WASHINGTON – It was just after President Donald Trump had finished railing in the Oval Office against African immigrants who 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 Thursday exchange. Diversity is 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 U.S. from “shithole countries with no skills.”
Trump’s racially charged comments in front of several lawmakers, which also extended to immigrants from Haiti — followed by a day in which members of Congress denounced the president, defended him or stayed silent — now 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.
The collapse of negotiations on an immigration deal would raise the risk of a government shutdown next week, given that 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. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters Friday that the president had used the expletive several times and had said “things which were hate-filled, vile and racist” during the meeting on immigration — which Durbin also 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.
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 released a statement Friday. “Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday,” he said. “The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel.”
In Twitter posts on Friday, Trump charged that Democrats had fabricated parts of the exchange even as he defended the sentiment that prompted them. 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, charged that Democrats were acting dishonorably in the immigration talks, claiming that they could not remember whether Trump used the words attributed to him.
Still, some Republicans condemned the president’s remarks, as Democrats announced plans to introduce a resolution next week to formally censure him for them.
At an event in Wisconsin on Friday, House Speaker Paul Ryan. R-Wis., described Trump’s comments as “very unfortunate” and “unhelpful.” Ryan went on to recall how his own relatives immigrated to the United States from Ireland.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said they would call on Republican leaders to bring up a resolution reprimanding the president for “racist statements.”
Governments and citizens across the world recoiled with disgust, outrage and sadness.
The Haitian government called the remarks racist. The president of Senegal tweeted that he was shocked. South Africa’s governing party said the comments were “extremely offensive.” The African Union said it was “frankly alarmed.”
The fury was not limited to those countries directly mentioned. El Salvador’s government sent a formal letter of protest. Earlier in the week, the United States announced it was rescinding Temporary Protected Status for about 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States.
In Brussels, a European Union lawmaker, Gianni Pittella of Italy, said that Trump “had forgotten to engage his brain before talking.”
Some of the strongest reactions were in Africa, where 54 countries demanded that the president apologize.
“I am shocked by President Trump’s comments on Haiti and Africa,” President Macky Sall of Senegal wrote on Twitter. “I reject them and condemn them vigorously.”
Botswana’s government called the president’s remarks “highly irresponsible, reprehensible and racist.”