Two Republican senators who attended a meeting on immigration with President Donald Trump claimed Sunday that he did not use the phrase "s--thole countries" in reference to Haiti and African nations, and one accused Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, of misrepresenting the president's comments.
Sen. David Perdue, of Georgia, said in an appearance on ABC's "This Week" that Durbin's account of Thursday's meeting at the White House was a "total misrepresentation" of what happened.
Perdue, one of six lawmakers present at the meeting, insisted on Sunday that Trump "did not use that word."
Sen. Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, was also at the meeting and echoed Perdue’s denial on CBS' "Face The Nation" Sunday.
"I didn't hear that word either," Cotton said, adding, "I certainly didn't hear what Senator Durbin has said repeatedly."
Trump addressed the issue briefly Sunday as he arrived for dinner at one of his Florida golf clubs with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
Asked what he thinks about people who think he's racist, Trump said: "I am not a racist." He told reporters: "I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed. That I can tell you."
Trump sparked domestic and international backlash after reports surfaced that he made vulgar remarks as Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, presented details of a potential bipartisan deal to protect immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, known as "Dreamers," from deportation, while adding various border security measures - one of Trump's key demands.
Trump questioned why the U.S. would accept immigrants from Haiti and demanded that they be taken out of the deal, Durbin said Friday, corroborating accounts of the disparaging comments first reported by The Washington Post.
When the discussion turned to immigration from Africa, Trump then reportedly asked why the U.S. would allow "people from s--thole countries come here" and suggested instead that the U.S. bring in more people from places like Norway.
In a statement, White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah did not deny or even address the comments made.
"Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people," Shah said. "Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation."
However, Trump claimed Friday on Twitter that he did not use that term, saying "The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used," and later tweeting, "Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country. Never said 'take them out.' Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings - unfortunately, no trust!"
Durbin forcefully rejected that denial Friday, saying Trump "said things which were hate-filled, vile and racist."
"I cannot believe that in the history of the White House, in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday," Durbin said during a press conference at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast. "He said these hate-filled things and he said them repeatedly," he continued.
"When the question was raised about Haitians, for example, we have a group that have temporary protected status in the United States because they were the victims of crises and disasters, political upheaval. The largest is El Salvadoran, the second is Honduran and the third is Haitian and when I mentioned that fact to him he said 'Haitians? Do we need more Haitians?'" Durbin recounted.
Both Cotton and Perdue attacked Durbin's credibility on Sunday, with Cotton claiming Durbin has a "history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings."
"I didn't hear it, and I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was," Cotton said, adding, "And I know what Dick Durbin has said about the president's repeated statements is incorrect."
Sunday's remarks appeared to mark a shift from the statement issued jointly by Cotton and Perdue on Friday, in which both lawmakers said they "do not recall the President saying these comments specifically," to an outright denial that Trump used the vulgarity in question.
A spokesman for Durbin seized on that shift to turn questions of credibility onto Cotton and Perdue.
"Credibility is something that’s built by being consistently honest over time," Durbin’s director of communications Ben Marter tweeted Sunday morning. "Senator Durbin has it. Senator Perdue does not. Ask anyone who’s dealt with both."
"Yesterday, Senators Cotton and Perdue 'could not recall' what the President said," he later added. "Today they can. That, folks, is a credibility problem."
Cotton and Perdue's account also seemed to conflict with that of Graham. South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott told The Post and Courier Friday that Graham confirmed to him that the comments as reported were "basically accurate."
"Following comments by the President, I said my piece directly to him yesterday," Graham later said in a statement. "The President and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel. I've always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals."
Some of Durbin's Democratic colleagues came to his defense Sunday, with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia saying that the idea that Durbin or Graham would "make something up" was wrong.
"I don't believe that any senator would walk in and make something up so atrocious as that, and say this is what was said, when it wasn't said," Manchin said on "Face The Nation."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer went further, tweeting, "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."
As the back-and-forth continued Sunday, Trump tweeted that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, at the center of negotiations after his administration ended the policy temporarily protecting "Dreamers" in September, is "probably dead" - casting further doubts on already tenuous and strained negotiations.
Some Democrats have threatened to vote against legislation to extend government funding, which expires on Friday, unless protections for the Dreamers are included.
"Honestly I don't think the Democrats want to make a deal," Trump said. "I think they talk about DACA but they don't want to help the DACA people."
Trump said Democrats aren't for securing the border and stopping the flow of drugs.
"We have a lot of sticking points but they're all Democrat sticking points. We are ready, willing and able to make a deal."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.