Days after Donald Trump was accused of using racially charged language during bipartisan immigration talks, charges of bigotry once again threatened the president’s agenda as lawmakers battled Sunday over his choice of words and his intentions.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon and frequent critic of the president, said Trump is “a racist.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said it was not “constructive” for Trump to have referred to African and other countries as “shitholes” but that it was “unfair” to call him racist.
Meanwhile, lawmakers were still squabbling about what Trump said in the first place. Two Republicans present at the Thursday meeting, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), contradicted the accounts of Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), drawing a rebuke from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for attacking Durbin’s integrity.
And after courts last year used the president’s negative comments about Muslims to reject his attempts to implement travel restrictions, a federal judge who temporarily reinstated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program said Friday it was “plausible” that Trump acted for racial reasons when he ended the Obama-era initiative.
The weekend broadsides underscored the hurdles facing bipartisan efforts to turn the DACA program into law and prevent the deportation of hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants. But it also showed how, a year into his presidency, disputes over the president’s views and rhetoric about religious and racial minorities continue to hamper his policies.
For Republicans, part of the frustration is that they feel they’ve seen this script before.
“It’s kind of more of the same stuff we’ve seen all year long,” said one senior GOP Hill aide. “He basically makes comments that undermine deliberations that are delicate and that are ongoing.”
The White House has not denied the “shithole” comments — Trump himself said only that he did not disparage Haitians — and there’s recognition internally that fighting over his views on race makes it harder to reach an immigration deal, a senior administration official said.
“Democrats are going to have absolutely no incentive to cut a deal on anything,” the official said.
Trump’s comments were so toxic, the thinking goes, that Democrats will be loath to hand him anything that looks like a win, such as funding for his proposed border wall. The White House has said it wants border security funding and changes to visa programs to be part of any deal related to the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.
The president’s comments on racial issues have disrupted his policy talks before. After he said “many sides” were to blame for violence at a Charlottesville, Virginia, rally of white supremacist groups, chief executives quit White House business councils that were advising him on manufacturing and other issues in protest.
The pessimism about the immigration talks, at a time when Republicans would prefer to be touting the tax reform bill they passed late last year, extended beyond the West Wing.
“You can’t have an immigration compromise if everybody’s out there calling the president a racist,” Paul told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “They’re actually destroying the setting. And he’s a little bit of it, but both sides now are destroying the setting in which anything meaningful can happen on immigration.”
A bipartisan group of senators said last week they had reached a deal on DACA, but the White House had not signed off. Trump claimed Sunday that Democrats were refusing to work with him.
“DACA is probably dead because the Democrats don’t really want it, they just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our Military,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday morning from Palm Beach, Florida, where he is spending the weekend.
Other Republicans disputed that interpretation of events.
“One thing I do take big issue with the president on is he is saying that the Democrats aren’t moving forward in good faith,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I can tell you I’ve been negotiating and working with the Democrats on immigration for 17 years … and the Democrats are negotiating in good faith.”
Meanwhile, the finger-pointing in Washington grew increasingly nasty. Perdue and Cotton both said Friday they didn’t recall Trump making the “shithole” comment, but on Sunday, Perdue told ABC’s “This Week” that he “did not use that word.” Cotton separately told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he was sitting as close to Trump as Durbin, and he did not hear the remark.
Durbin had told the Chicago Tribune that Trump used “hate-filled, vile and racist” language, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told The Post and Courier that his home-state colleague Graham had told him the media reports of Trump’s comments were accurate.
“To impugn @SenatorDurbin’s integrity is disgraceful. Whether you agree with him on the issues or not, he is one of the most honorable members of the Senate,” Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, tweeted Sunday.
Still, after spinning over the course of a week from defending against questions about Trump’s fitness for office to allegations that his associates paid a porn star $130,000 to keep quiet about an encounter with Trump, some White House aides expect — based on experience — that the “shithole” episode could soon fade to the background as well.
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