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Trump Denies Using Vulgar Slur; Top Democrat Says He Said It

A White House statement issued Thursday notably did not deny that President Trump used the vulgarity to refer to African countries, but Friday morning, Trump wrote: "This was not the language used."
Carolyn Kaster
A White House statement issued Thursday notably did not deny that President Trump used the vulgarity to refer to African countries, but Friday morning, Trump wrote: "This was not the language used."

Updated at 7:37 p.m. ET

President Trump is denying reports, from NPR and other news outlets, that in a Thursday meeting at the White House he disparaged African nations as "shithole countries" and questioned why the United States would admit immigrants from them and other nations, like Haiti.

Trump told lawmakers that the U.S. should instead seek out more immigrants from countries like Norway.

A White House statement issued Thursday notably did not deny that Trump used the vulgarity to refer to African countries, but on Friday morning, Trump shifted gears.

"This was not the language used," Trump said in a tweet.

Trump then deniedhe said "anything derogatory" about Haitians or Haiti except that it's a "very poor and troubled country."

But in addition to the reports from multiple news outlets about the language used by the president, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin confirmed the president's remarks.

"The president erupted several times with questions and, in the course of his comments, said things which were hate-filled, vile and racist," the senator told reporters. "I use those words advisably. I understand how powerful they are. But I cannot believe that in the history of the White House and in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday.

"You've seen the comments in the press. I've not read one of them that's inaccurate."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who also attended the White House meeting, didn't directly confirm that Trump had used the word in question but did say in a statement that, "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. I've always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals."

However, two other GOP senators — David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas — who were also in attendance said they didn't hear Trump's controversial comments.

"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," the two senators said in a statement. "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."

In the meeting, Trump criticized the tentative bipartisan agreement drafted by Durbin, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and four other senators.

Trump blasted the proposal as "a big step backwards" and said it didn't provide enough funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a key campaign promise Trump made in 2016.

Earlier in the week, Trump had assured lawmakers that he would accept any agreement crafted by Congress.

"I will be signing," he said in a Cabinet Room meeting Tuesday. "I'm not going to say, 'Oh, gee, I want this or that.' I'll be signing it."

Following Trump's comments, attention has shifted away from the content of a proposed DACA deal to a statement many view as racist.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tweeted Thursday that the president's slur was "sad" and that it underscored the urgency of reaching a DACA deal.

"President Trump's comments are racist and a disgrace," said Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House. "They do not reflect our nation's values."

Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said the latest statement is "yet another confirmation of [Trump's] racially insensitive and ignorant views."

He added, "[The] president's slogan 'Make America Great Again' is really code for 'Make America White Again.' "

Some Republicans also criticized Trump.

Friday, the top Republican in the House, Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, called the president's statements "very unfortunate, unhelpful." Ryan also recalled at length his family's own Irish heritage. And Ryan made reference to immigrants in Janesville, Wis., where he lives: "We've got great friends from Africa in Janesville who are doctors who are just incredible citizens and I just think it's important we celebrate that."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not yet weighed in.

Utah Republican Rep. Mia Love, whose family is of Haitian descent, called the president's comments "unkind, divisive [and] elitist."

They "fly in the face of our nation's values," Love added. "This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation."

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told Patty Wight of Maine Public Radio that the president should not denigrate citizens of other countries and that "it does not help us come up with a bipartisan approach to immigration."

Other GOP lawmakers struck the now familiar balance of distancing themselves from the president's statements, but not criticizing Trump himself. Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar told NPR's Morning Edition that he "can't condone vocabulary that another person actually utilizes in that aspect." But, he added, "I also understand the president is not a career politician, and may say things that aren't politically incorrect."

"Any word can be utilized in an offensive aspect," Gosar said.

Some other high-profile Democrats also blasted Trump for his comments.

Hillary Clinton, who lost the 2016 presidential race to Trump, tweeted that Thursday should have been spent remembering the eight-year anniversary of an earthquake that devastated Haiti. "Instead, we're subjected to Trump's ignorant, racist views of anyone who doesn't look like him."

Former Vice President Joe Biden wrote online Friday that Trump's comments were unbecoming for anyone in the Oval Office.

Richmond and House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., announced they will introduce a censure resolution next week in the House regarding Trump's comments.

Flanked by African-American supporters Friday morning, Trump signed a proclamation for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but he ignored shouted questions from reporters about his comments the day before.

And Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights hero who marched with King, said on MSNBC that his comments "speak like one who knows something about being a racist. It must be in his DNA, in his makeup, but it's frightening to have someone in the office of the president in 2018 speaking the way that he's speaking."

Lewis, who has clashed with Trump before, also said he won't attend the president's State of the Union address later this month.

Editor's note: NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language: It is "absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told."

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Corrected: January 11, 2018 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misspelled Sen. David Perdue's last name as Purdue.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.