Laura Meckler and
WASHINGTON—The fate of young undocumented immigrants was in doubt and the odds of a government shutdown appeared to be growing in the wake of President Donald Trump’s dismissal of “shithole countries” in Africa and his rejection of a bipartisan proposal to aid the so-called Dreamers.
As a deadline looms, senators had hoped Mr. Trump would back their immigration plan. Instead, the president on Friday lashed out at the deal, driving the parties further apart.
On Friday, two senators—one Democratic, one Republican—confirmed that Mr. Trump made the incendiary comments during a private meeting on Thursday to discuss legislation to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects young people brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
Mr. Trump questioned why the U.S. would want to admit people from Africa. “Why do we want all these people from these shithole countries here? We should have people from places like Norway,” he said Thursday, according to people at the meeting.
Mr. Trump also said he opposed granting a legal status, in particular, to immigrants from Haiti. “Haitians? Do we need more Haitians?” he said, according to Senate Minority Leader Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), who was at the meeting.
Those comments drew bipartisan condemnation in the U.S. and scorn across the globe. The State Department directed U.S. envoys to listen to countries’ concerns and reiterate the respect the U.S. has for them.
On Thursday, the White House didn’t deny the president’s comments, but Friday morning, Mr. Trump pushed back. “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” he wrote on Twitter.
But the initial reports were confirmed on Friday by Sens. Durbin and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who were both at the meeting. Two other conservative Republicans in the room, Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, said in a statement that they “do not recall the president saying these comments specifically.”
“In the course of his comments [Mr. Trump] said things that were hate-filled, vile and racist. I use those words advisedly,” Mr. Durbin told reporters in Chicago. “I cannot believe in the history of the White House, in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday.”
A big question in Washington: What is going to happen next for the Dreamers? The legal reprieve for these young undocumented immigrants starts to run out in March. WSJ's Gerald F. Seib explains the likely scenarios. Photo: Getty
Mr. Graham said in a statement that during the meeting he responded to Mr. Trump’s comments by describing his own vision of America: "It was best said a long time ago, E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One. Diversity has always been our strength, not our weakness.”
Thursday’s meeting was convened to discuss a bipartisan agreement devised by Messrs. Durbin and Graham and four other senators to extend a path to citizenship for the Dreamers; provide $1.6 billion for Mr. Trump’s promised wall, or fence, along the southern border; and overhaul the diversity visa lottery program, which admits immigrants from underrepresented countries, among other changes.
Mr. Trump’s reference to “shithole countries” came in response to the senators’ explanation of how they would reshape the visa lottery. Under current law, applicants are chosen at random; the proposal would reallocate some visas to a merit-based system for underrepresented nations.
Democrats view the Graham-Durbin agreement as the most promising option for legislation both to help the Dreamers, as Democrats want, and to bolster immigration enforcement, as Republicans want.
But Mr. Trump rejected it wholesale on Friday, calling the framework a “big step backward.” On Twitter, he complained that his border wall was “not properly funded,” and that the “USA would be forced to take large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly.”
A Durbin spokesman said the senator would try to build support for the legislation anyway, and Mr. Graham was working to sell the deal to other GOP senators.
Other Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, said the solution should come from a different, more recently convened group. That group consists of each party’s No. 2 leaders in the House and Senate: Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) in the House, and Mr. Durbin and Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) from the Senate.
“We just have to get it done,” Mr. Ryan said Friday. He called for a “balanced” solution that would draw “strong bipartisan support.”
The group of the No. 2 leaders began meeting only recently and have a long way to go to reach agreement, aides said Friday. Their staffs had a “positive” meeting on Friday, according to one GOP aide, and plan to meet next week. But it wasn’t clear when the members would next convene.
GOP leaders say they view the deadline for acting on Dreamers as March, but Democrats want to use leverage they have over spending bills to force action next week. Congress must pass a new funding measure by Friday to keep the government running.
Mr. Trump’s remarks have emboldened Democrats to insist on tying immigration measures to another spending bill, and in the absence of a deal, Republicans are expected to advance another short-term spending bill next week. Republicans have scant maneuvering room because the measure might also lose support from Republican defense hawks, who have little tolerance left for the short-term measures that, they say, hamstring military leaders. Other Republicans have their own reasons for refusing to go along.
The Wall Street Journal interviewed President Trump in the Oval Office on Thursday. Mr. Trump spoke about his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and signaled openness to diplomacy with North Korea. WSJ's Gerald F. Seib gives us more insight from the interview. Photo: Getty
Seeking the upper hand in a possible spending showdown, Mr. Trump on Friday accused Democrats of seeking to “defund” the military.
“Sadly, Democrats want to stop paying our troops and government workers in order to give a sweetheart deal, not a fair deal, for DACA,” the president wrote on Twitter.
But Democrats think their position has grown stronger in the last two days, as people in both parties condemned Mr. Trump’s remarks. Mr. Ryan called them “very unfortunate, unhelpful.” Rep. Vern Buchanan (R., Va.) called them “wrong and inappropriate.” Democratic Reps. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana and Jerrold Nadler of New York said they would introduce a censure resolution in the House next week.
The comments also drew condemnation from abroad. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress said Mr. Trump’s remark was “offensive.” Botswana’s government summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain the comments. A spokeswoman for the African Union, the continental bloc, said she was “frankly alarmed” by the reports. United Nations human-rights spokesman Rupert Colville said, “There is no other word one can use as racist.”
Many Africans posted pictures of beautiful scenes from their nations annotated with the hashtag #shithole or #whatmakesmycountryashithole.
The Haitian government formally summoned a senior U.S. diplomat in Haiti to explain the remarks.
The reaction wasn’t much better from Norway, which Mr. Trump was said to have praised. Torbjoern Saetre, a politician in Norway’s Conservative Party, said on Twitter: “On behalf of Norway: Thanks, but no thanks.”
Steve Goldstein, under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, told reporters that the agency has instructed envoys to primarily listen and affirm U.S. commitment, no matter what Mr. Trump says or tweets. "Will they have to work extra hard to send [the message] today?” he said. “Yes, they will, but that’s OK, that’s part of the responsibility that they have.’’
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—Rebecca Ballhaus, Joe Parkinson and Felicia Schwartz contributed to this article.
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