Mike DeBonis, Sydney Morning News, January 15, 2018Mike DeBonis, Sydney Morning News, January 15, 2018
With the fate of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants in the balance, relations between key Republican and Democratic lawmakers turned poisonous on Sunday over disagreement about President Trump’s use of a vulgarity to describe poor countries.
Republican Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, who attended the meeting and previously said they could not recall whether Trump had referred to “shithole countries”, denied outright on Sunday that Trump had ever said it. They suggested that a Democrat who publicly confirmed the remarks, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, could not be trusted.
“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 we’re having,” Perdue said.
The accusations prompted Democrats to blast the Republican senators for impugning a colleague’s integrity, while also slamming Trump and his remarks as unabashedly racist.
The only administration official to speak publicly this weekend about the meeting was Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who attended the session. She said in an interview that she did not “recall him using that exact phrase” but acknowledged Trump “did use and will continue to use strong language”.
The president, away for a golf weekend at Mar-a-Lago, made no public appearances.
The White House did not dispute the remarks when The Washington Post first reported them. Trump offered a vague denial in a Friday tweet, and not until Cotton and Perdue spoke out did another participant challenge whether Trump had used the word “shithole”.
International reaction to Trump’s comments was strong, and US diplomats in Haiti and other nations have been called to host government offices to hear the complaints directly.
“One of the great things about being president is that you can say whatever you want,” State Department Undersecretary Steven Goldstein said in an interview. “We have advised our ambassadors . . . to indicate that our commitment to those countries remains strong.”
The developments together stand to undermine bipartisan talks aimed at shielding from deportation immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children, including the roughly 800,000 so-called “dreamers” who secured work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created under President Barack Obama. Democrats have suggested they could force a government shutdown on Saturday unless an agreement is reached to protect them.
Conservative hard-liners who want tighter immigration policies and the pro-immigrant and business groups opposing them have long mistrusted one another, but the sniping in recent days has been unusually fierce.
“Both sides now are destroying the setting in which anything meaningful can happen,” said Senator Rand Paul, a conservative.
A tentative deal worked out on Thursday by a small bipartisan group of senators crumbled in an Oval Office meeting in which, according to multiple people involved, an angry Trump asked them why the United States should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” such as Haiti, El Salvador and African nations over those from European countries such as Norway.
In a Sunday morning tweet, Trump declared the immigration talks to be failing: “DACA is probably dead because the Democrats don’t really want it, they just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our Military.”
Democrats have tied the immigration talks to spending negotiations being held ahead of a shutdown deadline at midnight Friday. Republicans are seeking a military spending increase; Democrats want a DACA deal and a matching increase in non-defence funding.
Durbin, the sole Democrat to attend the meeting, told reporters on Friday that Trump had used the vulgar word “not just once but repeatedly”. A Republican attendee, Senator Lindsey Graham, issued a statement that did not specifically confirm the words used but backed up Durbin’s account.
Cotton and Perdue issued a joint statement Friday saying that they did “not recall the President saying these comments specifically.” But Perdue told talk show host George Stephanopoulos definitively on Sunday that Trump did not refer to “shithole” countries: “I’m telling you he did not use that word, George.”
Cotton said much the same in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” : “I didn’t hear it, and I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was.”
Both senators pointed to a statement Durbin had made in 2013 about comments allegedly made by an unnamed Republican leader during a private White House meeting that were later denied by an Obama administration spokesman. “Senator Durbin has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings,” Cotton said.
Ben Marter, a Durbin spokesman, tweeted a rebuke early Sunday: “Credibility is something that’s built by being consistently honest over time,” he said. “Senator Durbin has it. Senator Perdue does not. Ask anyone who’s dealt with both.”
Accounts of the meeting have not fallen neatly along party lines. Besides Graham’s endorsement of Durbin’s account, Republican Senator Jeff Flake said he had spoken to meeting participants immediately afterwards – before The Post reported Trump’s use of the vulgar term.
“They said those words were used before those words went public,” Flake said.
The “shithole countries” remark has vexed Republicans, compelling many to make statements critical of Trump. “I can’t defend the indefensible,” said Republican Mia Love, whose parents are Haitian immigrants.
But Democrats see the comment as evidence of malicious intent in Trump’s policy making.
“I think he is a racist,” John Lewis, said.” “We have to stand out; we have to speak up and not try to sweep it under the rug.”
But Paul called the racism accusations “unfair” and said the “bonkers” outcry over Trump’s remarks could scuttle a deal.
“I do want to see an immigration compromise, and you can’t have an immigration compromise if everybody out there is calling the president a racist,” Paul said.
Democrats have expressed openness to a deal that would combine legal status for dreamers.
But, echoing dozens of Democrats, Lewis said he would not vote for any government spending measure until the dreamer issue is settled. “We must not give up or give in,” he said.
Republicans cannot pass a government funding bill without Democratic votes.