WASHINGTON — With a vulgar putdown this week aimed at Africa, Haiti, and El Salvador, President Trump provided strong evidence that his approach to US immigration policy is guided by racist views, triggering condemnations from around the world Friday and casting uncertainty over congressional negotiations on the fate of millions of immigrants.
The controversy exploded Thursday after Trump reportedly said the United States should not accept immigrants from those “shithole countries.’’ The depth of the crisis for the White House was encapsulated by a single question shouted by a reporter at Trump after the president signed a proclamation honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
“Mr. President, are you a racist?”
Trump did not respond. But the answer, for many, increasingly appears to be yes.
Trump not only denigrated immigrants from a series of Third World countries Thursday, according to a Washington Post account that was subsequently confirmed by a prominent Democratic senator, but he wants more immigrants from countries like Norway. Norway, almost exclusively white, was apparently on Trump’s mind because he had that day met with its prime minister.
Trump’s implied message: White people of European descent should be welcomed to America, while the border should be closed to dark-skinned people from poor places.
In response Friday, Botswana summoned its US ambassador to ask a blunt question: Are we considered a “shithole”? The United Nations plainly described Trump’s remarks as “racist.’’ The Vatican called them “particularly harsh and offensive.’’
The African Union also weighed in. “Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice,” it said, according to the Associated Press.
The remarks came amid sensitive discussions over an immigration deal that could affect whether some 700,000 so-called Dreamers — children who were brought to the United States by their undocumented immigrant parents — will continue to be protected.
Democrats said Trump’s remarks will make it harder to compromise on immigration, which could increase the likelihood of a government shutdown late next week. Some Republicans called the language unacceptable, though without calling Trump racist.
“First thing that came to my mind was very unfortunate. Unhelpful,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Friday. He said he then thought about his own Irish roots, and how his family came from a place that at one time was considered destitute.
“Completely inappropriate,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. “It was highly unfortunate and really out of bounds.”
“Incredibly disappointing,” said Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina.
In some ways, the comments were not a surprise. Trump launched his campaign in 2015 by calling Mexicans “rapists.” One of his first actions after taking office was signing a legally questionable ban on anyone entering the United States from six majority Muslim countries.
He said that Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS” and that Nigerians should not come to the United States because they would never “go back to their huts,” according to a New York Times report last month, which the White House has denied.
Trump also has ridiculed black athletes who kneeled in protest during the national anthem, retweeted statements by white nationalists, and called those who marched in Charlottesville, Va., last August in a white supremacist rally “very fine people.” Before taking office, he’d spent years questioning whether Barack Obama, the first black president, was born in the United States.
His latest comments, like some of those before, could have legal ramifications. Federal judges last year cited his tweet calling the countries in his travel ban “DANGEROUS” as evidence that the president was targeting people based upon their nationality — which contradicts federal immigration law. Lawyers also argued that the president’s earlier comments about wanting to prioritize Christians in the US refugee program violated the Constitution’s establishment clause, which prevents the government from favoring one religion over another.
Jack Chin, a law professor at University of California-Davis, said the president’s latest comments will almost certainly be used against him in ongoing litigation over the travel ban, the status of “sanctuary cities,’’ people who lose DACA protection, and deportees to Haiti and elsewhere.
“Now the argument will be the policy is based on raw bias, and therefore the presumption of constitutionality that’s normally associated with the actions of the president should go out the window,” Chin said.
One irony is that Trump’s comments came during a meeting that was called to discuss a new bipartisan deal that top senators thought they had struck to permanently protect 700,000 people who, until Trump ended it, were protected under DACA, the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In exchange, Trump and Republicans would get stricter immigration rules they have wanted.
But when Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin got to the Oval Office to present the deal to Trump, they were surprised to find Republican immigration hard-liners there, Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue and Representative Bob Goodlatte.
The government runs out of money next Friday. So far, Democratic leadership has not threatened to withhold funding votes over lack of a DACA deal, but Trump’s inflammatory comments may change that calculus.
Democrats think the public would blame Trump if there was a shutdown, especially since he is now rejecting a DACA deal that meets criteria he outlined in televised, bipartisan negotiations Tuesday. But Republicans could argue that a shutdown actually showed that Democrats cared more about legalizing a relatively small group of immigrants than running the government.
The escalating showdown is aggravating immigration advocates.
“I can’t even focus on the legislative path forward when the elected president of the United States is spouting white supremacist rants in the Oval Office,” said Frank Sharry, Washington director of the pro-immigration advocacy group America’s Voice. “The onus now shifts from Trump — who may have formal authority but no moral authority — to Republicans in Congress.”
The White House on Thursday night did not deny his use of the crude epithet, which was first reported by The Washington Post, but Trump tried to sow doubt on Friday on whether he used the term.
“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country,” Trump added. “Never said ‘take them out.’ Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings — unfortunately, no trust!”
Durbin, who was in the meeting and apparently was the only Democrat, directly rebutted the president.
“It’s not true,” the Illinois senator said. “He said these hate-filled things, and he said them repeatedly.”
“I cannot believe that, in the history of the White House in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday,” he added.
Cotton and Perdue, both Republican allies of the president, released a joint statement saying that they “do not recall the president saying these comments specifically.”
Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who was at the meeting, suggested that the president said something offensive but without getting into full details.
“Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday,” he said. “The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel.’’Liz Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.