Trump allies see ‘s—hole’ controversy as overblown
The White House believes it can brush off the latest racially-charged controversy confronting it, with allies arguing the blowback over President Trump’s disparaging remarks about “shithole” countries is just the latest example of overcooked media outrage and weak GOP lawmakers buckling under pressure.
The president had few defenders on the airwaves on Friday, as cable news outlets went wall-to-wall with coverage about how Trump had complained in an Oval Office meeting about restoring protected status for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African nations.
Privately, sources close to the White House were unbowed and dismissive of what they described as predictable hysteria over Trump’s vulgar remarks.
“It’s a classic example of how D.C. and New York react versus how the rest of the country reacts,” said one former White House official. “What people in the media class still don’t understand is that this guy talks like a normal person and that’s why he won in the first place. I’m sorry if it offends the media’s delicate sensibilities but the reality is more Americans speak like President Trump than speak like [CNN anchor] Jim Acosta.”
Furthermore, Trump’s advisers argued that the president was merely articulating — however crudely — the conservative position on immigration: That the U.S. should be able to decide who is allowed into the country and that lawmakers should implement a merit-based immigration system rather than opening the borders to immigrants looking to escape dysfunctional or poverty-stricken parts of the world.
“The point is, if you have a Ph.D., I don’t care what country you’re from, we want you,” said Barry Bennett, a former adviser on Trump’s transition team. “We should be allowed to be aspirational.”
Trump has denied making the remarks, but Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who was in the meeting, told reporters that Trump had used “hate-filled, vile and racist” language to describe immigrants. Several Republican senators with direct knowledge of the incident confirmed Durbin’s story.
The administration appeared hunkered down on Friday in hopes the controversy would pass.
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment and the president ignored shouted questions from reporters at a ceremony honoring civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. about whether he is a racist.
Trump did not take questions as he was whisked away for a long weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
But the president’s denial and the silence from the White House did nothing to quell the outrage from Democrats, who were unequivocal in their condemnations of Trump as a racist.
“Republicans in Congress must now summon the courage to stand up to the racist ramblings of our ‘stable genius’ president,” tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Republicans also criticized Trump, though their words were often softer. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called the remarks “unhelpful” and “unfortunate” before launching into a personal story about the bigotry his Irish ancestors faced as American immigrants.
Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), whose parents are from Haiti, was tougher, and demanded Trump apologize to the nations he “wantonly maligned.”
Love is also facing a potentially tough reelection race this year, and Republicans in such situations appeared more likely to be critical of Trump on Friday.
Robert Graham, a Trump ally and former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, dismissed criticism that Trump’s remarks had been racially-motivated. Graham lived in Haiti for 11 years and helped build a hospital after a devastating earthquake leveled much of the infrastructure there in 2010.
“All they want to do is call people racist and smash them,” Graham said. “I think [the left has] overused the race card so much they’ve destroyed it.”
But for many in the GOP, the “shithole” controversy was the latest inexplicable outrage from a president they view as continually blown off course by ugly controversies.
Republicans are beginning to express panic about their prospects in the 2018 midterm elections and worry that Trump’s drag on their brand — exacerbated by his propensity to careen from controversy to controversy — could cost them the House and the Senate.
Generic ballot polling consistently shows Democrats with a double-digit lead and many senior Republicans in the House are retiring from Congress rather than face reelection.
Trump’s approval rating is historically low for a president at this point in his first term.
One startling poll released Friday suggested Trump’s political base has narrowed significantly. In Georgia, a deep-red state that Republicans have carried in eight of the last nine presidential elections, only about 37 percent of voters approve of the job Trump is doing, compared to 59 percent who say they disapprove.
The GOP’s alarm over the prospect of a Democratic wave election was underscored by the swift condemnation of Trump’s remarks from Republicans facing reelection in competitive districts in 2018.
“Under no circumstances is it acceptable to degrade, denigrate, or dehumanize [Temporary Protected Status] immigrants,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.).
Hillary Clinton won Curbelo’s South Florida district by 17 points in 2016.
Love, the Utah Republican, and Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) are among the other swing-district Republicans who were quick to condemn Trump’s remarks.
Trump’s allies had no pity for those with tough reelection prospects, saying that their best play is to get on board with the president’s agenda.
“They need to recognize that their ability to return to Congress is overwhelmingly based on Trump’s approval rating, so the only thing they can do is to push the agenda that was overwhelmingly approved by American voters,” said one transition adviser. “They need to stop coming up with excuses about why things are always stuck on Capitol Hill.”
Still, the controversy threatened to derail fragile negotiations between Democrats and Republicans over the fate of immigrants brought into the country at a young age, at a time when Congress is also scurrying to agree on a spending bill and avoid a government shutdown.
Republican lawmakers that were present for the immigration negotiations where Trump made the disparaging remarks tried to avoid public confrontation with the president, knowing they would need him to sign off on any legislation that gets passed.
Durbin said that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had confronted Trump about the remarks during the meeting. Graham declined to confirm the language that Trump used, but said in a statement that he had spoken his mind “directly to the president” at the meeting.
Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), both of whom were present for the meeting, said they could not recall whether Trump had used the incendiary language but that Trump had expressed his displeasure with an immigration system that he believes is tilted against American workers.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) blamed Democrats for the controversy, saying that the leak of Trump’s remarks “undermines trust going forward.”
“Whatever was or was not said, if you disagree with what the fellow or gal says, disagree with them publicly then, but to go out and kind of report it is going to undermine trust,” Cassidy said. “Not just for this issue, but for future issues.”