The top official at the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday declined to say directly whether President Donald Trump used a profane slur to describe several foreign countries during a recent White House meeting with lawmakers on immigration that she attended.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Senate Judiciary Committee she “did not hear” whether Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” in last Thursday’s meeting with House and Senate lawmakers.
“The president used tough language in general, as did other congressmen in the room,” she said.
Nielsen previously said she could not recall whether Trump used the slur. The White House has not denied that Trump made the comments.
When pressed by Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who was also at the meeting, Nielsen continued to sidestep directly addressing what words were used in the meeting.
“What I heard him saying is that he would like to move away from a country-based quota system to a merit-based system,” she said. “I don’t specifically remember a characterization of countries in Africa.”
Watch: Leahy Questions Nielsen About Trump Comment
“What I was struck with frankly … is just the general profanity that was used in the room by almost everyone,” Nielsen added. “I remember specific cuss words being used by a variety of members.”
The remarks were reportedly made during a discussion on Thursday on a bipartisan proposal to address the pending expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects from deportation immigrants brought illegally to the country as children.
Several Republican lawmakers who were not present for the discussion but conferred with colleagues have joined Durbin in confirming the press accounts of the meeting, including Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tim Scott of South Carolina.
Two other Republican members present at the White House gathering — Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas — have pushed back against media reports and said Trump did not use the slur. Perdue and Cotton initially released a statement saying they could not recall what was said. The situation got more complex later when The Washington Post reported that the two senators told White House officials “that they heard ‘shithouse’ rather than ‘shithole,’ allowing them to deny the president’s comments on television over the weekend.”
The DACA proposal — which Trump and some GOP lawmakers have panned — would offer a 12-year path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers, according to an aide with knowledge of the measure. It would also provide $2.7 billion for border security, including $1.6 billion for construction of a wall on the southern border and $1.1 billion for new technology.
Durbin said Tuesday that he and South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, the key sponsors of the DACA measure, intend to introduce their legislation and called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to put it on the floor for a vote.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.