Donald Trump Says His Mocking of New York Times Reporter Was Misread

Maggie Haberman
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Getty Images

Responding to criticism over remarks he made on Tuesday, Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential candidate and real estate developer, denied on Thursday that he was mocking the appearance of a reporter for The New York Times with a physical disability.

Mr. Trump, who insisted that he had never met the reporter, Serge F. Kovaleski, issued the statement over Twitter one day after news media reports that he had imitated the reporter during a rally in South Carolina. Mr. Trump described Mr. Kovaleski as trying to back away from a story he wrote in September 2001 while he was working for The Washington Post. The candidate used the article to try to justify his widely debunked claims that there were "thousands and thousands" of people "cheering" the fall of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In South Carolina, Mr. Trump described Mr. Kovaleski as a "nice guy" before mocking his comments about the article in The Post.

Donald J. Trump at a rally Tuesday at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in South Carolina.

"Now the poor guy, you ought to see this guy," Mr. Trump said, before jerking his arms around and holding his right hand at an angle. " 'Ah, I don't know what I said! I don't remember!' "

In his statement on Thursday, Mr. Trump maintained that he had never met Mr. Kovaleski.

"I have no idea who this reporter, Serge Kovalski [sic], is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence," Mr. Trump said.

"Despite having one of the all-time great memories, I certainly do not remember him," he continued. "What I do know is that after 14 years and no retraction, this reporter tried to pull away from the tailgate party paragraph he wrote many years ago for The Washington Post."

Mr. Trump, whose statement repeatedly criticized The Times, insisted that he "merely mimicked what I thought would be a flustered reporter trying to get out of a statement he made long ago." He said that if "Mr. Kovaleski is handicapped, I would not know because I do not know what he looks like. If I did know, I would definitely not say anything about his appearance."

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In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Kovaleski said that he met with Mr. Trump repeatedly when he was a reporter for The Daily News covering the developer's business career in the late 1980s, before joining The Post. "Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years," Mr. Kovaleski said. "I've interviewed him in his office," he added. "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."

A representative for The Times said on Wednesday: "We're outraged that he would ridicule the physical appearance of one of our reporters."

Last Saturday, Mr. Trump, already under fire for voicing support for a database of Muslims in the United States, insisted that he had watched while "thousands and thousands of people" cheered in Jersey City as the twin towers collapsed.

After reports that the authorities had found the accounts unfounded, Mr. Trump seized on the 2001 article by Mr. Kovaleski as proof of his claim. That story contained a sentence saying that the authorities in the days after the terrorist strikes had detained and questioned "a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks" on rooftops with tailgate-style parties. The story never referred to "thousands," and it did not say that the allegations had been substantiated. Mr. Kovaleski, in interviews since Mr. Trump made his claim, has said his reporting did not bear out the "thousands" number, or even "hundreds."

As for the claim that Mr. Kovaleski was trying to pull away from his past reporting, he said, "Nothing could be further from the truth."