WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump sought Friday to quell a global firestorm over his reported denunciation of immigration from “shithole countries” – a slur slammed at home and abroad as racist.
Trump tweeted a convoluted denial early Friday about the comments allegedly made on Thursday at a White House meeting with lawmakers on immigration reform.
“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump said, apparently referring to the remarks quoted by The Washington Post and The New York Times.
But Democratic Senator Dick Durbin – who was present at the meeting – publicly pushed back, saying Trump had
repeatedly used “vile and racist” language.
Thursday’s White House huddle was held to discuss a bipartisan deal that would limit immigrants from bringing family members into the country, restrict the green card visa lottery and boost border security, in exchange for shielding hundreds of thousands of young people known as “Dreamers” from deportation.
Trump scrapped an Obama-era program that gave the 800,000 young immigrants legal protection, setting a March deadline for Congress to offer a fix – though it has been reinstated by a court, for now.
After lawmakers raised the issue of protections for immigrants from African nations, Haiti and El Salvador, the president reportedly demanded to know why the United States should accept immigrants from “shithole countries,” rather than – for instance – wealthy and overwhelmingly white Norway.
Durbin said Trump specifically asked, “Do we need more Haitians?” before launching into a diatribe about African immigration.
Trump then “said things which were hate-filled, vile and racist,” Durbin said, adding that “shithole” was “the exact word used by the president, not just once but repeatedly.”
Trump denied he ever said “anything derogatory” about the people of Haiti.
“Made up by Dems,” he tweeted. “I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians!”
But the government of Haiti – which Friday marked the eighth anniversary of a devastating earthquake that killed at least 200,000 people – declared itself “outraged and shocked” by the “racist” slur.
Trump’s reported comments also drew a unanimous condemnation from African countries at the UN, which said they were “extremely appalled” at the “racist and xenophobic remarks” and called for a retraction and apology.
El Salvador slammed them as “deplorable.”
The State Department was left scrambling to contain the damage, with a top official saying that – while Trump denies using the language attributed to him – envoys had been briefed to convey Washington’s respect if summoned to explain themselves, as they were in Botswana.
US missions went into damage control mode.
The embassy in South Africa said the United States “deeply respects” the people of Africa, and “there has been no change in our dedication to partners & friends across the continent.”
Trump’s language triggered a barrage of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.
Congressional Black Caucus Chair Cedric Richmond and House Judiciary top Democrat Jerrold Nadler said they would seek to introduce a censure resolution against Trump next week.
“We have to show the world that this president does not represent the feelings of most of the American people,” they said in a statement.
The resolution could be embarrassing for Trump if Republican leaders of the lower house allow a vote on it.
Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 Democratic presidential rival, took to Twitter to blast his “ignorant, racist views of anyone who doesn’t look like him.”
Some Republicans were also plainly unhappy, with House Speaker Paul Ryan describing the reported comments as “very unfortunate” and “unhelpful.”
Mia Love, a Utah congresswoman of Haitian descent, called them “unkind” and “divisive” while South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator, said if Trump really did use those words, it would be “disappointing.”
In an oddly-timed coincidence, the US president on Friday signed a declaration honoring slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr, three days before the federal holiday celebrated in his honor.
Ignoring shouted questions about the mounting firestorm over race, the president paid tribute during a ceremony to the reverend’s “peaceful crusade for justice and equality.”
Nevertheless, the uproar has revived attention on previous remarks by Trump that have ignited accusations of racism.
Trump earned national political prominence by promoting the falsehood that Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president, was not born in the United States.
He has characterised Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” repeatedly questioned the loyalty of Muslim immigrants, denounced NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem in protest at police brutality against African Americans, and made questionable comments about a violent white supremacist rally.
Trump’s remarks had a particularly glacial reception from Norwegians, whom he reportedly upheld as shining examples of the immigrants he wants to come to America.
“The only thing that would attract me to emigrate to the US is your vibrant multicultural society. Don’t take that away,” declared Jan Egeland, a former UN under secretary general and the current head of the Norwegian Refugee Council. - AFP