Donald Trump cruelly mimicked and ridiculed a reporter’s disability.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED:
From 2005 until 2016, Trump occasionally mocked some individuals by shaking his arms with limp wrists and gaping his mouth. Consider ten examples: he did this to make fun of himself, a bank president, Marco Rubio, Serge Kovaleski, The Washington Post, a U.S. Army General, George Stephanopoulos, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Donna Brazile. Reporters and pundits did not know (or care) that this was a common way in which Trump mocks some individuals, so they focused on a freeze-frame in which Trump’s right elbow and wrist were momentarily bent, to make it seem that he was mimicking Kovaleski’s disability.
On November 24, 2015, at a rally in South Carolina (at 46:00), Donald Trump ridiculed a journalist. In 2001 the journalist had reported that, during the attacks of September 11, 2001, authorities in New Jersey investigated “people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops.”
Now, although that news report supports Trump’s claim that many people in New Jersey had celebrated 9/11, a reporter in question, Serge Kovaleski, suddenly claimed that he did not “not recall whether the allegations were ever confirmed.”
Having been widely ridiculed, Trump now saw The Washington Post trying to suddenly retract a news report published 14 years ago. Annoyed, Trump ridiculed the reporter. Trump pointed to the article, and said:
“…written by a nice reporter, now the poor guy you’ve gotta see this guy: ‘uh-uh-aah, I don’t know what I said, aah-aah, I don’t remember!!’ He’s going like: ‘I don’t remember! Uh-ah, oh maybe that’s what I said!!’ This is fourteen years ago, he still, they didn’t do a retraction!!”
I actually saw Trump’s theatrics, the day he spoke, watching the speech online. When he ridiculed the reporter, some people in the audience laughed and applauded. It did not even occur to me that the reporter had a disability.
Needless to say, one should not ridicule any person’s disability. It is cruel, hurtful, and despicable.
For five seconds, while mocking the reporter, Trump shook his hands and flailed his arms around, with bent elbows. As he was shaking his hands, with limp wrists, his fingers hung downwards a few times. He was making gaping mouth expressions.
The reporter, Serge Kovaleski, has arthrogryposis, a congenital ailment that limits his joint movements, locking his right elbow and right wrist into bent positions, with his fingers curled. But his left arm hangs straight down.
Focusing on the fact that Trump’s right elbow and wrist were momentarily bent, reporters said that Trump was ridiculing Kovaleski’s disability. Many news articles appeared denouncing Trump for viciously mocking a disabled person.
For example, the host of Face the Nation on CBS, John Dickerson, accused Trump: “you did a spot-on imitation of the specific characteristic he has.”
But Trump denied it: “what I was doing is showing the emotion of a person trying to take away [the news report]. I had no idea that he had disability. And I would never mock a person with disability. I would never do it.”
Was Trump doing “a spot-on imitation” of Kovaleski?
No. (1) Kovaleski does not shake around. (2) He does not shake his arms as he speaks. (3) His wrists do not flail. (4) His fingers do not hang limp and loose. (5) His head is not locked backward. (6) His mouth is not gaping open. (7) His left arm is straight, not bent or flailing. (8) He does not talk that way.
But reporters did not care about Trump’s flailing arms, limp fingers, stiff neck, gaping mouth, eyes wide open, bent left elbow, etc.
His right wrist and right elbow were momentarily bent. That was enough for them to accuse Trump of mimicking the disability. Kovaleski himself believed that Trump had that intention. He said that he had interviewed Trump repeatedly decades ago, so that Trump knew his name and his disability.
But Trump said that even if he once knew Kovaleski, he did not remember him. He said that every year hundreds of reporters interview him (it’s true), and he does not remember all of them or all their names.
It occurred to me that if Trump really was not ridiculing Kovaleski’s disability, then there might be other instances, on video, in which Trump ridiculed someone by shaking. So, I started to look for such a video. I didn’t have to look far.
On October 31, 2015, almost a month before Trump mocked Kovaleski, he ridiculed the reaction of an imaginary bank president upon hearing the word “regulator” (at 1:20:16):
Trump said: “When you see the president of the bank, I mentioned the word ‘regulator’– [and he reacts] ‘uh-uh-aah’,” as Trump bent his right elbow, left his hand hang limp, and shook his hand, while his mouth was gaping open. This happened 25 days before Trump mocked Kovaleski. Note that Trump said: “see the president” and did the same kind of shaking motion, as if the banker were discombobulated, thrown into a tizzy.
And importantly, in the very same speech in which Trump mocked Kovaleski, he also mocked Presidential candidate Marco Rubio. It happened beforehand (at 41:00). While mocking Rubio, Trump shook around, bent his right elbow and wrist, with limp fingers, and eyes wide open, and gaping mouth.
Did Trump mock Rubio for being disabled? No, he mocked him for taking back something he had previously said:
“He’s weak on immigration—really weak. Remember the gang of eight? The gang of eight. One of the gang of eight. Then his poll went down like this, then all of a sudden: ‘The gang of eight? I never heard of that!’ He’s a member of the gang of eight. He wants to let people in….”
He made fun of Rubio as if he were flustered and embarrassed. Trump mocked Rubio and Kovaleski both for the same reason: for changing their views. He used very similar gestures. But that’s not all.
Afterward (at 46:00), Trump ridiculed the reporter Serge Kovaleski.
Trump shook and flailed his arms and hands loosely, saying “uh-uh-aah, I don’t know what I said, aah-aah, I don’t remember!!” while some people in the audience laughed.
We may as well point out that the resemblance to Kovaleski depends on choosing just the right freeze-frames. We can instead show Trump at another instant when his right wrist was not bent downward, and his left arm was raised, unlike Kovaleski:
In this freeze-frame, Trump just looks like he’s yawning.
In the same campaign rally, at 47:30, Trump similarly mocked The Washington Post. Shaking a bit, and holding his elbows bent and wrists bent: “They don’t get it. They’re saying ‘What happened? What happened? How is this happening?’”
And again, at the same campaign rally, Trump made fun of a U.S. Army General. He said someone asked the General, on television, “What do you think about ISIS?” (at 55:27):
And Trump mocked the General, saying “Uhh-uh-uh, ISIS is very tough!” And Trump again flailed his wrists loosely, and shuddered with his mouth gaping.
And yet again, in the same rally, at 1:08:50, Trump mocked news commentator George Stephanopoulos by gaping his mouth wide open, while shaking his head, and holding both elbows bent, and both wrists bent downwards.
None of this mattered, because reporters did not look for it. They were satisfied with their incendiary story: Trump mimicked a reporter’s disability.
Yet many ordinary people were not convinced. For me, it was interesting to read people’s comments under news articles. While some hated Trump, some others explained that he did not seem to mock the reporter’s disability, but the fact that the reporter had tried to take back his original story.
Think now of professional politicians, such as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. They know that there are certain ways in which they need to hold their arms. At campaign events, they don’t flail their arms and wrists loosely. Instead, they hold their arms and wrists in rigid ways, like the Star Wars droid C-3PO, programmed for etiquette and protocol.
Trump was not like that. So he paid for it by being attacked and ridiculed thousands of times for this incident. Most reporters did not care to check: How does Trump actually speak about disabled people?
In dozens of campaign events, for example, Trump praised and spoke about the importance of supporting injured and disabled veterans, the Wounded Warriors.
It’s also significant that Trump also occasionally mocks himself. For example, in a CNN interview with Larry King, on May 17, 2005, Trump mocked himself (at 7:50) for how he reacts when he’s on vacation:
To make fun of himself, Donald Trump bent his elbows, bent his wrists to make his hands hang limp, shaking his hands, and made a gaping mouth expression with his tongue half out, as if he had been lobotomized.
In any case, Trump continued to mock certain individuals in similar ways, especially politicians.
On February 19, 2016, at a campaign rally in Charlestown, South Carolina, Trump mocked Senator Ted Cruz for being unwilling to talk about waterboarding (at 40:00 here):
Trump said: “Senator Cruz what do you think of waterboarding? ‘Uh-uh-uh, I don’t wanna talk about it!’ you know?” At the same time, Trump flailed his arms loosely with limp wrists, as when he mocked Serge Kovaleski.
On September 11, 2016, Hillary Clinton attended a ceremony to commemorate the tragedy of 9/11. She left the event early, lost the ability to stand, and was dragged by her staff into a van. A few weeks later, Trump mocked Hillary Clinton for this incident:
On October 21, 2016, Trump held a rally in Sanford Florida. He took the opportunity to ridicule the head of the Democratic National Committee, Donna Brazile, for giving debate questions to Hillary Clinton (at 20:30 here) before a debate with Bernie Sanders:
He mocked Brazile’s unwillingness to tell the press how she had some of the exact debate questions in advance. And in so doing, he again flailed his arms up and down, with limp wrists, as when he ridiculed Serge Kovaleski.
Let’s group the ten examples by kind. They have some differences:
Trump mocked himself, as if he’s bored out of his gourd when he’s on vacation.
Trump mocked a banker, who, as if reacting to a question becomes discombobulated, flustered, thrown into a tizzy.
Trump mocked Rubio, as if, in response to an embarrassing situation he became flustered about what to say, denying what he previously said.
Trump mocked a reporter, Kovaleski, as if in response to a question he became discombobulated, flustered about what to say, contrary to what he once wrote.
Trump mocked the Washington Post, as if, in response to an embarrassing situation, they became discombobulated, flustered about what to say, trying to deny what was previously reported in print.
Trump mocked Cruz, as if, in response to a difficult question, he became discombobulated, flustered about what to say.
Trump mocked Brazile, as if, in response to an embarrassing question, she became discombobulated, flustered about what to say, wanting to deny something she wrote in an email.
Trump mocked a General, as if he replied to a question in a dimwitted way, shuddering with incompetence,
Trump mocked Stephanopolous, as if he had asked a question in a dimwitted way.
Trump mocked Clinton, as if, because of illness, she became disoriented, losing control of her limbs.
Trump satirized the reporter for essentially the same reason as when he mocked an imaginary banker, Rubio, newspaper editors, Cruz, and Brazile, that is, he mocked them for how they reacted to an embarrassing question or situation as if they were flustered or discombobulated about what to say.
However, as usual, most commentators in the media did not care to analyze context or past expressions. Instead, they created a meme: Donald Trump mocks disabled people.
This meme was propagated frequently by CNN. Many news commentators on CNN often brought up the incident. And here’s an image I often saw of the meme:
Likewise, Trump’s political rivals seized the opportunity to make it seem as if Trump was not mocking a reporter who cast doubt on his own story, but was mimicking a disabled reporter for being disabled.
At campaign rallies, Hillary Clinton complained about “when he mocks and mimics a reporter with a disability.”
Likewise, on November 6, 2016, President Barack Obama told people at a campaign rally (at 15:50): “We cannot elect a President who vilifies minorities — who mocks Americans with disabilities — who calls immigrants ‘criminals and rapists’!”
In a campaign ad, Hillary Clinton misrepresented Trump as having ridiculed a person with autism. Serge Kovaleski does not have autism. Yet the ad says: “It’s not uncommon for autistic kids to flap their hands. And so, when I saw that [Trump mocking Kovaleski], that was completely disqualifying.”
The story about Trump mimicking a disability has yet another layer of added depth. Once the the meme had been created, it no longer mattered what the disability was. Originally, it was supposed to be a striking and exact rendition of arthrogryposis. But that just didn’t really fit, because of the rigidity caused by arthrogryposis. Later, Hillary Clinton’s campaign decided to use it as a cruel mockery of autism. But more recently, I’ve seen instances when people choose to imagine that Trump was imitating cerebral palsy.
And here we may conjecture that some of Trump’s gestures, even if he wasn’t consciously aware of it, might be rooted in echoing centuries-old gestures of persons indeed mocking individuals who had some sort of a mental disability. Thus it is, that when someone lives long enough (like old Mr. Trump), expressions that decades earlier seemed mildly harmless and silly, like the games of schoolchildren teasing one another, eventually become censured as grossly offensive and inappropriate.
Reporters and news commentators had successfully demonized Mr. Trump. Millions of good, caring people across the U.S. learned to fear and hate him because he was apparently (or evidently) one of the most offensive and cruel persons they had ever seen. And they wondered: How can some people be so stupid to possibly support such a evil man?
Besides, other than Trump’s gestures, viewers could point to other apparently conclusive evidence. After all, Trump had said: “a nice reporter, now the poor guy you’ve gotta see this guy…” Critics could imagine that what Trump actually meant was:
- “a nice reporter, I remember him from years ago, he’s disabled.”
- “now the poor guy, he’s really disabled, it’s so sad.”
- “you’ve gotta see this guy, he’s physically disabled.”
These three statements have one thing in common: we’ve added the point about the disability. Critics thought that jointly these statements prove that Trump was making fun of Kovaleski’s disability. But Trump didn’t say that.
Again, it’s not difficult to find that expressions can have other meanings. For example, does Trump use the words “poor guy” to refer to someone without a disability? It’s easy to find the answer. For example, he used the expression to refer to the disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner: “a proven loser—the poor guy is locked up in a room.” He said it too about Jeb Bush: “this poor guy with this low energy, it’s sad.” He said it about political analyst Bill Kristol: “From day one, this poor guy, this poor guy, I watch him…”
And Trump has also said it about persons he has not seen. In 1983 he said: “I feel sorry for the poor guy who is going to buy the Dallas Cowboys…” The Cowboys were bought in 1984 by H.R. Bright. Likewise, in 2015 Trump ridiculed an imaginary bank president, saying: “When you see the president of the bank,” and shaking his arm as if he were mocking someone flustered and nervous.
A common thread in the articles about Trump and Kovaleski is that writers failed to consider Trump’s explanation for why he ridiculed Kovaleski. Instead, they preferred to run with the most awful interpretation, a story so rudely offensive that it sounded true to them.
Certainly, Trump did mock a disabled reporter. But I think that Trump didn’t remember that the reporter was disabled. And Trump’s antics were not a spot-on imitation of Kovaleski at all. Instead they were the sort of thing Trump does to mock other people (who aren’t disabled) but have become very flustered by not knowing what to say.
Personally, I think that no matter what arguments or evidence one gives, many people will still think that Trump did ridicule the disabled reporter knowingly and precisely because he was disabled. Some say he mimicked arthrogryposis. Others say he mimicked autism. Others say he mimicked cerebral palsy. Others say he mimicked a speech impediment. …
So, I almost try to think that my goal in writing the present article is not necessarily to convince anyone of what I think. Some people will still think that Donald Trump is a brutally evil man who viciously enjoys ridiculing disabled persons in front of large audiences. My goal in writing this article, at least, is that I wanted to convey why some people, such as myself, happen to disagree about this particular incident—disagree with the awful story that news commentators eagerly pushed.
As usual, reporters guessed that Trump must have done what they themselves, personally, would never, ever do.
Alberto A. Martinez is a professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.
Next, Chapter 14: Trump’s pledge to kill innocent people
Author’s Note: I originally posted this article on January 17, 2016 on this website. Months later, on July 27, 2017 (and later updates), the website “Catholics 4 Trump” published the same argument in a good article titled: “The True Story: Donald Trump did Not Mock a Reporter’s Disability.” They included examples of Trump mocking himself, a bank president, and Ted Cruz, which I added to the present article in January 4, 2017. I’ve also added examples I had found about Trump mocking Hillary Clinton and Donna Brazile.