WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump Friday disputed accounts of his referring to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries” during a White House meeting on immigration 24 hours earlier, saying the “language used by me … was tough, but this was not the language used.”
In an early morning tweet, the president tried to deflect a growing global controversy, by adding “What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made – a big setback for DACA!”
DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals amnesty program. Lawmakers huddled with the president Thursday to discuss protections for immigrants from those countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal.
After his alleged derogatory comments, which were revealed by two participants in the meeting, Trump went on to suggest the United States should invite immigrants from Norway instead.
Moments later, the Washington Post reported, the president proposed the U.S. would benefit economically if it were more open to immigrants from Asian nations as well.
Media reports of Trump’s comments led to widespread condemnation from around the world. As the rebukes mounted Friday morning, Trump sought to clarify his statements, tweeting: “Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti, is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country.”
He also denied questioning why the U.S. “[needs] more Haitians’ before reportedly saying he wished to “take them out” of the proposal.
“Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings – unfortunately, no trust!” Trump tweeted.
Clearly piqued during the signing of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day proclamation in the Roosevelt Room of the White House Friday morning, Trump ignored a flurry of questions by reporters, including one about Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Durbin was in the meeting with Trump and other lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
“As Sen. Graham made the presentation, the president interrupted several times and in the course of comments, said things that were hate-filled, vile and racist,” Durbin told reporters Friday. “He denied using those words. It’s not true. He said those hate-filled things and he said them repeatedly.”
Durbin also suggested that in the history of the White House — “in that Oval Office,” — no president had spoken the words like those uttered by Trump.
But tirades and harsh language — including overtly racist comments — are no strangers to the corridors of the White House, said Ken Hughes, a University of Virginia historian.
Hughes, an author and Nixon scholar, has spent 18 years poring over President Richard Nixon’s White House tapes as part of the university’s Presidential Recordings Program.
“One of my colleagues, Sid Milkas, jokes that it should be easy for me to comment on Trump because he speaks in public the way Nixon spoke in private,” Hughes said.
Nixon, Hughes said, was a man who prided himself on great discipline in public and was keenly aware his views on African-Americans, homosexuals, Jews, Catholics and others were “unacceptable” in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“He hid his racism, his religious bigotry. He hid his bias because he knew if he exposed those things, Americans would look down on him,” Hughes said. “He had racist beliefs but he knew he needed to keep them to himself to be a good president.”
Nixon’s recorded profanities, which included comments that “blacks lived like a bunch of dogs,” and that San Francisco was “full of fags and decorators” were unequivocally noxious.
“The Jews have certain traits. The Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. … The Italians, of course, just don’t have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but. … The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality,” Nixon said in a 1973 recording.
When his comments were made public, many supporters were hurt, Hughes said.
“The view of him, especially among conservatives, was that he was among the most intelligent and sophisticated conservatives in politics,” he said. “People did not expect him to have truly bigoted views about Jews, for example. His own Jewish employees expressed dismay and shock at what he said.”
Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University, told Courthouse News that while presidential use of crude language is far from uncommon, context is important.
“[President Lyndon B. Johnson] was known for that. He took pride [using] salty language. He was considered a blunt, down-to-earth Texan who pretty much said what was on his mind,” Lichtman said. “It was a calculated strategy of his part. “
In fact, it was known as the Johnson Treatment. He would bully and intimidate people into accepting his policies and views.
In one incident, quoted in the 1977 book “I Should Have Died,” by Philip Deane, Johnson purportedly brow-beat the Greek ambassador to the U.S. over his nation’s then heated dispute with Cyprus.
“Fuck your parliament and your constitution,” Johnson reportedly said. “America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If these two fleas continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked good …… We pay a lot of good American dollars to the Greeks, Mr. Ambassador. If your Prime Minister gives me talk about democracy, parliament and constitution, he, his parliament and his constitution may not last long.”
Johnson could be equally rough when it came to disputes within the Beltway. He once allegedly dismissed the differences between a senator and a House member by saying “I know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad.”
Lichtman said Johnson even resorted to impolite language when referring to one of his signature legislative achievements, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“I want the goddamndest, strongest voting rights act anyone could ever adopt!,” Johnson said as he pressed hard for the legislation.
But Johnson’s salty rhetoric palls compared to what Trump allegedly said in front of lawmakers on Thursday.
Lichtman said the observations attributed to Trump are “overtly racist,” adding that Americans would “need to look as far back as Andrew Jackson in 1860s to find anything comparable.”
“What he said harkens back to the entire history of nativism and prejudice” the historian continued. “In the 18th century, the Adams administration passed Alien laws, making it difficult for immigrants to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Nativists, he said, saw immigrants entering the U.S. as “menace” and for Adams, it started with the French and then, Canadians.
“Then Ireland. Germany. Japan. China. Then Jews. Then Roman Catholics from Italy. Russia, Poland and Lithuania. Then people from Latin America,” Lichtman said. “So, in fact, the vast majority of places where Americans come from today were, at one time, pilloried as undesirable, un-American and diminishing U.S. standing.”
Adams did not use the word “shithole” but the underlying point was the same, he said, adding Trump’s language recalled “some of the worst tendencies in the U.S.”
“Tendencies that Republicans and Democratic presidents alike have all denounced in the strongest ringing terms before,” he said.
Ben Zimmer, a linguistics experts at the Linguistic Society of America weighed the power of language in with Courthouse News Friday.
While cultural norms around profanity have “loosened generally over the past 50 years,” Zimmer said, the president’s “tough talk” on Thursday still has a global impact.
“And it matters not just that he is using the [language], but is using it in the service of hateful, disparaging views about other countries and their inhabitants,” Zimmer said.
People are clearly paying attention to the language. The Federal Communications Commission on Friday reported it had received a “handful” of complaints after NBC and CNN used the word “s—hole” in their coverage of the controversy.
CNN featured the term on its chyron, and it was also repeated on air multiple times. But the FCC’s jurisdiction over indecency and profanity does not cover cable and satellite programming.
The word was used once on “NBC Nightly News,” but anchor Lester Holt issued a viewer warning in advance. CBS and ABC chose not to use the word, according to Variety.
“Tough talk” can plainly be offensive, Licthman said.
“Words fly through the air and wound. They’re not irrelevant. They can be as deadly as bullets and bombs,” he said.