Washington was thrown into a familiar spasm of outrage on Thursday evening, after news broke that President Donald Trump had asked a group of senators during a meeting in the Oval Office why the United States was accepting immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa. Instead, the president suggested that America should show preference for immigrants from countries like Norway, whose Prime Minister had visited the White House the day before.
The president saying out loud what his administration has already been quietly doing through policy — which critics say shows a clear preference for white over non-white immigrants — unleashed a torrent of anger across much the nation's capital, but Republicans for the most part, didn't seem to be reading the news.
Democrats were quick to condemn Trump’s comments, expressing shock at his merciless approach to immigration and casting it as un-American and against decades of United States immigration policy toward those most in need.
“My parents came from one of those countries,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez tweeted out.
But increasingly, Democrats and liberals honed in on the racially-charged dimension of Trump’s comments. "@realDonaldTrump's 'shithole' comments are further proof that his Make America Great Again agenda is really a Make America White Again agenda," the Congressional Black Caucus tweeted.
“As a descendant of forbears from what you refer to as ”#shithole countries,” Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP, “I note rising hate crimes are the result of your rhetoric. There is blood on your hands, lips & policies.”
Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota urged Republicans to call out the president for racism.
But many Republicans seemed in no mood to do so, again hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass. Requests for comment to several Republican members of Congress, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was in the meeting with Trump, went unreturned.
Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican, called on President Trump to apologize. "It is completely inappropriate for the President to refer to other countries in the manner in which he reportedly did," Rep. Paulsen tweeted, "especially given the circumstances and disasters that led many TPS immigrants to seek refuge and shelter in the U.S."
People of color in the Republican caucus expressed outrage at the president. Rep. Mia Love of Utah, whose parents are from Haiti, released a statement saying “The President’s comments are unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values. This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation.”
Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida also criticized Trump, saying in a statement that “under no circumstance is it acceptable to degrade, denigrate, of dehumanize #TPS immigrants.” TPS stands for “Temporary Protected Status,” a designation the United States has offered to hundreds of thousands of immigrants across the world when their countries are in crisis. Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced the suspension of that status for approximately 200,000 people from El Salvador. The administration did the same for approximately 50,000 Haitians and 2,500 Nicaraguans last year.
While most Republicans on Capitol Hill avoided the subject, Trump allies in conservative media went to his defense. Fox News host Tucker Carlson suggested that “El Salvador is, in fact, a shithole.” If it wasn’t, he tweeted, then it shouldn’t be a problem for Salvadorans to be deported there.
And Fox News’ Jesse Watters explained on “The Five” that “This is who Trump is. He doesn’t care. He shoots from the hip. And if he offends some people, fine. There’s so many more offensive things that are happening in this world.”
The White House seemed to lean into this defense, releasing a statement from spokesman Raj Shah that said “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.”
Even as frustration and anger at Trump was burning hot, a mixture of exhaustion and resignation seemed to underscore much of the criticism coming from the Democrats.
“It's been now almost a year under President Trump,” Ben Cardin told Wolf BLitzer as news of Trump’s comments broke. “I can't say that anything that will stun me anymore because he does things that I never thought I would see come from the president of the United States, but this is extremely damaging.”
Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York seemed to echo these sentiments.
“There’s nothing that can surprise me about him anymore. I think he’s been hanging out with people who are white supremacists,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York, who was born in the Dominican Republic, told VICE News, before adding: “We’re stuck with him for now.”
Carter Sherman contributed reporting to this story.