Last November, at a rally in South Carolina, Donald Trump appeared to openly mock a disabled man, a reporter for The New York Times. The shocking incident has dogged Trump on the campaign trail ever since, in particular because his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, has made Trump’s mocking of the disabled a major point in her attacks on his character and his suitability to be president.
The disabled man who Trump mocked was New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who was hired at the Times in 2006 after previously working at the Washington Post and New York Daily News.
Here’s what you need to need to know about him.
1. Trump Mocked Him Over a 15-Year-Old Article
Kovaleski suffers from arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that restricts the movement of the muscles in his arms. At his South Carolina rally on November 24 of last year, Trump flew into a derisive impression of Kovaleski as he claimed that the reporter was backing away from an article he’d written for The Washington Post in 2001.
At that point in his campaign, Trump was under fire for his claim that American muslims “celebrated” the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers by terrorists on September 11, 2001. To supposedly prove his point, Trump pointed to a September 18, 2001 article in the Post written by Kovaleski in which the reporter mentioned police who “detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties.”
The key word in there was “allegedly,” and Kovaleski corrected Trump by saying that there were no credible reports of such celebrations. In response, Trump claimed that Kovaleski was “backing away” from his original reporting. Apparently to underscore his point, Trump declared “you gotta see this guy,” then launched into his mocking impression of Kovaleski at the South Carolina rally, seen in the video above.
2. He is a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Investigative Reporter
In 2009, Kovaleski was part of a team of New York Times reporters who investigated a sex scandal involving New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, forcing Spitzer to resign the governor’s office in March of 2007, after serving barely more than a year, over revelations that he habitually patronized a high-priced escort service, spending thousands on expensive prostitutes.
Kovaleski and his Times colleagues on the investigative team were awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in the “Breaking News” category for their work in exposing Spitzer’s involvement with the prostitution ring.
The reporter was humble about the prestigious award — journalism’s highest honor — telling the alumni magazine from his alma mater, William and Mary University, “I know I’m only as good as my last story.”
Kovaleski, who was born in Cape Town, South Africa, is also married to a Pulitzer Prize winner. His wife and New York Times colleague Jo Becker won a 2008 Pulitzer for her reporting about former United States Vice President Dick Cheney.
3. Trump Claimed He Never Met Kovaleski, But That Was a Lie
When he came under fire for mocking the disabled reporter, Trump claimed that he could not have actually been making fun of Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis disability because he had never met the reporter and didn’t even know what he looked like — despite the fact that Trump himself had prefaced his mocking impression by saying, “you gotta see this guy!”
“Serge Kovaleski must think a lot of himself if he thinks I remember him from decades ago — if I ever met him at all, which I doubt I did,” Trump said.
The candidate went on to accuse Kovaleski of “using his disability to grandstand,” saying that Kovaleski should “get back to reporting for a paper that is rapidly going down the tubes.”
But Kovaleski himself quickly issued a statement contradicting Trump, saying that he covered Trump closely as a reporter for the New York Daily News and had met him face-to-face on at least a dozen occasions — to the point of being “on a first name basis” with Trump.
“I’ve interviewed him in his office. 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,” Kovaleski said.
Andrew Gluck, formerly of the Daily News and who co-wrote several pieces on Trump with Kovaleski, backed up the reporter’s statement, saying that Trump’s claim to not recall Kovaleski was simply not believable.
“Serge is an unforgettable character when you meet him,” Gluck told The Washington Post. “You’re struck by the fact that his arms don’t work quite right. Anybody that meets him would obviously know that. You’re going to remember him.”
Nonetheless, as late as July 29 of this year, Trump continued to claim his innocence in the mocking incident.
“I didn’t know what he looked like. I didn’t know he was disabled,” Trump said, instead claiming that he was mocking Kovaleski for “groveling.”
4. Arthrogryposis is a Rare Disorder
Arthrogryposis, the condition that causes Koavaleski’s disability, is considered relatively rare, occurring only once in every 3,000 births, according to the site Disabled-World.com.
The National Institutes of Health say that the condition causes “a joint becomes permanently fixed in a bent or straightened position, which can impact the function and range of motion of the joint and may lead to muscle atrophy. AMC is not a specific diagnosis, but rather a physical symptom that can be associated with many different medical conditions.”
The causes of arthrogryposis — a name derived from the Latin words meaning “curved joint” — are not fully understood, but the condition is present from birth and is thought to occur when a fetus does not move around enough in the womb, which causes muscles and joints to develop improperly.
5. Clinton Hammers Trump on his Mocking of the Disabled
Trump’s mocking of the disabled newspaper reporter turned into a major campaign theme for Clinton, who has repeatedly hammered Trump for his perceived insensitivity to people with disabilities — most recently in a TV ad issued last week, featuring disabilities advocate Anastasia Somoza. That ad can be viewed in the video above.
Politically, Clinton is smart to make a major issue of Trump’s Kovaleski incident. In a Bloomberg News poll issued in August, voters were asked which Trump statement or incident bothered them the most.
Trump’s mocking of people with disabilities topped the list, with more than 60 percent calling the Kovaleski incident Trump’s worst offense — even more than the number offended by Trump’s attacks on the Khan family, who lost a son to the war in Iraq.