What exactly did President Donald Trump say at a Jan. 11 White House meeting on immigration?
At the meeting, Lindsey Graham, a Republican, presented a bipartisan plan to remove the threat of deportation for the 689,800 people who were illegally brought to the United States as children and afforded protection under an Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which Trump is phasing out. A day after the meeting, Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat and co-author of the plan with Graham, claimed Trump used an obscenity to describe African nations and made disparaging remarks about Haitian immigrants.
Durbin quoted the president as saying of African nations, “‘Those shitholes send us the people that they don’t want.’” Durbin continued, “He repeated that. He didn’t say that just one time.” Durbin also quoted Trump as saying, “‘We don’t need more Haitians.’”
After the meeting, Graham reportedly told his fellow Republican senator from South Carolina, Tim Scott, that the media reports about Trump’s language at the meeting were “basically accurate,” according to Charleston’s Post and Courier.
Trump issued a vague denial. In a Jan. 12 tweet, he said: “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” without explaining which remarks he denied making or what exactly he said at the meeting. Talking to reporters in Florida two days later, Trump said of the remarks attributed to him: “They weren’t made.” On Jan. 15, the president tweeted that Durbin “totally misrepresented what was said at the DACA meeting.”
There were at least seven members of Congress at the meeting and one administration official, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Five members of Congress and Nielsen have made public statements about the meeting. Here’s what each of them has said so far.
Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat
Durbin, Jan. 12: As Sen. Graham started to read the plan, the president started making comments and asking questions, and that’s when things deteriorated rapidly. When we talked about those in the United States on temporary protected status, there was comment that they were from El Salvador and Honduras and Haiti. “Haitians,” he said, “we don’t need more Haitians.” Then we went on and the president started commenting on immigration from Africa. And that’s when he used those sickening, heartbreaking remarks, saying, “Those shitholes send us the people that they don’t want.” He repeated that. He didn’t just say it one time…. It was clear that the president had rejected our bipartisan plan and told us to go back to work and find something else…. I cannot imagine that in the history of that room, that hallowed room, where the president of the United States goes to work every day there has ever been a conversation quite like that. It was vile. It was hateful. It was racist.
Told that the president denied saying the words attributed to him, Durbin said, “It speaks for itself. There were witnesses. There were 12 of us in the room. I was the only Democrat who was in that room, but I’m hopeful that Republican senators will step up and confirm what I just told you. It happened. I’m saying it because it’s true.”
Later that day on MSNBC, Durbin also said that Graham confronted the president over his remarks at the meeting. Durbin said Graham exhibited “extraordinary political courage.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican
The South Carolina Republican senator put out a statement on Jan. 12 in response to Durbin’s remarks, saying, “I appreciate Senator Durbin’s statements.” Graham did not contradict Durbin’s account, but he didn’t explicitly confirm it, either.
Graham, Jan. 12: Yesterday Senator Durbin and I met with President Trump at the White House to discuss our bipartisan proposal on border security and immigration.
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.
The American ideal is embraced by people all over the globe. 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.
The American people will ultimately judge us on the outcome we achieve, not the process which led to it.
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.
I appreciate Senator Durbin’s statements and have enjoyed working with him and many others on this important issue. I believe it is vitally important to come to a bipartisan solution to the immigration and border challenges we face today. I am committed to working with Republicans and Democrats to find common ground so we can move forward.
South Carolina’s junior senator, Republican Tim Scott, was not at the meeting, but he told the Post and Courier that he spoke to Graham about media reports of Trump’s use of the term “shitholes.” Scott said that Graham told him the media reports were “basically accurate,” according to the Post and Courier, without elaborating on what Graham specifically told him.
Post and Courier, Jan. 12: Reached Friday at a Samsung appliance plant opening in Newberry, Scott said that Graham told him the comments, as reported in the media, were “basically accurate.”
“If that comment is accurate, the comment is incredibly disappointing,” Scott told The Post and Courier.
“We ought not to disparage any other nation, frankly,” he added. “Thinking about the success of America. It is the melting pot. It’s the ability to weave together multiple communities together for one nation.”
Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, Republicans
The two Republican senators initially put out a joint statement on Jan. 12 that said they “do not recall the President saying these comments specifically.”
Cotton and Perdue statement, Jan. 12: 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. 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.
Two days later, both senators elaborated on their statement during appearances on Sunday talk shows.
Cotton reiterated on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that he did not hear Trump use the language attributed to him. However, Perdue, appearing on ABC News’ “This Week,” told host George Stephanopoulos that Durbin had grossly misrepresented Trump’s remarks, saying “that language … was not used.”
Perdue, Jan. 14: Then in Thursday we had a meeting, and coming out of that meeting, we heard a gross misrepresentation of what happened in that meeting.
But it’s not the first time we’ve had a gross misrepresentation by that individual.
Stephanopoulos: Well, let’s get into – let’s get into that.
Perdue: No, let me finish, George.
Stephanopoulos: Well, I want to know what the gross misrepresentation was.
Perdue: … the gross misrepresentation was that language was used in there that was not used, and also that the tone of that meeting was not contributory and not constructive….
Stephanopoulos: … you’re saying flat out, definitively, the president did not say those words?
Perdue: I’m saying that this is a gross misrepresentation, it’s not the first time Senator Durbin has done it, and it is not productive to solving the problem that we have at hand.
Stephanopoulos: Senator Durbin has been very clear. Senator Graham has told others that the reports were basically accurate. Are you saying the president did not use the word that has been so widely reported?
Perdue: I’m telling you he did not use that word, George. And I’m telling you it’s a gross misrepresentation. How many times you want me to say that?
On the same program, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake was asked if he believed Perdue. Flake said he learned of Trump’s disparaging comments a day before the public learned of them.
“Well, all I can say is I was in a meeting directly afterwards where those who had presented the president our proposal spoke about the meeting,” he said. “And they — they said those words were used before those words went public. So that’s all I can tell you is I — I heard that account before the account even went public.”
Shortly after Perdue’s interview, Cotton appeared on “Face the Nation” and was asked about Perdue’s remarks by host John Dickerson.
Cotton, Jan. 14: Yeah, John, I didn’t hear that word either. I certainly didn’t hear what Senator Durbin has said repeatedly. Senator Durbin has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings though, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by that. Here’s what I did hear. And here is the point.
Dickerson: Sorry to interrupt. You didn’t hear the word, or it was not said? Because Senator Graham also told Senator Scott, your Republican colleague, that this is what happened. Senator [Jeff] Flake was in a subsequent meeting right afterwards where he was told by people in the meeting this happened. So just to button that up, you’re saying it did not happen or you just don’t recall?
Cotton: I didn’t hear it, and I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was. And I know–
Cotton: And I know what Dick Durbin has said about the president’s repeated statements is incorrect.
National Review Editor Rich Lowry, who was not at the meeting, said on ABC’s “This Week” that he was told Trump “used a different, but very closely related vulgarity. He said s-house, and not s-hole.”
A day later, the Washington Post reported, based on accounts from anonymous White House officials, that Perdue and Cotton told the White House that they heard “shithouse” rather than “shithole,” which the Post wrote allowed both men “to deny the president’s comments on television over the weekend.”
Graham appeared to criticize Cotton and Perdue for their selective memories of the meeting. “My memory hasn’t evolved,” he told reporters in South Carolina on Jan. 15. “I know what was said and I know what I said.”
At an event in Chicago on Jan. 15 to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Durbin said: “I know what happened. I stand behind every word that I said in terms of that meeting.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican
Diaz-Balart would neither confirm nor deny whether Trump used the obscenity at the meeting to describe African nations.
The Florida Republican issued a Jan. 12 statement via Twitter saying he did not want to be “diverted from all possible efforts to continue negotiating to stop deportations,” without addressing the president’s reported remarks.
Diaz-Balart, Jan. 12: For months, I have been involved in numerous high level bipartisan meetings negotiating DACA, including Thursday’s meeting at the White House. There are almost 800,000 young DACA beneficiaries who will face imminent deportation in March if we do not reach a deal. I will not be diverted from all possible efforts to continue negotiating to stop the deportations. Nothing will divert my focus to stop the deportation of these innocent people whose futures are at stake.
On Jan. 14, Diaz-Balart’s spokeswoman issued a statement saying the congressman “has NEVER repeated, stated, or leaked what is said in private meetings.”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen
On “Fox News Sunday,” Nielsen told host Chris Wallace that there was an “impassioned conversation” on immigration at the meeting, but she did not hear “that specific phrase being used.”
Wallace, Jan. 14: Secretary, you were in that meeting in the Oval Office. Did the president say that?
Nielsen: I don’t recall him saying that exact phrase. I think he has been clear and I would certainly say undoubtedly the president will use, continue to use strong language when it comes to this issue. He feels very passionate about it.
I think what was frustrating about that meeting for all of us in the meeting was that although the deal presented in theory and approach to the four pillars upon which we had agreed, did not address the core security issues that we need to do our job. And more importantly, there’s nothing in there that would prevent us from getting here again.
So, we’re not interested in half measures. We don’t want additional temporary populations here. It’s unfair to them, it’s unfair to American citizens and it certainly raises security risks.
Wallace: I don’t understand — I’m just going to press back on you once on this subject. It seems to me — you were in the meeting when these comments were made. I can understand you either saying they were said or they were not said. It is pretty shocking language and to say I don’t recall seems implausible.
If the president of the United States used the word blank-hole talking about countries in the Oval Office or didn’t say it, I would know.
Nielsen: I understand the question. It was an impassioned conversation. I don’t recall that specific phrase being used, that’s all I can say about that.
At least two other Republicans — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Robert Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — attended the meeting, but we have yet to find any statements from either one about Trump’s remarks at the meeting.