Homeland Security secretary grilled over Trump comments

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen faced heated questions from Democratic lawmakers Tuesday over her recollections of a White House meeting in which President Trump questioned why the United States would take additional immigrants from “shithole countries.”

The remarks have set off a days-long firestorm, raising the odds of a government shutdown and emboldening Democrats to demand that a fix protecting certain immigrants brought to the United States as children be included as part of a deal.

Nielsen insisted throughout the more than four-hour hearing that she had not heard Trump use the word “shithole,” earning her withering criticism from some Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.


“I don’t remember the specific words [Trump used],” Nielsen said in response to questions from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the first senator to publicly accuse Trump of using the phrase to describe Haiti and other countries.

“What I was struck with, frankly as I’m sure you were as well, was the general profanity that was used in the room by almost everyone,” she said.

While Durbin was relatively restrained in his questioning of Nielsen, two other Democrats on the committee, both of whom are seen as possible presidential candidates in 2020, were much tougher during the televised hearing.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said he was “seething with anger” and had “tears of rage” when Durbin told him about Trump’s remarks. The New Jersey Democrat pounded his desk and his voice cracked with emotion as he accused Nielsen of providing cover for what he described as racist remarks coming out of the White House.

“Your silence and your amnesia is complicity,” Booker thundered. “I hurt when Dick Durbin called me. I had tears of rage when I heard about his experience in that meeting and for you not to feel that hurt and that pain and to dismiss the questions of my colleagues … that’s unacceptable to me. You can’t remember the words of your commander in chief? I find that unacceptable.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) criticized Nielsen after she said she had previously heard Trump talk of the need to bring in more immigrants from Norway as opposed to people from poorer countries.

“I heard [Trump] repeating what he had learned in a meeting before,” Nielsen said. “[Norway is] industrious and a hard-working country and they don’t have much crime there, they don’t have much debt. I think in general I heard him giving compliments to Norway.”

Harris replied: “That causes me concern about your ability to understand the scope of your responsibilities and the impact of your words — much less the policies that you promulgate in that very important department.”

Nielsen fired back, saying she did not intend to make a comparison between the countries and arguing that her agency has prioritized cracking down on racially charged violence in the U.S.

Facing the Senate panel days after the controversy broke, Nielsen faced a difficult political challenge while testifying under oath.

It was clear she was doing what she could to avoid angering Trump, who is known to watch and grade toughly the high-profile television appearances of Cabinet members and presidential aides. She also appeared to take pains to do anything that would jeopardize a possible deal on immigration and spending four days before a possible government shutdown — all while avoiding saying anything untruthful.

Durbin has said Trump used the term “shithole,” and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has essentially backed up Durbin’s account that the president disparaged Haiti, El Salvador and some African nations. But two other Republicans who attended the meeting, Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and David Perdue (Ga.), have offered different stories, initially saying they did not recall Trump using those words before saying Trump definitively did not say “shithole.”

Nielsen on Tuesday described the Oval Office meeting about immigration as heated and said many people in the room had used coarse language.

Graham later bemoaned “the two Trumps” during his own questioning of Nielsen.

The first Trump, he said, had spoken a week ago with “compassion” and “love” about the need to find a comprehensive bipartisan fix for those covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump is winding down.

The other Trump showed up at the closed-door meeting a couple days later — after initially signaling he thought a deal outlined by Graham and Durbin sounded positive. In between, Republican senators including Cotton spoke with the president.

“We had a president that I was proud to golf with, to call my friend. … I don’t know where that guy went,” Graham said. “I want him back.”

The controversy over Trump’s remarks has left Democrats feeling that they are in a stronger negotiating position ahead of the deadline to reach a deal on funding the government — in part because of the bickering among Republicans.

The fight has also renewed charges of racism against Trump.

“In light of the president’s comments, I’m forced to question whether the decision to terminate protected status for Haitian nationals was in fact racially motivated,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the panel. “I hope not.”

Feinstein was referring to a separate decision to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians who came to the United States after a 2010 earthquake in their country.

Cotton and Republicans, including Trump, believe Democrats pushed for too much in the deal when they sought protections not only for the 700,000 or so immigrants protected by DACA, but for thousands covered by the TPS program and parents of DACA recipients.

The White House accused Democrats of simply trying to prevent Trump from getting a deal.

“I think they’re using [Trump’s remarks] as an excuse not to help this president get something accomplished, which I think is a sad day for our country,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters outside the West Wing.

Nielsen defended the administration’s moves to end TPS for Haiti and El Salvador, saying the countries have adequately recovered from natural disasters that occurred there, even if the countries are not prospering otherwise.

She also defended the spirit of Trump’s remarks at last week’s Oval Office meeting, saying he was merely stating that high-skilled workers should get priority over immigrants seeking asylum from dysfunctional governments or extreme poverty.

“What I understood him to be saying is let’s … make sure that those we bring here can contribute to our society,” she said.

This story was updated at 4:14 p.m. 

Tags Cory Booker Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin Donald Trump Immigration Kirstjen Nielsen Lindsey Graham Tom Cotton

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