A senator has rejected Donald Trump’s effort to distance himself from claims that he used vulgar language to describe African countries, claiming the president “said these hate-filled things and he said them repeatedly”.
The president has been accused of questioning why the US should accept more immigrants from Haiti and “s***hole countries” in Africa, during a meeting on immigration.
He said on Twitter on Friday that his language during the meeting was “tough” but insisted: “This was not the language used.”
But Illinois senator Dick Durbin, who was present at the Oval Office meeting, said “s***holes” was “the exact word used by the president not just once but repeatedly”.
He added: “When the question was asked about Haitians … he said, ‘Haitians? Do we need more Hatians?'”
Mr Trump’s contemptuous description of an entire continent startled legislators at a meeting about a bipartisan immigration deal, according to people briefed on the conversation, and immediately revived charges that the president is racist.
The White House did not deny his remark but issued a statement saying Mr Trump supports immigration policies that welcome “those who can contribute to our society”.
On Friday, Mr Trump also tweeted: “Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country,” and claimed: “I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians.”
He denied suggestions in a report in the Washington Post that he had said “take them out”, in reference to Haitians.
Mr Trump said the bipartisan immigration proposal is “a big step backwards” because it does not fund a wall along the Mexican border, and claimed it would force the US “to take large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly”.
He added: “I want a merit based system of immigration and people who will help take our country to the next level. I want safety and security for our people. I want to stop the massive inflow of drugs.”
His comments came after two senators presented details of the bipartisan compromise that would extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) protections against deportation for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, and also strengthen border protections.
The lawmakers had hoped he would back the accord, an agreement among six senators evenly split among Republicans and Democrats, ending a bitter dispute over protecting the “Dreamers”.
But the White House later rejected it, plunging the issue back into uncertainty eight days before a deadline that threatens a government shutdown.
Mr Durbin, the Senate’s number two Democrat, had said people who would be allowed to stay in the US under the deal included those who had fled disasters in places such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti.
Mr Trump specifically questioned why the US would want to admit more people from Haiti.
As for Africa, he asked why more people from “s***hole countries” should be allowed into the US, the sources said.
The president suggested the US should instead allow more entrants from countries like Norway. He had met Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg earlier this week.
White House spokesman Raj Shah did not deny the comments were made, but said: “Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people.”
Mr Trump’s reported remarks were remarkable even by the standards of a president who has been accused by his foes of racist attitudes and has routinely smashed through public decorum that his modern predecessors have generally embraced.
He has claimed without evidence that Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, was not born in the US; said Mexican immigrants were “bringing crime” and were “rapists”; and claimed there were “very fine people on both sides” after violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left a counter-protester dead.
House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer said: “President Trump’s comments are racist and a disgrace.”
Republican Mia Love, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, said Mr Trump’s comments were “unkind, divisive, elitist and fly in the face of our nation’s values”.
She added: “This behaviour is unacceptable from the leader of our nation,” and called on Mr Trump to apologise to the American people “and the nations he so wantonly maligned”.