Political News

Trump’s Harsh Words, Not His Plan for Wall, Dominate Hearing

Posted January 16, 2018 7:10 p.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2018 7:13 p.m. EST

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was intended to be a long-scheduled discussion of border walls, but suddenly Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, was being quizzed repeatedly about the vulgar word, or words, said to have been uttered by the president describing the countries of origin of African immigrants.

Nielsen was asked about the Oval Office episode in which President Donald Trump has been quoted by participants as calling African nations “shithole countries,” and she responded, “I did not hear that word used.”

She conceded that it might have been said without her hearing it and said she could not recall the president’s characterization of African countries.

“The conversation was very impassioned,” Nielsen told members of the committee, pressed on the matter repeatedly. “I don’t dispute that the president was using tough language. Others in the room were also using tough language.”

Asked directly by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. — who attended the Oval Office meeting and reiterated in an interview Tuesday that he had heard Trump use the offending phrase — Nielsen said the president had become “impassioned” and was “using some strong language.”

“I don’t remember a specific word,” she said.

Other senators suggested that the word used might have been “shithouse” and that those denying the story might be basing their rebuttals on a technicality. (Nielsen said she did not hear that particular word either.) And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was also present at the Oval Office meeting last week, said the entire episode had devolved into an “s-show.”

It was a remarkable round of exchanges in a town more accustomed to policy jargon than expletives, at least in public. And it demonstrated how far the discourse had fallen in a high-stakes negotiation over an immigration plan meant to protect about 800,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children who could face deportation as soon as March.

The bickering over vulgarities and the underlying immigration debate could have far-reaching consequences; Democrats have said they will not back any government spending plan that fails to address the immigrants’ fate, and with current funding set to be exhausted by Friday, an impasse could lead to a government shutdown.

“We certainly don’t want the government to shut down,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday, just after giving a carefully worded denial to reporters at the White House about the president’s choice of words. She said that while she had not attended the meeting in question, others who had “said that term wasn’t used but that tough language was.”

“No one here is going to pretend like the president is always politically correct — he isn’t,” Sanders said, adding that it was “one of the reasons the American people love him” and he won the presidency.

“We’ve wasted five days fighting over one word, when we should be fighting over the people that are involved in the DACA program,” she said, using the acronym for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program created by President Barack Obama that Trump rescinded in September, setting a six-month clock — until March 5 — before recipients would begin to lose their special status.

Several people familiar with the immigration meeting said last week that the president had used the vulgar phrase and questioned why Haitians should receive protection in the plan, as Durbin and Graham pushed back on his language and his characterization of immigrant populations.

The White House initially did not dispute the account, and Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, two Republicans who were also present, first said they could not recall what was said. But the senators changed their stories over the weekend, attacking Durbin’s account of the meeting. Perdue said flatly that the word was never used; Cotton said he did not hear it used.

On Tuesday, Durbin told CNN, “I stand by every word I said.”

“Senator Cotton and Senator Perdue should remember a word as gross as that in the course of a conversation with the president of the United States,” he added.

Asked about whether Cotton and Perdue could be technically correct if Trump had instead said “shithouse,” Durbin was incredulous.

“Let me say they’re wrong,” he said. “I can tell you explicitly they are wrong. And let me also say, is that their defense? That s-house is acceptable, s-hole he would never say? Come on. To think that the president of the United States would refer to any country on earth as an s-house country, for goodness’ sakes, what does that say?”