he defends his freewheeling approach by mimicking a more “presidential” style. “I can be more presidential than any president in history, except for possibly Abe Lincoln with the big hat,” he said in July, reviving the bit at a Tampa rally to show why it was better to be “a little bit wild.”
To demonstrate, he waddled up to the podium and said in a staccato rhythm: “Ladies and gentlemen of the state of Florida, thank you very much for being here. You are tremendous people, and I will leave now, because I am boring you to death.”
Trump understands keenly just how bad “boring” can be. It’s perhaps why he hurls this insult at “Saturday Night Live” when it satirizes his White House and threatens to promote an embarrassing portrait of his political acumen.
One of the show’s former stars did that years ago, and in the most inconvenient setting.
The 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, often cited as lighting a fire in the belly of a certain entertainer, didn’t just include jabs from Obama. The comedian Seth Meyers, then a head writer for SNL and host of the fictional news sketch “Weekend Update,” took it a step further, impersonating the reality TV star and taunting him for his reported political aspirations.
“Mr. Trump may not be a good choice for president, but he would definitely make a great press secretary. How much fun would that be?” Meyers said, before launching into an impression of Trump. “Kim Jong Il is a loser. His latest rally was a flop. I feel bad for [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. The man wears a Windbreaker. He has no class. I, on the other hand, sell my own line of ties. You can find them at Macy’s, in the flammable section.”
Trump sat stone-faced in the audience as Washington’s elite snickered.