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The three strategies Republicans are using to defend (or dodge) Trump’s ‘shithole countries’ comment

From categorizing it as "tough language" to saying they "don't recall that specific phrase," Trump supporters are downplaying his "shithole countries" remarks. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Some have said his comments aren't okay. The majority have been silent. And of the Republicans at the meeting who have spoken out, they've offered vague, confusing and even contradictory explanations of what happened. So, what's going on? Why can't Republicans get their stories straight about whether President Trump denigrated entire countries with a vulgarity? 

In Washington, it's often safe to assume that everyone has an agenda for saying (or not saying) what they're saying. Let's break down Republicans' varying responses to Trump's “shithole countries” remark with what they're getting out of it.

He didn't say that. At least, not that specific vulgarity.

That's what GOP Sens. David Perdue (Ga.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) said Friday and into the weekend. At first, it looked as though they were contradicting reports that Trump denigrated entire countries. “We do not recall the president saying these comments specifically,” they said.

But over the long weekend, we learned why they hadn't outright denied it. They heard “shithouse,” not “shithole,” reports The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, who broke the story on Trump's use of the vulgarity in the meeting last week.

Their misleading denial has earned them a lot of ridicule. Why does it matter which obscenity he used? Both get across the same point: Trump didn't want populations from those countries emigrating to the United States, countries that are largely poor and mostly black.

What's their political calculation? Cotton and Perdue have an immigration bill that would cuts legal immigration and significantly change the system that lets people into the country, from allowing extended families in to putting more emphasis on English proficiency and job skills. It hasn't gained much traction in Washington — except from the president himself, who championed it last year. So, their calculus here is likely: Stand by the president at all costs (even if you have to extend the laws of logic to do it), and that ups the chances that he'll support your legislation.

I'm not going to say he said it, but I won't deny he said it.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who was in the meeting, has refused to give a clear answer of what Trump said, sharing only that he rebuked the president directly in the meeting. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) also confirmed that Graham spoke up to the president at the meeting. But as to what he said, no one is sharing.

“I know what was said and I know what I said,” Graham told the Post and Courier on Monday.

On Tuesday, surrounded by reporters in the Capitol after a hearing on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Graham still didn't explicitly confirm what Trump said. But he blamed Trump's staff for giving the president bad advice that may have led him to insult those countries.

So, what's his political calculation? Graham's responses are some of the most mysterious responses of all, given that he has had no problem calling Trump out in the past.

But as summer turned into fall, Graham did a 180 on Trump. He has buddied up with the president. They golfed twice together in one month. Graham learned how to speak Trump's language by praising the president's golf swing. “He has a nice, compact swing, and can get it up and down from jail,” Graham said. And that strategy has arguably worked: Now he's at the table on big decisions such as a deal to protect "dreamers."

“He’s a dealmaker, and he’s extremely flexible,” Graham told The Post in October, elaborating on his strategy of befriending him: “Just keep talking to him. Keep him close.” It seems as though Graham has decided he has more influence in with Trump than out.

What 'shithole countries' remark?

Some Republicans have called out the president. Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), the daughter of Haitian immigrants, told CNN “yes” when asked if she thinks his comments were racist. But the majority of Republicans haven't. And many GOP leaders have conspicuously avoided saying anything. (It helps that the comments broke right as Congress was leaving town for the holiday weekend.)

Their political calculation: It's similar to Graham's. Don't say anything that will alienate the president, if you don't have to. After Trump said there were good people on “both sides” of the Charlottesville white supremacy rally, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) waited nine days to comment on it. And when he did, he said he didn't agree with it, but he made it clear that he was going to move on. “I think just he needs to do better and I think he just did,” Ryan said. On Friday, he said the president's comments about Haiti and other countries are “very unfortunate, unhelpful,” but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hasn't issued a single statement.

As I wrote Monday, GOP leaders decided long ago that they can work better with the president than against him: “Trump is president. He's the only one who can sign bills into law. To ditch Trump wholesale would be the equivalent of ditching their hope of accomplishing anything else while Republicans control Washington.”