This story has been updated.
Businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump is under fire for mocking a New York Times reporter with a congenital joint condition during a campaign rally in South Carolina this week, drawing a scornful rebuke from the reporter and others who called Trump’s actions “despicable.”
The incident occurred as Trump was defending his recent claim that he had witnessed thousands of Muslims cheering in New Jersey on Sept. 11, 2001, as the World Trade Center collapsed. The assertion has since been fact-checked and discredited by law enforcement and government officials who were in New Jersey in the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks.
On stage Tuesday, Trump berated Times investigative reporter Serge Kovaleski for his recent recollection of an article he had written a few days after the attacks. Trump appeared to mock Kovaleski's physical condition; the reporter has arthrogryposis, which visibly limits flexibility in his arms.
“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 as he jerked his arms in front of his body.
The gesture was all the more personal because Kovaleski frequently covered Trump while reporting for the New York Daily News between 1987 and 1993, a tumultuous period for Trump in which he struggled through several financial setbacks.
“The sad part about it is, it didn’t in the slightest bit jar or surprise me that Donald Trump would do something this low-rent, given his track record,” Kovaleski said.
In his speech Tuesday, Trump defended his recollection of the Muslim revelers by citing a 2001 article by Kovaleski, who worked for The Washington Post at the time, noting that “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.”
Those allegations were never corroborated but have persisted in online rumors in the 14 years since the attacks. In an interview on CNN this week, Kovaleski said he did not recall “anyone saying there were thousands, or even hundreds, of people celebrating.”
Trump doubled down on seeing the celebrations in a statement Thursday and said that “despite having one of the all-time great memories,” he did not remember Kovaleski.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Kovaleski said he's sure Trump remembers him — and his condition. In video footage of Trump’s speech, the candidate said the article had been "written by a nice reporter" before he began the impersonation, seemingly indicating familiarity.
“I have no idea who this reporter, Serge Kovalski [sic] is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence. I don’t know if he is J.J. Watt or Muhammad Ali in his prime — or somebody of less athletic or physical ability,” Trump said in a statement to The Post. “Despite having one of the all-time great memories I certainly do not remember him.”
Trump added that he thought Kovaleski's previous comments to the press “seemed like (again without knowing what he looks like) he was groveling and searching for a way out from what he wrote many years before.”
Kovaleski's comments to CNN and other news organizations did not contradict the 14-year-old article, which described the detainment and questioning of "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." In the interviews, Kovaleski pointed out that there were never any reports of thousands or even hundreds of Muslims celebrating, as Trump has claimed to have witnessed.
This is not the first time Trump has been accused of mocking a person’s physical appearance. In a July interview with NBC news, Trump lashed out at columnists Jonah Goldberg and Charles Krauthammer after the latter called the candidate a "rodeo clown."
“I get called by a guy that can’t buy a pair of pants, I get called names?” Trump said at the time.
Critics speculated that Trump had intentionally mocked Krauthammer, who is paralyzed from the waist down, while others said the comments were about Goldberg. Krauthammer contacted The Washington Post on Thursday to say that Trump's comments were about Goldberg, not himself.
Trump was also condemned in September after disparaging comments he made about former Hewlett Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina's physical attractiveness surfaced in an interview with Rolling Stone.
"Look at that face!" Trump reportedly told Rolling Stone. "Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!"
The real estate mogul later said the comment was about Fiorina’s “persona” and not her appearance.
Kovaleski's friends and colleagues took to social media this week to defend him — and excoriate Trump.
"@sergenyt is one of the best reporters — and best people— I know. This is despicable," ESPN reporter and author Don Van Natta Jr. wrote on Twitter.
"The measure of men. Know this: Serge Kovaleski, aka @sergenyt, is a journalistic rock star and one great colleague," wrote Times reporter Dan Barry.
The Times also issued a sharply worded statement Wednesday: “We think it's outrageous that he would ridicule the appearance of one of our reporters,” a spokesman for the Times said.
Trump took specific aim at the New York Times in his statement Thursday.
“They should focus on the survival of their newspaper and not on dishonest and very bad reporting about me,” he said. “The New York Times has become more and more irrelevant and rapidly becoming a total joke — sad!”
This story has been updated to clarify to whom Trump directed his comment about the “guy that can’t buy a pair of pants.”