WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump offered a partial denial in public but privately defended his extraordinary remarks disparaging Haitians and African countries.
Trump said he was only expressing what many people think but won’t say about immigrants from economically depressed countries, according to a person who spoke to the president as criticism of his comments ricocheted around the globe.
Trump spent Thursday evening calling friends and outside advisers to judge their reaction, said the confidant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to disclose a private conversation. Trump wasn’t apologetic about the inflammatory remarks and denied he was racist, instead, blaming the media for distorting his meaning, the confidant said.
Critics of the president, including some Republicans, on Friday blasted the vulgar comments made in the Oval Office. In a meeting with a group of senators, Trump had questioned why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa as he rejected a bipartisan immigration deal, according to one participant and people briefed on the remarkable conversation.
The comments revived charges that Trump is racist and roiled already tenuous immigration talks that included discussion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump insisted in early tweets Friday, pushing back on some depictions of the meeting.
But Trump and his advisers notably did not dispute the most controversial of his remarks: using “shithole” to describe African nations and saying he would prefer immigrants from countries like Norway instead.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the only Democrat in the room, said Trump had indeed said what he was reported to have said. The remarks, Durbin said, were “vile, hate-filled and clearly racial in their content.” He said Trump used the most vulgar term “more than once.”
“If that’s not racism, I don’t know how you can define it,” Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told WPLG-TV in Miami.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the comments were “beneath the dignity of the presidency” and Trump’s desire for more immigrants from countries like Norway was “an effort to set this country back generations by promoting a homogenous, white society.”
Republican leaders were largely silent, though House Speaker Paul Ryan said the vulgar language was “very unfortunate, unhelpful.”
Trump’s insults — along with his rejection of the bipartisan immigration deal drafted by six senators— also threatened to further complicate efforts to extend protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, many of whom were brought to the country as children and now are here illegally.