Last week, during an Oval Office meeting, Donald Trump disparaged African and Haitian immigrants. Since then, he and his allies have tried to revise or cover up his remarks. To understand what Trump said and why his friends are trying to doctor the record, you have to understand how the immigration debate echoes the debate over another racially charged issue: affirmative action.
If you’re arguing against race-conscious, pro-minority hiring or college admissions in the United States today, your main rhetorical weapons are quotas, set-asides, and merit. Your goal, politically, is to be perceived as advocating nondiscrimination. Your pitch is that we should treat people as individuals, not as members of racial or ethnic groups. The worst thing you can say is that, behind all the talk about quotas, set-asides, and merit, what you’re really interested in is helping white people.
Trump made the mistake of saying that part out loud in the Oval Office on Jan. 11. Republicans have spent years transplanting the careful language of quotas, set-asides, and merit to immigration. They said their goal was to get more productive immigrants, not whiter ones. In a flash, Trump blew up all of that. He blurted out an ethnic calculus behind the rhetoric. And his party is still trying to clean up the damage by obfuscating what he said and twisting his words to conform to the party’s race-neutral rhetoric.
The first full account of Trump’s comments came from the lone Democrat in the room, Sen. Dick Durbin. Speaking to reporters on Jan. 12, Durbin said that during the meeting, Trump had repeatedly complained that the countries from which Africans migrated to the United States were “shitholes.” Durbin said Trump had also objected to generous treatment of Haitians, asking: “Haitians? Do we need more Haitians?” Conversely, Durbin recalled, Trump had told the attendees: “Put me down for wanting more Europeans to come to this country. Why don’t we get more people from Norway?’”
The quotes were loose—in statements and interviews, Durbin has recalled them in various forms—but media reports backed them up. A Washington Post article published on Monday, citing “interviews with more than a dozen White House officials, Capitol Hill aides and lawmakers,” said that during the meeting, Trump had “called nations from Africa ‘shithole countries’ ” and had complained that Democratic immigration proposals would “drive more people from countries he deemed undesirable into the United States instead of attracting immigrants from places like Norway and Asia.” Reuters, the Associated Press, and the New York Times, also citing multiple sources, published similar accounts.
Trump and two allies who were present at the meeting, Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, attacked Durbin’s story. Trump called the story “made up.” In TV interviews on Sunday, Perdue and Cotton dismissed Durbin as a serial fabricator. But Durbin’s story checks out. Perdue’s and Cotton’s rebuttals don’t.
On ABC’s This Week, Perdue ridiculed press reports that cited “multiple sources” familiar with the meeting. He suggested such claims were impossible, because there were only “six of us in the room.” But there weren’t six of anything in the room. The participants were Trump, his chief of staff John Kelly, White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, four senators, three congressmen, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Nielsen’s acting chief of staff, Chad Wolf. That’s 12 people. Nielsen, in a hearing on Tuesday, confirmed the number.
There are also witnesses to Cotton’s and Perdue’s attempts to scrub the record afterward. In disclosures reported by the Post, “Three White House officials said Perdue and Cotton told the White House that they heard ‘shithouse’ rather than ‘shithole,’ allowing them to deny the president’s comments on television.”
Cotton has been particularly deceptive. On Face the Nation, John Dickerson asked him whether Trump, in the meeting, was in any way “grouping people based on the countries they came from.” “No, John,” Cotton replied. “The president reacted strongly against” such thinking, the senator insisted. “[W]hat the president said he supports is treat people for who they are. … It shouldn’t matter whether you come from Nigeria or Norway or any other country.” But while Cotton was denying that Trump had spoken of ethnic or geographic groups, another attendee was telling the Post—also in Trump’s defense—that the president had spoken highly of groups beyond Europe. “A White House official said Trump also suggested that he would be open to more immigrants from Asian countries,” the paper reported, “because he felt that they help the United States economically.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a central player in the meeting, has refused to disclose exactly what Trump said, “because I want to make sure that I can keep talking to the president.” But Graham told the Times that during the exchange, Trump said he wanted more immigrants from Norway. Graham said he reminded the president “that diversity is our strength not our weakness.” In an interview with the Charleston Post and Courier, Graham recounted his reply to Trump. When people become American, he explained, “It doesn’t mean that they’re black or white … When I say merit-based, I don’t mean just Europe.” These remarks match what three sources told the Times: During the meeting, Graham warned Trump that “America is an idea, not a race.” It’s hard to imagine why Graham, a conservative Republican, would have said these things to Trump if Trump hadn’t jarred him with comments that applied explicitly, or at least clearly, to blacks, whites, and Europe.
Nielsen, the DHS secretary, has defended Trump. But at Tuesday’s hearing, she conceded that in the Oval Office meeting, he had extolled Norwegians, noting “that they are industrious, that they are a hardworking country. They don’t have much crime.” She also confirmed that Trump had fretted about not getting enough immigrants from Europe:
Durbin: Do you remember the president saying expressly, “I want more Europeans. Why can’t we have more immigrants from Norway?”
Nielsen: I do remember him asking about the concept of underrepresented countries, as a fix. This was in the conversation about removing the Diversity [Visa] Lottery and how we could reallocate that … I think he did ask, “Would that cover European countries? Or by its nature, would that mean that we are further establishing immigration to purposefully exclude Europeans?”
These acknowledgments match oblique remarks by Trump, Cotton, and Perdue. In a joint statement on Jan. 12, the two senators said of Trump: “[W]hat he did call out was the imbalance in our current immigration system.” Trump, in tweets that day, said his concern was that the U.S. “would be forced to take large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly.” This idea—that the immigration system should be redesigned to bring in more people from places like Norway and fewer people from places like Africa and Haiti—is the essence of Trump’s pitch. It’s ethnic generalization cloaked in the rhetoric of merit.
That’s why Trump’s allies are trying to distract us with quarrels about which expletive he used. It’s also why they’re recasting his outburst in the familiar tactical language of the affirmative action debate. The Democratic approach to immigration, Cotton told Dickerson, is “to create more quotas, more set-asides for other countries.” Nielsen, when asked what Trump had said in the Jan. 12 meeting about immigration from Africa, offered the same spin: “What I heard him saying was that he’d like to move away from a country-based quota system to a merit-based system.” Trump’s concern isn’t really about Africa or Europe, the argument goes. It’s about fairness.
There are two problems with this argument. One is that the immigration system isn’t unfair to Europeans. Every month, the Diversity Visa Lottery allocates more visas to Europeans, on a per capita basis, than to Africans. When you factor in the discrepancy in applications—Africans are more likely to apply than Europeans—a European applicant is much more likely to get in. More broadly, among the entire population of foreign-born U.S. residents, those accepted from sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to have or obtain some college education, and almost as likely to have or obtain a four-year degree, as those accepted from Europe or Canada. Immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are substantially more likely to participate in the U.S. labor force than immigrants from Europe or native-born Americans—perhaps in part because, on average, they’re younger.
The second problem is that behind the rhetoric of merit, there’s a cesspool of prejudice. What irks many whites about immigration and affirmative action isn’t quotas or set-asides, which were widely accepted when they favored whites. It’s suspicion that quotas and set-asides now favor nonwhites. That’s what Trump expressed last summer, when he complained in an Oval Office meeting that Haitians coming to the United States “all have AIDS” and that people coming from Nigeria would never “go back to their huts.” Last week, he exposed it again. The hole full of filth isn’t in Africa or Haiti. It’s in the president’s head. And his friends are trying to cover it up.
Thanks to Katie Paulson, Bret Anne Serbin, and Robert Zipp for research assistance.