World News

What Vulgar Remarks? Trump and Nigeria’s Leader Studiously Avoid a Clash

Posted April 30, 2018 9:48 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — In January, when word got out that President Donald Trump had disparaged African nations in vulgar terms during an Oval Office rant about immigration policy, his remarks were met with alarm and outrage by leaders and others on the continent.

But on Monday at the White House, both Trump and President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, the first leader from sub-Saharan Africa to visit him at the White House, carefully avoided the topic, professing mutual respect for each other and their respective countries at a cordial news conference.

Lawmakers in the room with Trump in January said he had used the term “shithole countries” to describe African nations, an accusation he has previously denied. But he did not do so on Monday, instead appearing to try to justify its spirit by noting that many countries in Africa are riddled with problems.

“You do have some countries that are in very bad shape and very tough places to live in,” Trump said during a news conference with Buhari in the Rose Garden, asked by a reporter about his use of vulgarity to describe Africa. “But we didn’t discuss it because the president knows me, and he knows where I’m coming from, and I appreciate that.”

Buhari, for his part, said he was not certain whether to believe the reports about Trump’s comments.

“I’m very careful with what the press says,” he said. “I’m not sure about the validity, or whether that allegation against the president was true or not, so the best thing for me is to keep quiet.”

If Buhari was in the mood to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, at least one of his former aides was not. “FYI he said it,” Omarosa Manigault Newman, who left the White House in January, wrote in a tweet addressed to Buhari shortly after the news conference.

Many African leaders assumed as much a few months ago when news broke that Trump had made the expletive-laden remarks in front of lawmakers and advisers. The New York Times had already reported that in an Oval Office meeting in June, Trump had commented privately that Nigerians who obtained visas to enter the United States could never be expected to return to their “huts” back home once they had seen the bounty of the country. But it was the later remarks that struck a bitter chord throughout Africa.

Nigeria’s foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain Trump’s comments and seek clarification, “stressing that if they were true, they were deeply hurtful, offensive and unacceptable,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement at the time.

Botswana, Ghana, Haiti, Namibia, Senegal and the African Union all protested Trump’s comments, some openly calling them racist; Botswana even repeated Trump’s choice of words in pointedly asking the United States “to clarify if Botswana” was such a country.

Trump has since tried to make amends. He wrote a letter to African nations saying that he “deeply respects” the people of Africa, and that he would dispatch Rex Tillerson, then his secretary of state, for an extended visit to the continent in March. The letter prompted the African Union to refrain from issuing a resolution criticizing Trump’s remark and demanding an apology.

Tillerson did travel to the region in March, but his trip was overshadowed by his abrupt firing during the visit.

On Monday, Trump and Buhari emphasized areas of agreement, and went out of their way to praise each other.

“I have great respect for the president,” Trump said of Buhari. Nigeria, he said, was a “valued partner and a good friend,” later adding that “there’s no country more beautiful.”

The two spoke of their cooperation and coordination on security matters, including counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State group and Boko Haram, and Trump said he was pleased to be selling a dozen A-29 Super Tucano warplanes to Nigeria. The sale of the planes, long sought by the Nigerians, had been held up by the Obama administration amid concerns about human rights abuses by Nigeria’s military.

Buhari, for his part, congratulated Trump for the “impressive” performance of the U.S. economy, and credited him for playing a “statesmanly role” with North Korea that has led to discussions on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

The friendly exchange may have masked the bitterness that lingers among Nigerians and other Africans about Trump’s remarks, said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and a senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“They found it deeply offensive, and whenever I meet with Africans now, they always mention it,” Campbell said. However, he added, Buhari arrived at the White House on Monday as a supplicant with important security challenges that he needs American help to confront.

“Looking at it from the perspective of President Buhari: What on earth can he say at this stage about these comments, which the president at times denies having said at all?” Campbell said. “It might make you feel better, but practically, it doesn’t accomplish anything.”