WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Donald Trump was facing bipartisan backlash Friday over alleged comments he made about Haiti and countries in Africa.
Trump said “this was not the language used” after reports that he questioned why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from “s***hole countries” in a meeting Thursday.
But a top Democrat said Trump did indeed use the language in question.
The president did not respond to questions Friday about his alleged comments during a White House meeting Thursday while referring to immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, nor did he answer a reporter who asked if he was a racist.
The questions from reporters came at the White House after Trump signed a proclamation honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. One reporter asked, “Mr. President, are you a racist?”
“Today, we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter what the color of our skin or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God,” Trump said at the event.
Dr. King’s nephew, Isaac Newton Farris Jr., also spoke at the event and spoke about Trump’s alleged remarks afterward.
“I think President Trump is not a racist, but I do think that he’s racially uninformed,” Farris said. “So what I thought, it’s another example of maybe him speaking without knowing the facts.”
Earlier Friday, Trump tweeted that, “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!”
The president’s alleged remarks came during an Oval Office meeting when lawmakers suggested bringing back legal protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as a part of a broader immigration deal, CBS News’ Nancy Cordes confirmed, citing a person briefed on the meeting.
Trump is being quoted as saying, “Why are we having all these people from s***hole countries come here?” then suggesting the U.S. should take in more people from countries like Norway.
Some media outlets also reported that Trump said in reference to Haitians, “take them out.” But in another tweet Friday morning, the president insisted he “never said anything derogatory about Haitians.”
“Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country,” he said. “Never said ‘take them out.’ Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings – unfortunately, no trust!
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) was at Thursday’s White House meeting and Friday morning, he forcefully disputed the president’s denial, CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported.
Speaking to reporters in Chicago, Durbin said he “personally heard” the president use what he called “these vile and vulgar comments.”
“To no surprise, the president started tweeting this morning denying that he used those words. It is not true,” Durbin said. “He said these hate-filled things and he said them repeatedly.”
Durbin said that when the question was asked about Haitians at the meeting, the president said, “Hatians? Do we need more Hatians?”
“And then he went on when we started to describe the immigration from Africa that was being protected in this bipartisan measure,” Durbin said. “That’s when he used these vile and vulgar comments, calling the nations they come from ‘s***holes.’ The exact word used by the president, not just once, but repeatedly.”
U.S. Sens. David Perdue (R-Georgia) and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), who were also in the room, issued a joint statement Friday saying “we do not recall the President saying these comments specifically.”
“President Trump 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,” they said. “In regards to Senator Durbin’s accusation, 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. We, along with the President, are committed to solving an issue many in Congress have failed to deliver on for decades.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) released a statement which neither confirmed nor denied the president’s reported comments.
“Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday. The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel,” Graham said. “It was best said a long time ago, E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, one. Diversity has always been our strength, not our weakness. In reforming immigration we cannot lose these American ideals.”
“I know the bipartisan proposal discussed at the White House can get a lot of support from both sides. As always, I look forward to considering additional ideas that could make the proposal even better,” he added.
The Trump administration recently decided to soon end Temporary Protected Status for citizens of countries like Haiti and El Salvador, who came to the U.S. to escape natural disasters.
The White House has not denied the language allegedly used during the meeting and issued a statement Wednesday.
“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said in the statement. “The president will only accept an immigration deal that adequately addresses the visa lottery system and chain migration – two programs that hurt our economy and allow terrorists into our country. 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. He will always reject temporary, weak and dangerous stopgap measures that threaten the lives of hardworking Americans, and undercut immigrants who seek a better life in the United States through a legal pathway.”
Also on Twitter Friday morning, the president said the “so-called bipartisan DACA deal presented yesterday to myself and a group of Republican Senators and Congressmen was a big step backwards,” because it doesn’t fund a wall along the Mexican border.
He added: “I want a merit based system of immigration and people who will help take our country to the next level. I want safety and security for our people. I want to stop the massive inflow of drugs.”
Lawmakers have been reacting to the president’s reported comments.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) said it was “very unfortunate” and “unhelpful” when asked about it during a Q&A event at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee on Friday, CBS News reported.
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wrote in part, “I look forward to getting a more detailed explanation regarding the president’s comments.”
Rep. Mia Love, a Utah Republican whose family comes from Haiti, called on the president to apologize for his “divisive” and “elitist” comments.
LOCAL LAWMAKERS REACT
Local lawmakers have also reacted.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the comments “repulsive.”
“I think they degraded the office of the president,” Cuomo said, adding that Trump knows nothing about America. “‘Make America Great Again,’ I don’t believe the president understands what made America great in the first place. Immigration made America, America.”
Long Island Democratic Congresswoman Kathleen Rice tweeted “racist.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted, “A repulsive, unacceptable remark, far beneath the dignity of the presidency. Our country is better than this.”
Republican New York Rep. John Faso called the reported comments “wrong and deeply offensive.”
New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell wrote, “Once again, @POTUS has made a fool of himself & our nation on a worldwide stage. He’s showing his bigoted tendencies in ways that would make Archie Bunker blush. White House statement makes it even more obvious that this president needs some help – what a national disgrace!”
Sen. Cory Booker tweeted: “Let me be clear. @RealDonaldTrump does not speak for America. We are a nation of immigrants and I am so proud of that.”
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal denounced the comments, telling MSNBC, “This remark by the president of the United States smacks of blatant racism, the most odious and insidious racism masquerading poorly as immigration policy.”
Connecticut Senate Republican President Pro Tempore Len Fasano said the president’s reported comments are “beyond inappropriate and offensive” and “fly in the face of what it means to be Republican and an American.”
Fasano also said Friday that Trump “should apologize for these disrespectful and outrageous comments.”
Congressional Democrats say they want to send a message that America values all immigrants. U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) of Manhattan said he will work with the Black Caucus to introduce a censure resolution next week.
He said he will ask Congress to vote for a formal, public condemnation of the president.
In a Haitian enclave in Brooklyn, Gerald Cajust said of Trump’s alleged remark, “It’s extremely offensive.”
A community leader also defended Haitians as hardworking New Yorkers.
“They work in restaurants. They work in hotels. Of course we also have lawyers. We have doctors, we have engineers,” said Herold Dasque of Haitian-Americans United for Progress.
Meanwhile, the president Friday also underwent his first physical exam as commander-in-chief. The doctor who oversaw the physical said the commander-in-chief is in “excellent health.”
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)