President Donald Trump denied he is a racist Sunday, three days after he reportedly referred to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa as coming from "s---hole countries."
"I am the least racist person you will ever interview," Trump responded to a reporter's question at his Mar-a-Lago Florida resort.
Trump said he is "ready, willing and able" to reach a deal to protect from deportation about 800,000 young immigrants who years ago were brought illegally by their parents to the United States. But he said, "Honestly, I don’t think the Democrats want to make a deal," and earlier in the day said he thought the program is "probably dead."
Trump contended that Democratic lawmakers "don’t want security at the border, they don’t want to stop drugs, they want to take money away from our military which we cannot do." In a Twitter comment Monday, Trump said, "My standard is very simple, AMERICA FIRST & MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"
Trump's reported vulgar comments about Haitian, Salvadoran and African immigrants has roiled negotiations about protecting the young immigrants from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program championed by his predecessor, former President Barack Obama.
The White House-congressional talks about DACA are linked to urgent meetings this week about funding government operations beyond Friday midnight, when current spending authorization expires.
According to some in the room during a White House meeting last week on immigration, Trump asked why the U.S. is letting in immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa and said he wanted more from countries such as Norway. He also apparently said he wants to exclude Haiti from an immigration reform deal.
While the White House never denied Trump used an obscenity to talk about immigrants of color, Trump issued a vague denial. "The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used," he said.
On Monday, Josh Dawsey, the reporter for The Washington Post who broke the original story about Trump's use of the vulgarity, told CNN that White House officials now say Trump might have uttered a slightly different profanity, questioning why the U.S. was accepting immigrants from "s---house countries."
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who was at the Oval Office meeting, said, “I don’t know that changing the word from hole to house changes the impact which this has. This speaks to America and its view towards immigration. It’s a message to the world, and a message which I think is inconsistent with the values of this country. I don’t believe the majority of Americans agree with the president, whichever word is used."
"A majority of this country wants us to have a sane sensible immigration policy that is just, that keeps us safe, that also keeps the door open for the legacy of this country which is diversity, which has made us stronger than many countries on earth," Durbin said.
At one point after news surfaced about his remark, Trump tweeted, "Never said anything derogatory about Haiti. Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings — unfortunately no trust."
Trump's denial was supported in separate appearances on Sunday news programs by Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia.
"I didn't hear it, and I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was," Cotton said on CBS's Face the Nation. Perdue was on ABC television and flatly denied Trump said it.
President Trump is tying an extension of DACA to funding for a wall he wants built along the U.S.-Mexican border to thwart further illegal immigration, a campaign promise he made repeatedly during his successful 2016 run to the White House.
Many Democrats want extending DACA to be a separate issue from building a wall — something they oppose anyway.
The president's reportedly harsh comments about Africa and Haiti angered Democrats and were also condemned by a number of Republicans — throwing some doubt on Congress' willingness to make an immigration deal with the White House at this time.
Trump last September signed an executive order ending DACA, but gave Congress until March 5 to weigh in on the issue.
Many DACA recipients were brought illegally into the the U.S. as babies and toddlers by their parents, but only know the U.S. as their home. Often called Dreamers by their advocates, they work, go to school, pay taxes, and have served in the U.S. military.