(Reuters) — Facing strong condemnation at home and abroad, President Donald Trump on Friday denied using the word “shithole” to describe Haiti and African countries but kept up criticism of a Senate immigration plan that he said would force the United States to admit people from countries that “are doing badly.”
Trump reportedly made the remarks at a White House meeting on immigration on Thursday. U.S. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who attended the gathering, told reporters on Friday that Trump used “vile, vulgar” language, including repeatedly using the word “shithole” when speaking about African countries.
The president’s comments were decried as racist by African and Haitian politicians, by the United Nations human rights office and by U.S. lawmakers from both major parties.
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Trump, who has been accused of racism over several issues since he took office a year ago, sought to walk back the comments on Friday, saying on Twitter, “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used.”
Trump also denied saying “anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country.”
According to two sources, at Thursday’s meeting Trump questioned why the United States would want to accept immigrants from Haiti and African nations, referring to some as “shithole countries.”
“I don’t need this one incident to show me that Trump is racist. I have enough history that shows it for me,” Lucien Metellus, a son of Haitian immigrants, told DiversityInc.
While many Republican lawmakers stayed quiet on Trump’s remarks, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, called them “unfortunate” and “unhelpful,” noting in an interview on CNN that his family had emigrated to the United States from Ireland to help build the nation’s railroads.
“We would not deign to make comments as derogatory as that about any country that has any kind of socio-economic or other difficulties,” said Jessie Duarte, the deputy secretary general of South Africa's ruling African National Congress.
Haiti said it was shocked by Trump’s reported remarks on Thursday and summoned the top U.S. diplomat in the country, asking for an apology if the vulgar term had been used.
El Salvador’s government sent the U.S. a formal letter of protest that said the president had “implicitly” accepted the use of “harsh terms detrimental to the dignity of El Salvador and other countries.”
Botswana also said it had summoned the U.S. ambassador to that country to “express its displeasure” and had asked him whether Botswana “is regarded as a ‘shithole’ country.”
Trump’s comments are extremely offensive to South Africa, said Jessie Duarte, a senior official with the ruling African National Congress. “Ours is not a shithole country. Neither is Haiti or any other country in distress,” she said.
In Geneva, U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said, “These are shocking and shameful comments from the president of the United States. There is no other word one can use but ‘racist.'”
The reported language was the latest in a long string of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim comments by Trump that have been condemned as racist. He also blamed “both sides” after a white supremacist rally in August in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent and a woman protesting against the rally was killed.