President Donald Trump’s comments in front of several lawmakers threaten what had been an emerging agreement to protect immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children.
WASHINGTON — It was just after President Donald Trump had finished railing in the Oval Office against African immigrants he said came from “shithole countries” when a senior Republican senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was there to negotiate a deal on immigration, spoke up.
“America is an idea, not a race,” Graham said, according to three people familiar with the exchange Thursday. Diversity was a strength, he said, not a weakness. And by the way, the senator added, he himself was a descendant of immigrants who came to the United States from “shithole countries with no skills.”
Trump’s racially charged comments in front of several lawmakers, which also extended to immigrants from Haiti, threaten what had been an emerging agreement to protect immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children.
Several people with knowledge of the conversation said the president had also demanded to know whether Haitian immigrants could be removed. The White House has not disputed the account of the exchange.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- A 30-year-old demanded notice for eviction from his parents' house. 'Outrageous,' a judge said.
- Parents go to court to boot 30-year-old son from home
- State Department warns US citizens in China after employee suffers possible sonic attack
- People who sleep in on weekends avoid dying young, study suggests
- Pressure mounts on USC president to resign after scandals
The collapse of negotiations on an immigration deal would raise the risk of a government shutdown next week, given that many Democrats have said an immigration deal must be included in any measure to continue funding past a Jan. 19 deadline.
To try to recover the political narrative, the president took to Twitter on Friday with a vague denial, saying his remarks at the meeting were “tough, but this was not the language used.”
But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Friday that the president had used the vulgarity several times, and had said “things which were hate-filled, vile and racist” during the meeting on immigration that Durbin attended.
“I cannot believe that, in the history of the White House in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday,” Durbin said.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., told The (Charleston) Post and Courier that Graham had related Trump’s remarks to him after the meeting, and he called news reports about them “basically accurate” based on that account.
According to three people briefed about the meeting, it featured a dramatic moment between the president and Graham, who referred to Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign as a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” but who has recently grown close to the president, advising him on immigration policy.
After Trump disparaged African nations in foul terms, they said, Graham answered with an impassioned defense of immigrants and immigration as pillars of the American ideals of diversity and inclusion.
Graham did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the president’s remarks or his own. But on Friday, he released a statement. “Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday,” Graham said. “The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel. I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.”
In Twitter posts on Friday, Trump charged that Democrats had fabricated parts of the exchange even as he defended the sentiment that prompted them, the latest turn in the saga surrounding a meeting Thursday called to discuss progress toward a bipartisan immigration deal.
Trump said he “never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country,” and denied that he had asked to remove them from the proposal, adding: “Made up by Dems.”
In a joint statement released Friday, two Republican senators who also attended the session, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, said Democrats were acting dishonorably in the immigration talks, and claimed that they could not remember whether Trump used the words attributed to him.
Republican leaders were largely silent, though House Speaker Paul Ryan said the vulgar language was “very unfortunate, unhelpful,” and went on to recall how his own relatives immigrated to the United States from Ireland.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., suggested the president’s inability to refrain from incendiary statements was detracting from his agenda. “It’s an unacceptable view of the world and it’s an unacceptable thing to say,” Blunt told the radio station KMBZ. “You would expect the president to lead in determining how you filter your thoughts, rather than to continue to say things that take a lot away from what’s actually getting done.”
The bipartisan backlash to the president’s comments intensified Friday as Trump signed a proclamation at the White House for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, ignoring a question from a reporter about whether he is a racist.
The current debate about Trump’s anti-immigrant talk unfolded one week before funding for the government is set to be exhausted without action from Congress, where Democrats have pressed to include a plan to preserve protections for roughly 800,000 unauthorized immigrants that Trump has moved to rescind. Under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program created by President Barack Obama, they have obtained temporary, renewable work permits. Trump announced in September he was ending the program, setting a six-month clock before the first permits would begin expiring and calling on Congress to enact legislation to create a permanent solution in the meantime.
While lawmakers had been closing in on a bipartisan deal on the matter and Durbin and Graham had been hopeful that Trump was on the brink of endorsing it, the furor surrounding his remarks appeared to deepen the divisions surrounding any such plan, prompting the president to discount the chances of an agreement.
“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump said on Twitter. “What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made — a big setback for DACA!”
The president’s incendiary comments Thursday came during a session in which senators were describing a plan to end the diversity visa lottery and allocate some of the visas instead to vulnerable populations from places including El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti that have had Temporary Protected Status in the United States. The measure under discussion would also provide legal status for DACA recipients and work permits for their parents, bar the children from sponsoring their parents for citizenship, and include $2.5 billion in border-security funding.