President Trump has landed himself back in the center of debate over whether he is personally racist, months after a handful of senior administration officials threatened to leave their posts over his muted response to a white nationalist rally in Virginia.
The White House faced international backlash on Friday after Trump was accused of describing Haiti, El Salvador, and impoverished African nations as “shithole countries” during a White House discussion with lawmakers about which immigrants should continue to receive temporary protected status, or TPS, within the United States.
“I cannot believe that, in the history of the White House in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the lawmakers present for the meeting, told reporters after Trump’s comments were first reported by the Washington Post.
Congressional Republicans were quick to distance themselves from Trump’s remarks, with some blaming the president for jeopardizing bipartisan immigration reform talks at a critical moment for those who have been working feverishly to broker a deal that addresses recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“The first thing that came to mind was very unfortunate, unhelpful,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said at an event in his home state Friday morning.
Congresswoman Mia Love, R-Utah, a Haitian-American, demanded that the president apologize for comments she said were “unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values.”
“Donald Trump has an opportunity to show what’s truly in his heart during these DACA negotiations, but clearly these were terrible words,” said Javier Palomarez, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a former member of Trump’s Diversity Coalition.
“It’s a terrible sentiment, terrible judgement. I just hope it hasn’t put DACA negotiations in the shithole,” he added.
Some Trump allies agreed that negotiating an immigration bill may be more difficult following the president’s remarks — as evidenced by mounting outrage among Democratic lawmakers who had been involved in bipartisan talks — but not necessarily impossible.
"I think some of the outrage being expressed by Democrats is in an effort to get a better deal for their side," veteran GOP strategist Ford O'Connell told the Washington Examiner. "It would be better if he didn't denigrate specific countries, but if a deal is to be had, it's going to happen."
Others appeared to be more concerned with the blow to Trump’s reputation, refusing to describe the president as “racist” but simultaneously acknowledging his record unpopularity among various minority groups — immigrants included.
“It doesn’t help,” said a source close to the White House, who has previously urged the president to be more mindful of his rhetoric when he’s talking about legal and illegal immigrants.
The same source said some West Wing aides were “still recovering from the Charlottesville episode” and may be more inclined to jump ship amid the latest racially charged controversy. White House chief of staff John Kelly has reportedly informed staffers they need to make their exit by the end of the month if they no longer wish to stay on through the November midterm elections.
Meanwhile, O'Connell predicted that while there may be some "behind-the-scenes nervousness," the president's latest comments are unlikely to attract as much disapproval inside White House.
Trump’s response to Charlottesville — condemning “both sides” for violence that broke out at a rally organized by neo-Nazi groups — combined with his latest gaffe have fueled questions about his own attitudes and motivations. While critics argue that both episodes constitute the textbook definition of racism, his staunchest defenders claim he has never intended to make disparaging comments about Latinos, African Americans, or individuals of any other race or ethnicity.
Others have said he is merely guilty of naivety, speaking candidly around political opponents who have everything to gain from leaking details of their conversations.
“I’ve said all along, the president many times says what people are thinking,” Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, told Fox News on Friday. “I learned as a business guy, you have to be careful what you say, because people pick everything up.”
Renacci urged Americans to “judge the president after what we’ve done” as opposed to “what he says,” noting that he has a tendency to make comments that would probably be best left unsaid.
For his part, Trump, in a series of tweets, denied saying “anything derogatory about Haitians.” The president did not explicitly address whether he referred to African countries as shitholes, instead accusing Democrats of fabricating the comments to stir controversy.
“Probably should record future meetings — unfortunately, no trust!” the president said.
Republicans signaled on Friday that they are unlikely to introduce a legislative fix for DACA by the end of next week, when Democrats had hoped to use a budget deadline to pressure their colleagues into passing a clean immigration bill. It was not immediately clear whether Trump’s comments may have delayed a deal from falling into place by Jan. 19.