WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump grew frustrated with lawmakers Thursday in the Oval Office when they floated restoring protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, according to several people briefed on the meeting.
When the discussion turned to African nations, Trump asked why he would want “all these people from shithole countries,” the New York Times reported. He added that the U.S. should admit more people from places like Norway.
The president, according to a White House official, also suggested he would be open to more immigrants from Asian countries because they help the United States economically.
In addition, the president singled out Haiti, telling lawmakers that immigrants from that country must be left out of any deal, these people said.
“Why do we need more Haitians?” Trump said, according to people familiar with the meeting. “Take them out.”
The comments left lawmakers taken aback, people familiar with their reactions said. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., had proposed cutting the visa lottery program by 50 percent and then prioritizing countries already in the system, a White House official said.
A White House spokesman defended Trump’s position on immigration without addressing the remarks. White House officials did not dispute the account.
“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement. “Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.”
Trump built his candidacy and presidency around hard stances on immigration, vowing to build a wall along the Mexican border and cut legal immigration by half, among other positions. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security have also increased immigration raids.
The remarks were met with scorn from Democrats and some Republicans and could throw another wrench into bipartisan discussions on immigration, which had shown promise in recent days, according to legislators.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said the comments “will shake the confidence that people have” in the ongoing immigration policy talks.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called Trump’s remarks “further proof that his Make America Great Again agenda is really a Make America White Again agenda.”
Some Republicans also raised objections. Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, whose family is from Haiti, said in a statement that Trump’s remarks were “unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values. This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation.”
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American elected to a state legislature in the U.S., said in a statement that she was “ashamed, disturbed, and outraged that the leader of the United States can’t see beyond his own embarrassing privilege to embrace the diversity that has made this country great for generations.”
Trump’s comments put further scrutiny on his long-standing tendency to make racially charged comments — including attacks on protesting black athletes to his claim that there were fine people “on both sides” after neo-Nazis rioted in Charlottesville, Va. Trump also falsely claimed that former President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.
Democrats were quick to note that Trump employs Haitians at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and that he praised Haitian Americans during a roundtable in Miami in September. Trump’s critics also said racially incendiary language could damage relationships with foreign allies.
Alix Desulme, a City Council member in North Miami, home to thousands of Haitian Americans, said the remarks were “disgusting.”
“I don’t know how worse it can get,” he said. “This is very alarming. We know he’s not presidential but this a low.”
For many of Trump’s supporters, however, the comments may not prove to be particularly damaging. Trump came under fire from conservatives earlier this week for seeming to suggest he would be open to a comprehensive immigration reform deal without money for a border wall, before he quickly backtracked.
“He’s trying to win me back,” conservative author Ann Coulter, who has called for harsh limits on immigration, wrote on Twitter.
Outlining a potential bipartisan deal, the lawmakers discussed restoring protections for countries that have been removed from the temporary protected status program while adding $1.5 billion for a border wall and making changes to the visa lottery system. Lawmakers mentioned that members of the Black Caucus had requested that some African countries be included in the protective status program, a White House official who asked for anonymity said.
The exchange was “salty” on all sides, this person said, with the president growing profane and animated while discussing immigrants from other countries. “It did not go well,” this person said.
The administration announced this week that it was removing protective status for citizens of El Salvador.
Trump had seemed amenable to a deal earlier in the day during phone calls with lawmakers, aides said, but shifted his position in the meeting and did not seem interested in a compromise.
After the meeting, Marc Short, Trump’s legislative aide, said the White House was nowhere near a bipartisan deal on immigration.