16 people who shaped the 2016 election: Serge Kovaleski

By Nov. 9, the votes will have been cast and counted, there will be a winner and a loser, and the country will begin a slow return to normal. Historians will have their say on the outcome, but all of us who have lived through this election will carry away indelible memories of a shocking year in American history: of a handful of ordinary people, swept up in the rush of history; of a series of moments on which the fate of the nation seemed, at least briefly, to turn; and of places on the map that became symbols of a divided nation. As we count down to Election Day, Yahoo News has identified 16 unforgettable people, moments and places.

It was an unforgettable moment in Donald Trump’s remarkable presidential run — and in case you have forgotten it, the Clinton campaign is all too happy to remind you. At a rally in South Carolina last fall, Trump performed a crude, arm-flapping imitation of a New York Times reporter, Serge Kovaleski, who has a congenital disability affecting his right hand and wrist. The scene, replayed endlessly on television news and pro-Clinton commercials, has come to stand in for Trump’s habit of mocking the looks and mannerisms of people he disagrees with.

The backstory to this episode involves a remark Trump had made at an earlier speech, in the context of his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country: I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” he said. “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.”

When journalists were unable to find any evidence to corroborate this story, the Trump campaign dug out an article by Kovaleski, then at the Washington Post, from shortly after the 9/11 attacks. One sentence, deep in the article, read: “In Jersey City, within hours of two jetliners’ plowing into the World Trade Center, 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.”

Kovaleski noted that this hardly supported Trump’s account. “I certainly do not remember anyone saying that thousands or even hundreds of people were celebrating,” he said in a statement. “That was not the case, as best as I can remember.”

Trump interpreted this as Kovaleski confessing to a lapse of memory and refusing to stand by his reporting: “Now, the poor guy, you’ve got to see this guy: ‘Uh, I don’t know what I said. Uh, I don’t remember,’ he’s going like ‘I don’t remember. Maybe that’s what I said.’”

Kovaleski, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on an unrelated New York Times story, has not commented on the episode since. But it speaks for itself. A Bloomberg News poll in August asked people what bothered them most about Trump. The mockery of Kovaleski came in first by a wide margin. — By Jerry Adler

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