WASHINGTON, D.C.: US President Donald Trump sought to quell a global firestorm over his reported denunciation of immigration from “shithole countries” – a slur slammed at home and abroad as racist.
The reported remarks – which drew unanimous condemnation from African nations at the UN and resulted in at least two US diplomats being called in by their hosts – are just the latest in a series of racially charged comments by the president.
Trump tweeted a convoluted denial early Friday about the comments allegedly made on Thursday at a White House meeting with lawmakers on immigration reform.
“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump said, apparently referring to the remarks quoted by The Washington Post and The New York Times.
But Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin – who was present at the meeting – publicly pushed back, saying Trump had repeatedly used “vile and racist” language.
Thursday’s White House huddle was held to discuss a bipartisan deal that would limit immigrants from bringing family members into the country, restrict the green card visa lottery and boost border security, in exchange for shielding hundreds of thousands of young people known as “Dreamers” from deportation.
Trump scrapped an Obama-era program that gave the 800,000 young immigrants legal protection, setting a March deadline for Congress to offer a fix – though it has been reinstated by a court, for now.
After lawmakers raised the issue of protections for immigrants from African nations, Haiti and El Salvador, the president reportedly demanded to know why the United States should accept immigrants from “shithole countries,” rather than – for instance – wealthy and overwhelmingly white Norway.
Durbin said Trump specifically asked, “Do we need more Haitians?” before launching into a diatribe about African immigration.
Trump then “said things which were hate-filled, vile and racist,” Durbin said, adding that “shithole” was “the exact word used by the president, not just once but repeatedly.”
Trump denied he ever said “anything derogatory” about the people of Haiti.
“Made up by Dems,” he tweeted. “I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians!”
But the government of Haiti – which Friday marked the eighth anniversary of a devastating earthquake that killed at least 200,000 people – declared itself “outraged and shocked” by the “racist” slur.
Trump’s reported comments also drew a unanimous condemnation from the African Group of UN ambassadors, which said it was “extremely appalled” at the “racist and xenophobic remarks.”
The group called for a retraction and apology, and also expressed concern at what it described as the “growing trend from the US administration” to “denigrate the continent and people of color.”
The State Department was left scrambling to contain the damage, with a top official saying that – while Trump denies using the language attributed to him – diplomats had been briefed to convey Washington’s respect if summoned to explain themselves, as they were in Haiti and Botswana.
Trump’s language triggered a barrage of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.
Congressional Black Caucus Chair Cedric Richmond and House Judiciary top Democrat Jerrold Nadler said they would seek to introduce a censure resolution against Trump next week.
The resolution could be embarrassing for Trump if Republican leaders of the lower house allow a vote on it.
Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 Democratic presidential rival, took to Twitter to blast his “ignorant, racist views of anyone who doesn’t look like him.”
Some Republicans were also plainly unhappy, with House Speaker Paul Ryan describing the reported comments as “very unfortunate” and “unhelpful.”
Mia Love, a Utah congresswoman of Haitian descent, called them “unkind” and “divisive” while South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator, said if Trump really did use those words, it would be “disappointing.”
In an oddly timed coincidence, the US president on Friday signed a declaration honoring slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr, three days before the federal holiday celebrated in his honor.