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The Trump ‘shithole countries’ flap takes an even more ridiculous turn

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)

Just when you thought the lawmakers involved in that “shithole countries” meeting at the White House on Thursday hadn't covered themselves in enough shame, here comes a new development.

The Washington Post reported Monday night that the source of the dispute is less about the thrust of President Trump's “shithole” comment and more about the second syllable of that vulgar word. It turns out that the statement Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) issued that sounded as though it was crafted by a dozen lawyers was written that way for a reason: Cotton and Perdue, according to three White House sources, believe Trump said “shithouse” rather than “shithole.” (The New York Times has a source saying the same thing.)

This is apparently all the difference that they needed to issue their statement, which assured that “we do not recall the president saying these comments specifically.” That last word lingers hugely; it means they get to deny one specific word and feel good about having been technically honest. Never mind that the second syllable of that word doesn't change the meaning of Trump's comments one iota.

And it's hardly the first time we've found Cotton and Perdue contorting themselves to avoid confirming the gist of Trump's comments. Both men appeared on the Sunday talk shows over the weekend and seemed to back off the “we do not recall” part of the statement. It seemed that their memories had been jogged enough to the point where they could now say pretty definitively that Trump hadn't said “shithole countries.”

Here's Cotton on CBS's “Face the Nation”: “I did not hear derogatory comments about ... individuals or persons, no.”

And here's Perdue on ABC's “This Week”: “The gross misrepresentation [of the meeting] was that language was used in there that was not used, and also that the tone of that meeting was not contributory and not constructive.”

Cotton's comment seems to rely upon the idea that Trump attacked only countries and not specifically the people who come from them, which ... okay. Perdue's, meanwhile, seems to indicate that not only did he recall what had been said, but that he could now rule out some specific language that had been reported as coming from Trump's mouth. Apparently he means that “shithouse” was used but “shithole” wasn't.

It's clear what game is being played here. Lawmakers who are dealing with a fickle and unpredictable president are doing whatever they can to remain in his good graces so they can guide his immigration position (and possibly become his CIA director). If that means offering misleading-if-technically-defensible statements about what happened Thursday, it seems that's a small price to pay.

But what's as telling about all of this is what's left unsaid: Basically anything specific about that meeting. Cotton and Perdue are describing what they didn't hear in very general terms, and they are assiduously avoiding saying anything specific about what Trump did say. This despite the White House not having denied The Washington Post's report in real time, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) describing the “shithole countries” comment publicly, and those in the meeting privately confirming it to other lawmakers, including Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

But they aren't the only ones who are tellingly avoiding the specifics. So is the Republican who served as Scott's source and has otherwise tacitly confirmed Trump's comments. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) has spoken publicly about the meeting and about rebuking Trump to his face. But Graham has repeatedly declined to confirm the specific language. His statement Friday didn't address the root of the dispute, and he still declined to confirm it over the holiday weekend. As The Post's Josh Dawsey, Robert Costa and Ashley Parker report:

Graham declined to comment on the president’s reported obscenity. He has told others in his circle that commenting would only hurt the chance of a deal and that he wants to keep a relationship with the president.

Graham is being praised in some corners for reportedly standing up to Trump in the meeting and for apparently confirming the “shithole countries” remark privately to Scott. He seems to hope that's good enough. But we still have no public confirmation from a Republican in that meeting that Trump said what Graham seems to agree he said. And to an American public and a GOP base that is inclined to disbelieve the mainstream media and what Democrats say, that means lots of people won't believe Trump actually said it.

And in the end, Graham is really just playing a version of the same game that Cotton and Perdue are. It may help him get the immigration deal he wants, but it won't help the country reconcile this troubling episode involving the president.