WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Facing strong condemnation at home and abroad, U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday denied using the word “shithole” to describe Haiti and African countries, but kept up criticism of a Senate immigration plan that he said would force the United States to admit people from countries that “are doing badly.”
Trump reportedly made the remarks at a White House meeting on immigration on Thursday. U.S. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who attended the gathering, told reporters on Friday that Trump used “vile, vulgar” language, including repeatedly using the word “shithole” when speaking about African countries.
The Republican president’s comments were decried as racist by African and Haitian politicians, by the United Nations human rights office and by U.S. lawmakers from both major parties.
Trump, who has been accused of racism over several issues since he took office a year ago, sought to walk back the comments on Friday, saying on Twitter, “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used.”
Trump also denied saying “anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country.”
According to two sources, at Thursday’s meeting Trump questioned why the United States would want to accept immigrants from Haiti and African nations, referring to some as “shithole countries.”
While many Republican lawmakers stayed quiet on Trump’s remarks, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, called them “unfortunate” and “unhelpful,” noting in an interview on CNN that his family had emigrated to the United States from Ireland to help build the nation’s railroads.
At an event on Friday at the White House, Trump honored the memory of Martin Luther King Jr, the civil-rights era activist who was slain in 1968. King’s memory is marked with a national holiday, which falls this year on Monday.
Trump stood beside Isaac Newton Farris, King’s nephew, while a group of about 20 African-American supporters and members of his administration were on hand in the Roosevelt Room, including Ben Carson, his Housing and Urban Development secretary. He ignored reporters who shouted questions about his remarks.
A group of Republican and Democratic senators has been working for months to craft legislation that would protect 700,000 young adults who were brought into the country illegally as children and later shielded from deportation under a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
In a series of tweets on Friday, Trump also suggested that momentum toward a deal on maintaining such protection had stalled. “The so-called bipartisan DACA deal presented yesterday to myself and a group of Republican Senators and Congressmen was a big step backwards,” he said.
The tentative deal also addresses border security, including a border wall, the diversity visa lottery and chain migration, in which U.S. green-card holders can sponsor other family members for permanent residence in the country.
Among other objections, Trump said the plan did not provide proper funding for the proposed wall that he made a center-piece of his election campaign. He added the country “would be forced to take large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly.”
Haiti said it was shocked by Trump’s reported remarks on Thursday and summoned the top U.S. diplomat in the country, asking for an apology if the vulgar term had been used.
El Salvador’s government sent the U.S. a formal letter of protest that said the president had “implicitly” accepted the use of “harsh terms detrimental to the dignity of El Salvador and other countries.”
Botswana also said it had summoned the U.S. ambassador to that country to “express its displeasure” and had asked him whether Botswana “is regarded as a ‘shithole’ country.”
Trump’s comments are extremely offensive to South Africa, said Jessie Duarte, a senior official with the ruling African National Congress. “Ours is not a shithole country. Neither is Haiti or any other country in distress,” she said.
In Geneva, U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said “These are shocking and shameful comments from the president of the United States. There is no other word one can use but ‘racist.’”
The reported language was the latest in a long string of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim comments by Trump that have been condemned as racist. He also blamed “both sides” after a white supremacist rally in August in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent and a woman protesting against the rally was killed.
Durbin said that despite Trump’s rejection of the bipartisan deal he would introduce it as legislation next week and work on getting Democratic and Republican support for passage.
“We have seven days and the clock is ticking. Our bipartisan group continues to build support for the only deal in town,” Durbin said in a statement on Friday.
He was referring to Jan. 19, when funds for operating federal agencies expires. Durbin and other lawmakers want the immigration measure to be attached to a must-do bill to fund the government beyond that date.
In recent days, a group of Republican and Democratic leaders from the House and Senate have met with the stated goal of crafting an alternative to the Senate bipartisan deal. But there was no indication that those four leaders were planning to meet over the long Martin Luther King Day federal holiday weekend or when they might produce legislation.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg, Chris Mfula in Lusaka, Terje Solsvik and Camilla Knudsen in Oslo, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Frances Kerry