Part of President Trump’s problem with those who didn’t vote for him is oddly what seems to be an asset for those who did: his trustworthiness. In particular, can we believe what he or his administration says? The lies told by Press Secretary Sean Spicer at his first briefing do not bode well for truth, facts, and reality in the future from the White House. But many of the president’s supporters shrug off his more outrageous and truth-less statements, accepting them as braggadocio (a term Trump often uses to deny that he has boastful or arrogant behavior). So to give insight into how the future of this administration will go, the Rhetoric Referee returns to this question: Did Trump, as a candidate, “mock a disabled reporter?”
Here is a report from CNN on the incident. [Briefly, Trump was caught up in a controversy over whether or not he saw personally or read news accounts of Muslims celebrating the attacks on America on September 11, 2001. In response he mocked the reporter who he claimed wrote the story about the alleged celebrations. The mocking incident occurred when Trump attempted to defend his unsubstantiated allegations, shifting attention away from him and toward the reporter.]
CNN, like many media organizations, including The New York Times, where Serge Kovaleski (who has arthrogryposis, which visibly limits the functioning of his joints) works, see Trump’s apologia (his speech of self-defense) as mocking. Many on the “left” and even on the “right” agree. For example , from the right, Chicksontheright.com and Redstate.com each posted articles concluding it was mocking.
But there are many — from Trump himself to his surrogates to his voters to others on the “right” — who refuse that label.
So, what are the reasons each side gives for its rhetorical assessment?
Trump has denied from the start that he was mocking. He said in July and repeated on Jan. 9 in tweets — after Meryl Streep referred to the incident in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes — that he did not mock Kovaleski. He wrote: “For the 100th time, I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him… (2) ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16-year-old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!”
He reiterated those comments in an interview with The New York Times that same day: “I was never mocking anyone.” Instead, Trump claimed that he “was calling into question a reporter who had gotten nervous because he had changed his story…. People keep saying I intended to mock the reporter’s disability, as if Meryl Streep and others could read my mind, and I did no such thing.”
Trump was in the unusual position of having to defend himself for the way that he defended himself (an apologia about his apologia). Trump appeals to his own character when he notes he “would never do that.” He also appeals to a remarkable criteria for judging whether someone is mocking [reading his mind] and a perceived reason for the arm movements of the reporter [nervously changing his story]. He finally appeals to a larger perception of context, the overall character of the media as “very dishonest.”
Many of these appeals are based in a claim of authority — as most Trump claims are. The first is particularly hard to assess ethically because it is a familiar assertion of ethos we make every day. It carries authority, because who could know Trump’s character better than Trump himself?
Appealing to one’s own ethos in denying this as mocking is not ethically dubious on its face, but it is an odd appeal for someone like Trump. The President-elect made a great deal of his opposition to political correctness on the campaign trail. That he would mock a disabled person as part of his politically incorrect campaigning seems like a reasonable interpretation of his ethos (his character). Yet, Trump insists—invoking his authoritative understanding of his own character — that this is not the case. Trump is also identifying his action with something he believes others agree is right — mocking someone who is duplicitous and groveling.
But without lines of argument not dependent on his own credibility, this is an authoritarian line of reasoning. In light of clear video evidence, Trump’s assertion comes across as a lie, which seems like a poor political strategy because lies are usually corrosive to authority. However, this has not been the case with Trump.
Trump’s surrogates and other defenders appeal to different lines of argument.
Ann Coulter and Fox News picked up on a series of videos by a group called Catholics 4 Trump that show Trump doing this “same” arm movement at other rallies. Coulter wrote: the group “posted a video clip of another part of that same speech, in which Trump imitates a flustered general. Guess what? He does the exact same arm flailing.” [Her emphasis] She adds: “In another speech, Trump pretended to be a timorous Ted Cruz. Again, he does the exact same arm flailing.” [Her emphasis].
Coulter and Catholics 4 Trump argue that Trump’s repetition of the gesture proves that it was meant as a general insult, not one that was meant to target anything specific about Mr. Kovaleski. She wrote in her book In Trump We Trust that Trump was merely doing “a standard retard, waving his arms and sounding stupid” in his movements (pg. 113).
Refereeing the Reasoning
And this is a moment of judgment for the Referee. First, a general insult that mimics a palsy is still bad on the same grounds as imitating Mr. Kovaleski’s specific palsy would be. Second, Trump supporters’ appeal to video evidence, combined with commentary about the dishonest media, is hypocritical. To prove their point, Catholics 4 Trump produced a montage, the same video editing technique they condemn as evidence that the media has been unfair to Trump. Ultimately, they push Trump’s supporters to not trust what they see and instead to trust Trump’s authority telling them what to see. An authoritarian appeal.
On the other side, few in the media make an argument that Trump is mocking, presumably because he so obviously is. The CNN clip like others merely labels the mocking. It does not provide a definition or criteria or any other basis for its label. CNN like other media implicitly appeal to a shared morality. The video is supposed to speak for itself, but clearly for many, including many of Trump’s supporters, it does not.
A Key Referee
Finally, the Washington Post Fact Checker gave Trump “four Pinocchios” for his claim that he didn’t mock the reporter.
The Post calls it mocking because of Trump’s description of the reporter: “Now, the poor guy, you ought to see this guy, [Trump now quoting the reporter] ‘Ah, I don’t know what I said, I don’t remember, I don’t remember, maybe that’s what I said.’” The “poor guy” seems to imply in this context of fluster that the reporter can’t match Trump’s argument. This phrase “poor guy” can be used compassionately, when we feel empathy for someone having a “rough” day. But it is clear from Trump’s own description of the situation as “groveling” that in Trump’s use of the phrase “poor guy,” “poor” was meant sarcastically. And telling this particular story with this phrase to the audience he did, only gives more authority to the conclusion of mocking.
Finally, The Post and other “fact checkers” — and those who see it as mocking — appeal to the context of the incident, the relationship between the parties involved, and the facts of the incident that are not in dispute — the reporter’s condition, the topic of conversation, and the comments made describing the situation by Trump and the reporter. All of this considered, it seems clear that Trump was mocking Mr. Kovaleski because of his condition.