The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Two senators do backflips to protect a racist president

Some lawmakers denied President Trump called Haiti, El Salvador and African nations "shithole countries" in a bipartisan meeting on Jan. 11. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

There cannot be serious doubt that President Trump in a meeting last Thursday with lawmakers made a comment about Haiti, El Salvador and African countries to the effect of: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” No one in good faith can dispute that he then said that “we need more people from Norway,” a nearly all-white country. How do we know he said it — or something close?

The White House did not deny the news report for the remainder of the day Thursday. It was not until the next morning that Trump gave a halfhearted walkback but still did not deny making the comment. “Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country. Never said ‘take them out.’ Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings – unfortunately, no trust!” He didn’t bother to deny his slur of African countries or his preference for Norwegians.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) reportedly took umbrage during the meeting. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) went public with the remarks. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Sunday, “Well, all I can say is I was in a meeting directly afterwards where those who had presented the president our proposal spoke about the meeting. And they — they said those words were used before those words went public. So that’s all I can tell you is I — I heard that account before the account even went public.”

Even conservative commentators confirmed the president’s remarks. Rich Lowry said, “He said s-house, and not s-hole. That’s not going to make a difference to anyone. But the general remarks — yes — I’d like to have a transcript, because everyone is putting so much weight on this to see exactly what was said in what ways, but the general tenor of the discussion has been reported accurately.”

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

Erick Erickson tweeted, “It’s weird that people in the room don’t remember Trump using that word when Trump himself was calling friends to brag about it afterwards. I spoke to one of those friends. The President thought it would play well with the base.”

And yet Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), who initially put out a rather odd statement saying they had no memory of the event, decided to double down. (Trump’s homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, used the same memory dodge on Fox News on Sunday. “I don’t recall him saying that exact phrase.”) Cotton entirely reversed himself, in keeping with his utter shamelessness in defending and promoting Trump. He had this exchange:

JOHN DICKERSON: But you were in the room where it happened.
So, you’re saying, in that room, you didn’t hear any of this sort of lumping everybody together? Is that what you’re saying?
COTTON: I did not hear derogatory comments about …
DICKERSON: But the sentiment.
COTTON: … about — about individuals or persons, no.
So, you — this sentiment is totally phony as well that is attributed to him?

He also attacked his colleague: “Senator Durbin has misrepresented what happened in White House meetings before, and he was corrected by Obama administration officials by it.” He did not attack Flake, however.

Perdue had this exchange on ABC’s “This Week”:

PERDUE: I’m saying that this is a gross misrepresentation, it’s not the first time Senator Durbin has done it, and it is not productive to solving the problem that we have at hand.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So what did the president say?
PERDUE: Most people in America, George, want us to solve the DACA situation. Republicans and democrats want to solve the DACA situation, but we also want to make sure that we’re not back here in five years doing the same thing again.

(The Post also reports that these two Trump acolytes are hanging their hats on the “s—hole vs. s—house” distinction. This embarrassing distinction, apparently, is intended to justify their shilling for the president and gross dishonesty.)

So what does all this tell you?

First, many GOP lawmakers now consider lying in defense of the president to be routine, part of their normal duties as card-carrying Republicans. They don’t care that it makes them look foolish to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. They, like Trump, now operate in the populist bubble that depends on protecting Trump and reaffirming their bond with the base on behalf of white grievance. For Perdue and Cotton, defending the preference for immigrants from richer countries — i.e. whiter countries — requires they not concede that this, at bottom, is about race.

Second, no White House or Hill staffer quits, it seems, when their boss behaves dishonestly even to the point of changing their story. In remaining day after day, they consent to and enable the culture of nonstop lies. Gary Cohn — reportedly “troubled” after Trump’s Charlottesville debacle — is still there. To our knowledge, no one in either of the two senators’ offices has quit on principle. Everyone makes excuses (well, I wasn’t there) and convinces themselves that it’s imperative to remain on the job.

Third, aside from the Kool-Aid drinkers, why aren’t the conservative media denouncing Cotton and Perdue for their transparent dishonesty? Ah, the tribal mentality runs deep. Conservative outlets’ silence reinforces the inclination of the Perdues and the Cottons to mislead the next time, and the time after that. Somehow they rationalize that what Trump said was bad and racist but that covering it up is not.

Fourth, colleagues on both sides of the aisle should keep these two Republican senators’ rampant, flippant dishonesty in mind going forward. Should either come before the Senate for a confirmable position, the Senate should reject the nomination. If they lied about this, they’d lie about anything. Voters of Georgia and Arkansas deserve better than these two dissemblers.

If politicians focused on issues important to black women, everyone would benefit, including President Trump's base, says Global Opinions Editor Karen Attiah. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Fifth, those defending Trump seem to accept the premise that “shithole” countries produce undesirables. That’s nonsense, even apart from the comparative education levels of us and other countries. (The Los Angeles Times reports that “research found that of the 1.4 million [African immigrants] who are 25 and older, 41% have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 30% of all immigrants and 32% of the U.S.-born population. Of the 19,000 U.S. immigrants from Norway — a country Trump reportedly told lawmakers is a good source of immigrants — 38% have college educations”). In fact, immigrants are self-selecting go-getters regardless of their education level, willing to pack up and go to a strange country to attain a better life. We’ve had a long, ugly history of preferring “European stock” on the grounds that Europeans are more desirable; in fact, they might be whiter, but the assumption that Europeans can become Americanized but Africans or Asians cannot is straight-up racism and belied by decades of immigration experience.

To many Americans, Trump is a flat-out racist. The danger for everyone with an “R” after his or her name is that the public may conclude the same is true for the Republican Party as a whole. When Cotton and Perdue act this way, they reinforce the image that the GOP is the party of and for whites.

Read more by Jennifer Rubin:

Ups and downs: DACA, retirements and Trump apologists

Morning Bits: The ‘s—hole’ fallout

Sunday wrap: Who would lie to cover for Trump’s racism?

Trump’s apologists invite grave danger to our nation

Distinguished pol of the week: In a sea of cowards, she spoke up