WASHINGTON – Though President Trump used “tough language” during an Oval Office meeting on immigration last week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress on Tuesday that she did not hear the president say the word “shithole” or anything similar to describe African countries.
“I did not hear that word used. No, sir,” Nielsen, who attended the meeting, told senators at a Judiciary Committee hearing. “The conversation was very impassioned. I don’t dispute that the president was using tough language. Others in the room were also using tough language. The concept and the context, I believe in which this came up, was the concept that the president would like to move to a merit-based (immigration) system.”
President Trump, who rejected a bipartisan deal to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program during the meeting, has denied using the term “shithole” or anything similar to describe Haiti or African nations. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has been at the center of the controversy, insisting that the president used the vulgar term while also requesting more immigrants from predominantly white countries like Norway.
During the hearing, Durbin grilled Nielsen on what transpired at the immigration meeting. He again claimed that the president used the vulgar term, which he said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) repeated verbatim while countering the president’s characterization of African nations.
“Sen. Graham spoke up in a way that I very much respect, countering what the president had said about countries in Africa, reminding the president that his family did not come to America with great skills or wealth, but they came here as most families do: looking for a chance to prove themselves and make this a better nation,” Durbin said.
Nielsen said what struck her during the meeting was “the general profanity that was used in the room by almost everyone.” She repeatedly denied hearing the word “shithole,” though she admitted hearing specific cuss words used by “a variety of members.”
In a tweet on Friday, Trump wrote: “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made – a big setback for DACA!”
On Tuesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) attacked Nielsen, saying that her “silence” and “amnesia” on the issue is “complicit” with Trump’s actions.
“We have this incredible nation where we are taught it doesn’t matter where you are from, your race, your color, your religion. It is about the content of your character,” Booker said. He added later: “When Dick Durbin called me, I had tears of rage in my eyes.”
Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) described the alleged comments from the president as the “most vulgar and racist things I’ve ever heard a president of either party utter.”
“In fact, I’ve never heard any president, Republican or Democrat, utter anything even similar. Now he denies using the specific word, and there’s been some ‘maybe he used a different word, maybe he didn’t,’” Leahy said.
Nielsen told Leahy that the substance of the conversation revolved around immigration models in Australia and Canada, but Leahy criticized the president for “denigrating” countries like Haiti, El Salvador and all of Africa.
“He didn’t say it was because we needed more Ph.D. students or skilled workers,” Leahy said. “He said he wanted more people from Norway. Being from Norway is not a skill, and with the standard of living in Norway better than ours, you’re not going to have too many people from there. What does he mean when he says he wants more immigrants from Norway?”
“I don’t believe he said that specifically,” Nielsen said. “What he was specifically referring to was the prime minister telling him that the people of Norway work very hard, and so what he was referencing was from a merit-based perspective – we’d like to have those with skills, who can assimilate and contribute to the United States, moving away from country quotas into an individual merit-based system.”
Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), who were also at the meeting, have spoken in defense of the president, claiming that they did not hear Trump use the word “shithole.” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has described the president’s alleged “shithole” comments as “unfortunate, unhelpful.”