Last weekend, Donald Trump added people with disabilities to his ever-growing list of those he has bashed since launching his presidential campaign in June. His most recent target, Serge Kovaleski, is a reporter who has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that limits the movement of his joints.
The real estate developer-turned-GOP candidate’s latest insult came amid criticism for his claim that he witnessed thousands of people cheering the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” Trump said at a Nov. 21 rally in Birmingham, Ala. “And I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”
Since being called out for claims, Trump has pointed to a Sept. 18, 2001, Washington Post article that Kovaleski co-wrote, which included, among other things: “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.”
However, Kovaleski has said he does not recall whether the allegations were founded and suggested Trump’s numbers are exaggerated. “I certainly do not remember anyone saying that thousands or even hundreds of people were celebrating,” said Kovaleski. “That was not the case, as best as I can remember.”
At a rally in South Carolinalast week, Trump attacked a column written by Kovaleski, now at The New York Times, in which Kovaleski rebukes Trump and accuses him of lying. Speaking at the rally, Trump shared an excerpt from the article before flailing his arms seemingly in a way to mimic Kovaleski’s disability.
In the aftermath of the rally, Trump insisted, “I don’t mock people that have disabilities, believe me.” He also defiantly claimed he does not know Kovaleski or about his condition.
However, evidence points to an encounter between the two in the late 1980s when Kovaleski wrote a piece on Trump: “Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years, I’ve interviewed him in his office, I’ve talked to him in press conferences. All in all I would say around a dozen times.”
Kovaleski covered a launch of the Trump Shuttle in 1989, at which time he and Trump spent the entire day together: “Flying out of La Guardia, we spent a big chunk of the day flying up and down the East Coast with Trump chatting with me and the others on the plane.”
In response, Trump said, “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.”
Andrew Gluck, CEO of Advisor Products and a former colleague of Kovaleski from his days at the New York Daily News, confirmed that Trump indeed does know Kovaleski. The former financial columnist recalled collaborating with Kovaleski on several stories about the real estate tycoon. “Serge is an unforgettable character when you meet him, you’re struck by the fact that his arms don’t work quite right,” Gluck said. “Everyone that meets him would obviously know that, you’re going to remember him.”
Other presidential hopefuls are denouncing Trump’s comments and actions. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went on CNN’s “New Day” and blasted Trump, saying, “He shouldn’t be making fun of people’s disabilities, it’s just not worthy of someone running for president of the United States.”
Michael Cohen, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, defended Trump in an interview on CNN by saying Trump donates “millions and millions of dollars” to organizations that serve people with disabilities and he is not the kind of person that would make fun of one’s disability.
Trump has dominated the 2016 Republican primary cycle and is leading in most polls. But what began as refreshing candor and boldness is swiftly morphing into destructive rhetoric and divisiveness.
Despite the backlash, though, Trump opens the last month of 2015 with a comfortable 10-point lead in several national polls. With two months to go until delegates begin to be handed out, Trump seems to be toeing a line that could alienate him from his own party.