WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday offered a partial denial in public but privately defended his extraordinary remarks disparaging Haitians and African countries a day earlier. 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 making a flurry of calls to friends and outside advisers to judge their reaction to the tempest, said the confidant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to disclose a private conversation. Trump wasn't apologetic about his inflammatory remarks and denied he was racist, instead, blaming the media for distorting his meaning, the confidant said.
However, critics of the president, including some in his own Republican Party, spent Friday blasting the vulgar comments he made behind closed doors. In his meeting with a group of senators, he 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 Oval Office conversation.
The comments revived charges that the president is racist and roiled immigration talks that were already on tenuous footing.
"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, pushing back on some depictions of the meeting.
But Trump and his advisers notably did not dispute the most controversial of his remarks: using the word "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.
Tweeted Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona: "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."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the comments "beneath the dignity of the presidency" and said Trump's desire to see 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 that six senators had drafted — also threatened to further complicate efforts to extend protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, many of whom were brought to this country as children and now are here illegally.
Trump last year ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provided protection from deportation along with the ability to work legally in the U.S. He gave Congress until March to come up with a legislative fix.
The three Democratic and three GOP senators who'd struck their proposed deal had been working for months on how to balance those protections with Trump's demands for border security, an end to a visa lottery aimed at increasing immigrant diversity, and limits to immigrants' ability to sponsor family members to join them in America.