WASHINGTON, DC — Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told senators Tuesday she “did not hear” President Donald Trump say the specific word “shithole” during a meeting with lawmakers last week that she attended.
“I did not hear that word used, no sir,” Nielsen testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, when asked if Trump used that word or similar language to disparage African countries in the meeting with Trump and lawmakers on immigration policy.
“The conversation was very impassioned, I don’t dispute that the President was using tough language, others in the room were also using tough language,” Nielsen said.
“I was struck more by the fact that the conversation — although passionate and appropriately so — had gotten to a place where many people in the room were using inappropriate language in the oval office in front of the President. That’s what struck me,” she added later.
Upon repeated questioning about the specific wording from Democrats, Nielsen grew frustrated when Sen. Richard Blumenthal tried again.
“I have been very patient with this line of questioning,” she said, saying she was testifying to discuss threats to the homeland. “I have nothing further to say about a meeting that happened over a week ago. I’d like to move forward.”
Sens. Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham, a Democrat and Republican respectively who were in the meeting, have confirmed to the press the reports that Trump said the words “shithole countries” to describe individuals from African nations and had disparaging remarks toward Haitians being part of an immigration deal — all as part of a conversation about how the US accepts immigrants.
Other lawmakers in the room, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, have said they don’t recall hearing that word used. Trump has denied using the word, though he has said the conversation was tough and has spoken privately with friends about the remark playing well with his base.
Asked whether it was possible Trump used the term even though she didn’t hear it, Nielsen said: “Anything is possible.”
During his portion of questioning at Tuesday’s hearing, Graham said in reference to the immigration fight, “This has turned into an s-show and we need to get back to being a great country.” Graham also said, in words directed to Trump, “close this deal.”
Booker’s impassioned speech
One of the newest members of the Judiciary Committee, New Jersey Democrat Sen. Cory Booker, used his full time for questioning to talk about the consequences of the President’s words, clearly getting emotional at times.
He took Nielsen to task, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. on the ills of bystanders remaining silent.
“This is very personal to me,” said Booker, who is black. “I sit here right now because when good white people in this country heard bigotry or hatred, they stood up.”
“Why am I frankly seething with anger? We have this incredible nation where we are taught it doesn’t matter where you are from, your race, your color, your religion, it is about the content of your character,” he said. “The commander in chief in an Oval Office meeting referring to people from African nations and Haitians with them most vulgar language … that language festers.”
“Your silence and your amnesia is complicit,” he added.
He noted that a recent Government Accountability Office report found that 73% of violent incidents since September 11, 2001, were the result of white supremacy and right-wing violent extremists.
“The fact pattern is clear of the threat in this country,” Booker said. “I hurt. When Dick Durbin called me, I had tears of rage in my eyes … and for you not to feel that hurt and that pain, and to dismiss some of the questions from my colleagues … that’s unacceptable to me.”
$20 billion for a wall?
“Madame Secretary, I hope you remember me,” Durbin said at the start of his questioning, a reference to her lack of recollection of the vulgar language, before asking her repeatedly about the meeting they shared.
He asked Nielsen if she recalled the President saying during the White House meeting that he wanted $20 billion in funding and he would have the border wall built in a year.
“I do remember him saying that he was concerned that given the appropriations cycle that any deal that we made now would be limited to this year’s appropriation. I remember him asking to is there a way to authorize the full down payment of the wall such that we can have assurances that we could in fact build it,” Nielsen said.
The Department of Homeland Security recently told Congress that it would take $18 billion over 10 years to build the 700 miles of wall desired.
The pair went back and forth about the meeting, with Durbin asking Nielsen how she remembered each interaction going. When asked whether she recalled the President saying he wanted more immigrants from Europe and specifically Norway, Nielsen said he Trump admired they were hard working, had low crime and that he had just met with the prime minister.
Nielsen also noted at one point that Graham used strong language — prompting Durbin to speak on his behalf. Graham had not yet arrived at the hearing.
“I will just say for the record, Senator Graham spoke up in a way that I respect very much, countering what the President had said about countries in Africa,” Durbin said. “Reminding the president that his family did not come to America with great skills or wealth, but they came here as most families do. Looking for a chance to prove themselves and make this a better nation. And in a defense of Senator Graham, his strong words repeated exactly the words used by the President, which you cannot remember.”
Durbin also asked if Nielsen supports a path to citizenship for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump ended last year but gave members of Congress until March to implement an alternative or a fix.
“I think we have to find a permanent solution,” Nielsen answered.
Durbin, unsatisfied with Nielsen’s answer, asked her the same question again.
“I believe that is part of the discussion and to make sure that we don’t continue temporary populations that continue to exist we should talk about that,” Nielsen said. “I’m not here to get in front of the President or any final decisions on that particular issue, but, yes, I’m happy to discuss it.”
Grilling from Democrats
The homeland security secretary is facing a grilling from senators in the wake of the President’s remarks.
The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, warned Nielsen that she was not happy with what she was hearing out of her department thus far.
Feinstein referenced recent reports that Nielsen’s department was continuing to consider a practice of separating children from parents when apprehended at the border — a policy first suggested last year by then-Secretary John Kelly.
“Candidly, woman to woman, I can’t believe that, and I hope you will clarify,” Feinstein said. “Not only would such a systemic policy infringe on the constitutional rights of parents. It is also callous and stunningly un-American.”
Feinstein added that a that pediatric group have said such a policy would have a negative impact on children.
“The America I know does not rip small children from their parents, and I can’t imagine the fear that a small child would feel if this would happen,” Feinstein said. “And for what? Because the child had no part in this.”
Nielsen, in her answers, said the department has “not made any policy decisions” on the topic, though she noted there are reasons at times to separate children from who they arrive in the US with, especially if there is a suspicion they are being trafficked.