The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday faced intense questioning from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding whether President Donald Trump disparaged certain countries during a meeting on immigration last week.
DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen did not deny, however, that Trump used vulgar language while referring to certain countries, as has been reported.
The Washington Post first reported Thursday, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) later confirmed publicly, that Trump called El Salvador, Haiti and unnamed African countries “shithole countries” and said he would prefer accepting immigrants from Norway. Trump has denied saying as much.
During an oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked Nielsen, who was at the meeting in question, about the reports.
“You were in the room,” he told Nielsen. “You’re under oath.”
“Did President Trump use this word or a substantially similar word to describe certain countries?” Leahy asked.
“I did not hear that word used, no sir,” Nielsen said.
“That is not the question. Did he use anything similar to that describing certain countries?” Leahy asked. Various reports days after the fact cited unnamed White House officials who claimed Trump may have been using the word “shithouse.”
Nielsen responded: “The conversation was very impassioned. I don’t dispute that the President was using tough language. Others in the room were also using tough language. The concept, and the context, I believe, in which this came up was the concept that the President would like to move to a merit-based system. He would like to not— no longer look at quotas —”
Leahy interrupted her: “Did he use what would be considered vulgar language referring to certain countries?”
“The President used tough language in general, as did congressmen in the room, yes sir,” she said.
Later, Durbin pressed her on that point: “Did you hear Sen. Graham use profanity?” he asked, referring to the Republican from South Carolina who, according to Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), said the Post’s reporting was “basically accurate” and said publicly Friday that he’d already “said my piece” to the President.
Nielsen replied: “I did hear tough language from Sen. Graham, yes sir.”
“What did he say?” Durbin asked.
“He used tough language,” she said. “He was impassioned. I think he was feeling very strongly about the issue, as was everyone in the room, and to underscore the point, I think he was using some strong language.”
“Do you recall that the strong language he used repeated exactly what the president had said prior to that?” Durbin asked, implying that that was the case.
“I remember specific cuss words being used by a variety of members,” Nielsen dodged again.
Durbin affirmed in response that Graham “spoke up in a way that I respect very much,” and that Graham’s “strong words repeated exactly the words used by the President, which you cannot remember.”
Earlier, Durbin had asked about Norway: “Do you remember the president saying expressly ‘I want more Europeans, why can’t we have more immigrants from Norway?’” he asked.
“I do remember him asking about the concept of underrepresented countries, as a fix,” she replied. “This is in the conversation about removing the diversity lottery and how we could reallocate that. And I do remember him asking, if we do that and we then assign those to countries that are unrepresented, aren’t we just continuing non-merit-based immigration? From that perspective, I think he did ask, ‘Would that cover European countries or by its nature would that mean that we are further establishing immigration to purposefully exclude Europeans?’”
“What did the president say about immigrants from Norway?” Durbin pressed. He told CNN’s Jake Tapper, in an interview clip aired Tuesday, that Trump had said “We need more people from Norway. Norway, they don’t even take refugees in Norway. And I just met with the Norwegian Prime Minister. We need more Europeans!”
“I heard him repeating what he learned in a meeting before, that they are industrious, that they are a hard-working country,” Nielsen replied. “They don’t have much crime there, they don’t have much debt. I think in general, I heard him giving compliments to Norway.”
Leahy had asked about Norway, as well. “Being from Norway is not a skill,” he noted, referring to the White House’s professed preference for high-skilled immigrants. “What does he mean when he says he wants more immigrants from Norway?”
Nielsen said she did not believe Trump used that exact phrase “specifically,” but that “he was using Norway as an example of a country that is — what he was specifically referring to was the prime minister telling him that the people of Norway work very hard. And so what he was referencing is, from a merit-based perspective, we would like to have those with skills who can assimilate and contribute to the United States, moving away from country quotas and to an individual merit-based system.”
This post has been updated.