Trump's White House: How a bipartisan policy meeting devolved into vulgarity
Posted January 12, 2018 3:47 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Republican Sen. Tom Cotton was meeting with a foreign leader in his Capitol Hill office Thursday when he received an urgent message to come to the White House.
Playing out amid a high-stakes battle over immigration that's gripped Washington for the past week, the summons was a move to slow down an attempt by Democrats and moderate Republicans to push through a deal, according to a senior Republican with knowledge of the meeting.
President Donald Trump, at various points over the previous four days, had expressed openness to whatever agreement lawmakers could devise.
Cotton, an immigration hardliner who speaks with the President regularly, quickly hopped into a car. As he rushed across an unseasonably warm Washington, there was little to indicate the meeting he was about to enter would become so heated and ultimately go down as the time the President derided African countries as "shitholes" and asked why more immigrants couldn't come from Norway.
The comment exploded Thursday afternoon, freezing for now negotiations over an immigration deal that would protect some undocumented immigrations from deportation. Democrats are demanding such provisions in exchange for border security funding that could include money for Trump's promised border wall. The rhetoric also underscored, again, that Trump's nativist sentiments are expressed even more bluntly behind closed doors, to the alarm and dismay even of his Republican colleagues.
This account of Trump's latest racially charged controversy is based on interviews Friday with a half-dozen sources in and out of the White House. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who was in the meeting, told reporters Friday that Trump's words were "hate filled, vile and racist."
When Cotton arrived at the West Wing reception area Thursday, he found Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, waiting to brief Trump on their bipartisan immigration negotiations. He also found fellow immigration hardliner GOP Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, who was also called by Trump's aides to brief the President.
Durbin and Graham arrived at the White House believing they would be meeting privately with Trump, a source familiar with the situation said, and were surprised to see the others.
Meeting gets underway
Once the meeting got underway, it was clear Trump wasn't in the mood to entertain the plan being offered by Durbin and Graham, which would have increased border security funding, allowed for a 10- to 12-year path to citizenship for some young undocumented immigrants and provided protections for individuals with Temporary Protected Status from countries such as El Salvador and Haiti.
It was that final provision that prompted Trump's vulgarity. Asking why the US needs more Haitians, he pushed to "take them out" of the deal. And in a separate part of the conversation about the diversity visa lottery, Trump referred to people coming from Africa as coming from "shithole countries."
In the moments after he made the insulting remarks, Trump's advisers and allies looked at one another with concern, according to a White House official. There was little chance the sentiments he expressed, or the foul language he used to express them, would remain private for long.
White House officials expressed distress that Trump's remarks had effectively reversed their attempts to bolster Trump's standing on a week when his mental acuity was being questioned. The news broke minutes after a pre-planned interview published in The Wall Street Journal, which aides had hoped would help affirm Trump's economic message. Instead, his racially charged remarks dominated.
Instead of denying them, the White House came out in defense of Trump's immigration positions. And the President himself -- who had been taping a message marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day when the news broke -- retreated to his private residence, where he began phoning his allies and friends to ask how the comments were playing out in the press.
One White House official referred to the dial-a-friend session as a "victory lap." But the reaction wasn't all positive. At least one friend outside the White House told him he'd made a mistake that would alienate key constituencies he'll need to govern, including business leaders. That type of racially tinged language has to stop, Trump's friend told him.
There was little indication the message got through.
"He loves it," a source familiar with the President's thinking said, describing Trump as relishing the sense he can take matters all the way to the edge without falling off.
Inside the White House, staffers were largely unfazed, even at the political and diplomatic fallout mounted. At least two American envoys overseas -- in Haiti and Botswana -- were summoned to explain the President's remarks. And some of Trump's closest allies, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, expressed dismay.
"I read those comments later last night, the first thing that came to my mind was very unfortunate, unhelpful," the Wisconsin Republican said at WisPolitics Luncheon in Milwaukee.
Trump's staffers largely shrugged. Though the President's crude comments might enrage Washington and much of the international community, his aides predicted the remarks would resonate with the President's base, much like his attacks on NFL players who kneel during the national anthem.
And some of Trump's allies insisted the remarks simply reflected his frustration at an immigration deal that fell short of his expectations.
"He was supposed to have a meeting where these lawmakers were going to come in and talk about merit-based immigration reform, and they came to him with something that had a whole bunch of carveouts," said Jason Miller, Trump's former campaign spokesman and a CNN contributor. "The fact that these folks came to him with a plan that wasn't acceptable, in his mind, obviously, he was fired up. So there was salty language back and forth on either side."
By Friday morning, Trump took to Twitter to make an attempt at denying the most vulgar of his remarks -- more than 12 hours after they were originally reported.
"The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used," he said in one tweet.
"Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country," he wrote in another, musing that he should record his future meetings to avoid discrepancies.
Then it was on to the Roosevelt Room, where he was due to sign a proclamation marking the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.
"Today we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter what the color of our skin, or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God," he said, flanked by a group of African-American supporters.
After signing the document, reporters called out repeatedly to ask whether he was a racist.
Trump left without answering.