WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday denied using certain "language" during a private meeting with lawmakers as fury spread over his comments about immigrants. But neither he nor the White House disputed the most controversial of his remarks: using the word "shithole" to describe Africa nations and saying he would prefer immigrants from countries like Norway instead.
Trump's comments came during an Oval Office meeting where he 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 extraordinary Oval Office conversation.
"The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used," Trump insisted in a series of Friday morning tweets. "What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made — a big setback for DACA."
But Sen. Dick Durbin, the only Democrat in the room, disputed the president's account.
"He said these hate-filled things and he said them repeatedly," Durbin said,
Durbin added, "When the question was asked about Haitians ... he said, 'Haitians? Do we need more Haitians?'"
Trump took particular issue with the characterization of his comments on Haiti. The Washington Post reported that, during the meeting, Trump said immigrants from Haiti should be left out of any new agreement approved by Congress.
"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," Trump wrote. "I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings - unfortunately, no trust!"
Republican Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who attended the meeting, said in a statement that they "do not recall the president saying these comments specifically." What Trump did do, they said, was "call out the imbalance in our current immigration system, which does not protect American workers and our national interest."
Trump's contemptuous blanket description of African countries startled lawmakers in the meeting and immediately revived charges that the president is racist.
Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Trump's comments were "completely unacceptable," telling WPLG-TV in Miami that "if that's not racism, I don't know how you can define it."
"The words used by the president, as related to me directly following the meeting by those in attendance, were not 'tough,' they were abhorrent and repulsive," tweeted Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
"I think it was stupid and irresponsible and childish," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. "He's president of the United States. That's not how a president behaves."
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the vulgar language was "very unfortunate, unhelpful."
Trump did not respond to shouted questions about his comments as he signed a proclamation Friday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is Monday. He called King a "great American hero."
His comments on Thursday also threatened to further imperil immigration talks aimed at extending protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, many of whom were brought to the country as children and are now here illegally. Trump last year ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provided protection from deportation and the ability to work legally in the country. He gave Congress until March to come up with a legislative fix.
"I suspect the Democrats are sitting there going, 'Why would we want to compromise with him on anything," said Simpson, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Echoed Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine: "These comments are highly inappropriate and out of bounds and could hurt efforts for a bipartisan immigration agreement."
Trump's comments came as two senators presented details of a bipartisan compromise that would protect DACA immigrants — and also strengthen border protections, as Trump has insisted, providing $1.6 billion for a first installment on his long-sought border wall,
The lawmakers had hoped Trump would back their accord, an agreement among six senators evenly split among Republicans and Democrats, ending a monthslong, bitter dispute over protecting the "dreamers."
But Trump rejected the deal, plunging the issue back into uncertainty just eight days before a deadline that threatens a government shutdown.
Trump took particular issue with the idea, explained by Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, that as part of the deal people who fled to the U.S. after disasters hit their homes in places such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti, would be allowed to stay.
The administration announced last year that it would end a temporary residency permit program that allowed nearly 60,000 Haitians to live and work in the U.S. in the wake of a devastating 2010 earthquake.
Trump also took issue with the idea that, while a lottery that benefits people from Africa and other nations would be ended, there could be another way for them to apply.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly describe the conversation.
Asked about the remarks Thursday, White House spokesman Raj Shah said, "Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people." He added that Trump supports immigration policies that welcome "those who can contribute to our society."
Trump has called himself the "least racist person that you've ever met."
But his political rise was fueled in part by the inaccurate claim that Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, wasn't born in the United States. He launched his campaign with a speech that accused Mexico of sending its "rapists" across the border and at one point proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. He also claimed there were "very fine people on both sides" after violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one counter-protester dead.
Trump on Friday panned the "so-called bipartisan DACA deal" as "a big step backwards."
"Wall was not properly funded, Chain & Lottery were made worse and USA would be forced to take large numbers of people from high crime ... countries which are doing badly," he wrote.