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Homeland Security secretary grilled over Trump ‘s—hole’ comments

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Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen faced intense questioning about her memory of the Oval Office immigration reform meeting last week in which President Donald Trump referred to African nations as “s—hole countries,” including by one of the senators also present when the comment was made.

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Nielsen, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, said she “did not hear” the word “s—hole,” or one similar, as she was asked about her recollection of the bipartisan White House meeting, but did say she remembered “rough talk” and “tough language” during the conversation on immigration reform.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was singled out by Trump Monday and accused of “misrepresenting what was said” during the conversation after he confirmed reports last week about the president’s descriptions of Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries, pressed Nielsen for additional detail, but the secretary did not specifically attribute “s—hole” to Trump.

The president previously acknowledged “tough” language was used during the meeting but denied making “derogatory” remarks about Haiti in particular. A pair of senators also present last week — Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., — claimed over the weekend that the media and Durbin misrepresented the president’s comments.

“Apologies. I don’t remember [a] specific word,” Nielsen said. “What I was struck with, frankly, I’m sure you were as well, the general profanity used in the room by almost everyone.”

PHOTO: Sen. Cory Booker questions Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, Jan. 16, 2018, in Washington.Jose Luis Magana/AP
Sen. Cory Booker questions Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, Jan. 16, 2018, in Washington.

Earlier during Tuesday’s hearing, Nielsen was asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. about Trump’s reported preference for European immigrants, including those from Norway. The president previously met with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg the day before the Oval Office meeting.

“Being from Norway is not a skill,” Leahy said. “And with the standard of living in Norway better than ours, what does he mean when he says he wants more immigrants from Norway?”

“I don’t believe he said that specifically,” responded Nielsen, adding, “What he was specifically referring to is 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 like to have those with skills who can assimilate to the United States.”

“Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?” followed Leahy.

“I actually do not know that, sir,” Nielsen said. “But I imagine that is the case.”

Nielsen’s answers faced criticism later during the hearing from Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who called it “unacceptable” that she could not “remember the words of your commander-in-chief.”

“Your silence and your amnesia is complicity,” Booker said.

The reports of the meeting, which came amid continued debate over the country’s immigration policies, renewed accusations by critics of the president on issues of race. In response, Trump told reporters Sunday he is “not racist.”

“I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed,” he said. “That I can tell you.”

The meeting, held last Thursday, was part of ongoing talks between the White House and members of Congress to pass a permanent solution for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients — a priority for Democrats since the president announced an end to the program in September.

The program, which began under President Obama, was scheduled to come a complete stop over the next couple of years, but the wind down is facing challenges in court.

Nielsen acknowledged to Sen. Booker that she has not met with DACA recipients or Dreamers either as Homeland Security secretary or prior.

“I personally, have not to my knowledge, met with a Dreamer,” she later said.

A visibly frustrated Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was also in Thursday’s meeting, implored the president to “close this deal” during the DHS hearing.

Graham, who has been a key negotiator, tried to get to the bottom of what changed between last Tuesday, when the president seemed to support a bipartisan bill of “love,” and the Oval Office meeting on Thursday.

“Tuesday we had a president that I was proud to golf with, call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan,” he said. “I don’t know where that guy went. I want him back.”

He told Nielsen that the negotiations have “turned into an s-show.”

“We need to get back to being a great country where Democrats and Republicans work together to do something that we should have done years ago,” he said.

Graham said that the “sweet spot” for a deal is to create a permanent fix for DACA recipients and an expanded group of Dreamers, along with making down payments on border security and moving to merit-based immigration system. That should be followed by phase two — moving towards greater border security, a pathway forward for the around 11 million undocumented people in the U.S., and a merit-based system based on economic need, as well as an increase in legal immigration.

He pointed out that Democrats are not going to agree to everything the Republicans want, if the only GOP concession is a fix for DACA.

In addition to border security, the president has said he wants and end to so-called “chain migration” or family reunification and and end to the diversity lottery.

Durbin said that during the meeting, Trump made it clear that one of the conditions for his agreement to protect DACA was $20 billion so he could build a wall in one year, telling Nielsen that it was “impossible” and unrealistic.

A southern border wall has been a promise of the Trump’s since his presidential campaign began. So far, only prototypes have been built and funding has remained elusive.

“The president is insisting on something that is physically, legally impossible as a condition,” said Durbin.

At one point, Nielsen was asked on whether the administration has arrangements for Mexico to pay for the wall — a longtime claim of the president’s.

“I am not aware. I don’t know what you mean by arrangement. We have a lot of agreements with them to increase border security,” she said.

When Sen. Patrick Leahy pressed her again, she said,”my priority is to increase border security and to build that wall, that will work.”

ABC News’ Geneva Sands and Mary Bruce contributed to this report.

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