Political News

A Senior Republican Senator Admonishes Trump: ‘American is an Idea, Not a Race’

Posted January 12, 2018 10:16 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — It was just after President Donald Trump had finished railing in the Oval Office against African immigrants he said came from “shithole countries” when a senior Republican senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was there to negotiate a deal on immigration, spoke up.

“America is an idea, not a race,” Graham said, according to three people familiar with the exchange Thursday. Diversity was a strength, he said, not a weakness. And by the way, the senator added, he himself was a descendant of immigrants who came to the United States from “shithole countries with no skills.”

Trump’s racially charged comments in front of several lawmakers, which also extended to immigrants from Haiti — followed by a day in which members of Congress denounced the president, defended him or stayed silent — now threaten what had been an emerging agreement to protect immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children.

Several people with knowledge of the conversation said the president had also demanded to know whether Haitian immigrants could be removed. The White House has not disputed the account of the exchange.

The collapse of negotiations on an immigration deal would raise the risk of a government shutdown next week, given that many Democrats have said such a deal must be included in any measure to continue funding past a Jan. 19 deadline.

To try to recover the political narrative, the president took to Twitter on Friday with a vague denial, saying his remarks at the meeting were “tough, but this was not the language used.”

But Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who also attended the meeting on immigration, told reporters Friday that the president had used the expletive several times, and had said “things which were hate-filled, vile and racist.”

“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,” Durbin said.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., told The Post and Courier that Graham had related Trump’s remarks to him after the meeting, and he called news reports about them “basically accurate” based on that account.

According to three people briefed about the meeting, it featured a dramatic moment between the president and Graham, who referred to Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign as a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” but who has recently grown close to the president, advising him on immigration policy.

After Trump disparaged African nations in foul terms, they said, Graham answered with an impassioned defense of immigrants and immigration as pillars of the American ideals of diversity and inclusion.

Graham has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the president’s remarks or his own. But on Friday, he released a statement that appeared to confirm the tenor of both.

“Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday,” Graham said. “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.”

In Twitter posts on Friday, Trump charged that Democrats had fabricated parts of the exchange even as he defended the sentiment that prompted them, the latest turn in the saga surrounding a meeting on Thursday called to discuss progress toward a bipartisan immigration deal.

Trump said he “never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country,” and denied that he had asked to remove them from the proposal, adding: “Made up by Dems.”

In a joint statement released Friday, two Republican senators who also attended the session, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, charged that Democrats were acting dishonorably in the immigration talks, claiming that they could not remember whether Trump used the words attributed to him.

“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 senators said. “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.”

Still, some Republicans condemned the president’s remarks, as Democrats announced plans to introduce a resolution next week to formally censure him for them.

At an event in Wisconsin on Friday, House Speaker Paul Ryan described Trump’s comments as “very unfortunate” and “unhelpful.” Ryan went on to recall how his own relatives immigrated to the United States from Ireland.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., suggested the president’s inability to refrain from incendiary statements was detracting from his agenda.

“It’s an unacceptable view of the world and it’s an unacceptable thing to say,” Blunt told the radio station KMBZ. “You would expect the president to lead in determining how you filter your thoughts, rather than to continue to say things that take a lot away from what’s actually getting done.”

Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Jerrold B. Nadler, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said they would call on Republican leaders to bring up a resolution reprimanding the president for “racist statements.”

“We have to show the world that this president does not represent the real feelings of most of the American people, which is part of the reason why he lost the popular vote,” they said in a joint statement. “Congress must speak with one voice in condemning these offensive and anti-American remarks. There is no excuse for it.”

The bipartisan backlash to the president’s comments intensified Friday as Trump signed a proclamation at the White House for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, ignoring a question from a reporter about whether he is a racist. The current debate about Trump’s anti-immigrant talk unfolded one week before funding for the government is set to be exhausted without action from Congress, where Democrats have pressed to include a plan to preserve protections for roughly 800,000 unauthorized immigrants that Trump has moved to rescind. Under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program created by President Barack Obama that is commonly known as DACA, they have obtained temporary, renewable work permits. Trump announced in September he was ending the program, setting a six-month clock before the first permits would begin expiring and calling on Congress to enact legislation to create a permanent solution in the meantime.

A federal judge in San Francisco this week placed a nationwide injunction on that action, ordering the Trump administration to continue the program pending a legal challenge.

While lawmakers had been closing in on a bipartisan deal on the matter and Durbin and Graham had been hopeful that Trump was on the brink of endorsing it, the furor surrounding his remarks appeared to deepen the divisions surrounding any such plan, prompting the president to discount the chances of an agreement.

Denying the accounts of his remarks but describing his language as “tough,” Trump said on Twitter, “What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made - a big setback for DACA!”

The president’s comments Thursday came during a session in which senators were describing a plan to end the diversity via lottery and allocate some of the visas instead to vulnerable populations from places including El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti that have had Temporary Protected Status in the United States. The measure under discussion would also provide legal status for DACA recipients and work permits for their parents, bar the children from sponsoring their parents for citizenship, and include $2.5 billion in border security funding.

Trump had responded approvingly to the proposal after hearing Graham and Durbin describe it over the phone Thursday morning, according to people familiar with the conversations, but the pair arrived at the White House to brief the president about it not long after to find several Republicans they were not expecting sitting in on the session. Attendees were startled by the tone Trump took during the meeting, and by Friday morning, Trump was listing his objections to the measure on Twitter and working pre-emptively to shift blame if the dispute led to a government shutdown.

“USA would be forced to take large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly,” Trump said of the immigration plan. “The Dems will threaten ‘shutdown,’ but what they are really doing is shutting down our military, at a time we need it most.”