WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump acknowledged Friday that he used "tough" language during a meeting on efforts toward a bipartisan immigration deal but appeared to deny using the term "shithole" to refer to some countries.
"The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made – a big setback for DACA!" Trump wrote on Twitter, referring to the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Spokesmen for the White House did not immediately respond to a request for clarification Friday. The White House did not deny Thursday that Trump used the vulgarity, first reported by The Washington Post and later confirmed by numerous other news outlets.
In a later tweet, Trump focused on remarks attributed to him about Haiti, saying: "Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country. Never said "take them out." Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings – unfortunately, no trust!"
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., one of the lawmakers who attended the meeting, said publicly in comments to reporters and in a subsequent written statement on Friday that Trump's denial was false. The president, according to Durbin, "said things that were hate-filled, vile and racist." Trump used the words "repeatedly," the senator said.
"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.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., criticized Trump's remarks during an event Friday in Milwaukee, pointing to his own Irish ancestors' migration to America.
"First thing that came to my mind was: Very unfortunate, unhelpful," he said. "But you know what I thought of right away? I thought about my own family. . . . It is a beautiful story of America, and that is a great story and that is the story we have today and that is a story we had yesterday and that is what makes this country so exceptional and unique in the first place. So I see this as a thing to celebrate, and I think it's a big part of our strength."
Among Republicans, there were differing responses to what transpired behind closed doors.
In a joint statement, Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga. – two of Trump's biggest allies on Capitol Hill – said, "We do not recall the president saying these comments specifically but what he did call out was the imbalance in our current immigration system, which does not protect American workers and our national interest."
Trump, the senators said, "brought everyone to the table this week and listened to both sides. But regrettably, it seems that not everyone is committed to negotiating in good faith."
Cotton and Perdue are co-sponsors of legislation that would enact severe restrictions on legal immigration – a bill Trump has said he supports but that senior GOP leaders have said could not pass Congress.
One meeting participant who has been quiet so far is Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who on Thursday before publication of the news of Trump's remarks refused to comment on what was said.
"No! I gotta go," he told a Post reporter as he left his Capitol Hill office and jumped into an SUV that sped away.
On Friday, however, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., told the Post & Courier newspaper that Graham told him that the reported comments are "basically accurate."
"If that comment is accurate, the comment is incredibly disappointing," Scott told the newspaper.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has been negotiating the immigration policy deal with Durbin and Graham, said in an interview that he was not at the meeting but heard about Trump's comments "before it went public. And what I've heard reported is consistent about what I heard about the meeting."
Flake said Thursday's comments reflect what Trump has reportedly said in the past about Haiti and Nigeria. "I'm not surprised at the sentiment expressed – it's consistent with what he's said – but that he would do that knowing the fury it would cause."
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who also attended the meeting, did not address the comments in a statement issued by his office on Friday.
"There are almost 800,000 young DACA beneficiaries who are facing imminent deportation in March if we don't reach a deal," he said. "I'm not going to be diverted from all possible efforts to continue to negotiate to reach a deal. So statements at the eleventh hour are not going to distract me."
The president's comments occurred as he grew frustrated with lawmakers in the Thursday meeting in the Oval Office when they discussed protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan deal over young undocumented immigrants known as "dreamers" who were brought to the United States illegally as children, according to several people briefed on the meeting.
"Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" Trump said, according to these people, referring to countries mentioned by the lawmakers.
Trump then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries such as Norway, whose prime minister he met with Wednesday.
A White House official said Trump also suggested he would be open to more immigrants from Asian countries because he felt that they help the United States economically.
In addition, the president singled out Haiti, telling lawmakers that immigrants from that country must be left out of any deal, these people said.
"Why do we need more Haitians?" Trump said, according to people familiar with the meeting. "Take them out."
In November, the Trump administration rescinded deportation protection granted to nearly 60,000 Haitians after the 2010 earthquake and told them to return home by July 2019.
Graham and Durbin had proposed cutting the visa lottery program by 50 percent and then prioritizing countries already in the system, a White House official said.
"Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people," spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement issued after The Washington Post first reported Trump's remarks.
". . . Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation."
An immigration hard-liner in Congress, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, tweeted support for Trump's remarks Friday: "If those countries aren't as you described, Democrats should be happy to deport criminal aliens back to them. &End #AnchorBabies, too."
Durbin said in his statement Friday that he and others in his bipartisan group will continue pressing for a DACA deal. It "continues to build support for the only deal in town," he said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden condemned the remark on Twitter.
"It's not how a president should speak. It's not how a president should behave. Most of all, it's not what a president should believe. We're better than this," Biden wrote.
The Associated Press reported Friday that the Haitian government condemned Trump's reported migration comment as a "racist view of the Haitian community."
Haiti was among the nations to abstain at the United Nations rather than condemn Trump's change in policy over Jerusalem. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had asked nations not to vote against the United States and said she would keep track of those who did. She later thanked the handful of nations that voted with the United States and the larger group that abstained.
In Geneva, a spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Council also condemned the comments as racist.
"These are shocking and shameful comments from the president of the United States," spokesman Rupert Colville said in remarks the U.N. body posted to Twitter.
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The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner contributed to this story.