WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump sought to quell a global firestorm over his reported denunciation of immigration from “sh**hole countries” – a slur slammed at home and abroad as racist. The reported remarks – which drew unanimous condemnation from African nations at the UN and resulted in at least two US diplomats being called in by their hosts – are just the latest in a series of racially-charged comments by the president.
Trump tweeted a convoluted denial early Friday about the comments allegedly made on Thursday at a White House meeting with lawmakers on immigration reform. “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump said, apparently referring to the remarks quoted by The Washington Post and The New York Times.
But Democratic Senator Dick Durbin – who was present at the meeting – publicly pushed back, saying Trump had repeatedly used “vile and racist” language. Thursday’s White House huddle was held to discuss a bipartisan deal that would limit immigrants from bringing family members into the country, restrict the green card visa lottery and boost border security, in exchange for shielding hundreds of thousands of young people known as “Dreamers” from deportation.
Trump scrapped an Obama-era program that gave the 800,000 young immigrants legal protection, setting a March deadline for Congress to offer a fix – though it has been reinstated by a court, for now. After lawmakers raised the issue of protections for immigrants from African nations, Haiti and El Salvador, the president reportedly demanded to know why the United States should accept immigrants from “sh**hole countries,” rather than – for instance – wealthy and overwhelmingly white Norway.
Durbin said Trump specifically asked, “Do we need more Haitians?” before launching into a diatribe about African immigration. Trump then “said things which were hate-filled, vile and racist”, Durbin said, adding that “sh**hole” was “the exact word used by the president, not just once but repeatedly”. Trump denied he ever said “anything derogatory” about the people of Haiti. “Made up by Dems,” he tweeted. “I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians!”
But the government of Haiti – which Friday marked the eighth anniversary of a devastating earthquake that killed at least 200,000 people – declared itself “outraged and shocked” by the “racist” slur. Trump’s reported comments also drew a unanimous condemnation from the African Group of UN ambassadors, which said it was “extremely appalled” at the “racist and xenophobic remarks”. The group called for a retraction and apology, and also expressed concern at what it described as the “growing trend from the US administration” to “denigrate the continent and people of color”.
Ambassadors unanimously agreed the resolution after an emergency session to weigh Trump’s remarks. The comment was “clearly” racist, said Ebba Kalondo, spokeswoman for AU chief Moussa Faki. “This is even more hurtful given the historical reality of just how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, and also terribly surprising as the United States remains a massively positive example as just how migration can give birth to a nation,” Kalondo said. He stressed the US was “much stronger than the sum total of one man”.
The State Department was left scrambling to contain the damage, with a top official saying that – while Trump denies using the language attributed to him, diplomats had been briefed to convey Washington’s respect if summoned to explain themselves, as they were in Haiti and Botswana. US missions went into damage control mode. The embassy in South Africa said the United States “deeply respects” the people of Africa, and “there has been no change in our dedication to partners & friends across the continent”.
Trump’s language triggered a barrage of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. Congressional Black Caucus Chair Cedric Richmond and House Judiciary top Democrat Jerrold Nadler said they would seek to introduce a censure resolution against Trump next week. “We have to show the world that this president does not represent the feelings of most of the American people,” they said in a statement. The resolution could be embarrassing for Trump if Republican leaders of the lower house allow a vote on it. Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 Democratic presidential rival, took to Twitter to blast his “ignorant, racist views of anyone who doesn’t look like him”.
Some Republicans were also plainly unhappy, with House Speaker Paul Ryan describing the reported comments as “very unfortunate” and “unhelpful”. Mia Love, a Utah congresswoman of Haitian descent, called them “unkind” and “divisive” while South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator, said if Trump really did use those words, it would be “disappointing”.
In an oddly-timed coincidence, the US president on Friday signed a declaration honoring slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr, three days before the federal holiday celebrated in his honor. Ignoring shouted questions about the mounting firestorm over race, the president paid tribute during a ceremony to the reverend’s “peaceful crusade for justice and equality”.
Nevertheless, the uproar has revived attention on previous remarks by Trump that have ignited accusations of racism. Trump earned national political prominence by promoting the falsehood that Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president, was not born in the United States. He has characterized Mexican immigrants as “rapists”, repeatedly questioned the loyalty of Muslim immigrants, denounced NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem in protest at police brutality against African Americans, and made questionable comments about a violent white supremacist rally.
Trump’s remarks had a particularly glacial reception from Norwegians, whom he reportedly upheld as shining examples of the immigrants he wants to come to America. Norwegians reacting on social media were in no hurry to relocate. Last year the Nordic nation was named the happiest country in the world. “I’m a Norwegian who enjoyed studying and working in the US. The only thing that would attract me to emigrate to the US is your vibrant multicultural society. Don’t take that away,” declared Jan Egeland, a former UN Under Secretary General and the current head of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Another Norwegian tweeter, riismeister, said “why would I trade very affordable healthcare (including mental health), very affordable higher education, 49 weeks parental leave (combined for mom+dad), and minimum 25 vacation days per year for a maniac with a big button who wants to take away even more of my rights?” For influential Norwegian commentator Andreas Wiese, Trump’s comments were “proof of his racism”. According to the Norwegian statistics institute SSB, 502 Norwegians left the country to relocate to the United States in 2016, 59 fewer than the previous year.
The United Nations slammed the reported remarks as “shocking and shameful” and “racist”. “You cannot dismiss entire countries and continents as ‘sh**holes’ whose entire populations, who are not white, are therefore not welcome,” Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN human rights office, told reporters in Geneva.
Botswana summoned the US ambassador to the country to “clarify if Botswana is regarded as a ‘sh**hole’ country”, according to a foreign ministry statement, calling Trump’s comments “irresponsible, reprehensible and racist”. Senegal followed suit with Foreign Minister Sidiki Kaba saying the government “firmly condemned the unacceptable remarks which undermine human dignity, especially of Africa and her diaspora”. Trump was widely derided last year after twice referring to Namibia as “Nambia”.
Social media users across the continent posted images of modern skylines and beautiful nature from their countries with the hashtag “sh**hole”. Many Africans reminded the US of its historic role in the continent’s woes. “President Trump, One day, I’ll take you to a ‘sh**hole’ country called Ghana,” wrote Ghanaian Edmond Prime Sarpong on Facebook. “First stop would be Osu Castle, Elmina Castle, and the over 40 Forts that detained about 30 million slaves, beaten and shipped out like sardine cans and then I will tell you the history of Africa and why people like you made that a ‘shi**hole’ continent.”
Prominent Kenyan commentator Patrick Gathara told AFP that Trump’s words were nothing new. “This is no different from what Hollywood and Western media have been saying about Africa for decades. We have consistently been portrayed as sh**ty people from sh**ty countries.” Some acknowledged problems in their countries, but blamed this on their poor leaders as well as Western nations. “Please don’t confuse the #sh**hole leaders we Africans elect with our beautiful continent… Our motherland is the most blessed continent that has been raped by imperialists in collaboration with our sh**ty misleaders for generations,” wrote Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi on Twitter.
In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress party declared “ours is not a sh**hole country” and described Trump as “extremely offensive”. Some Nigerians did not hold back, with many on Twitter saying their country was a “sh**hole”, but that it was “our sh**hole” to criticize. In Senegal’s capital Dakar, administrator Idrissa Fall said “we cannot really say that he (Trump) is wrong”. “African countries, and sometimes our leaders, do not exactly deal with the problems of the worst-off, that’s what makes people immigrate”.
Even war-torn South Sudan weighed in, with President Salva Kiir’s spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny slamming the comments as “outrageous”. However Juba businesswoman Jenny Jore, 31, told AFP that Trump’s remarks were “on point”. “It is thanks to our African leaders that we are insulted that way,” she said.
The 54-nation UN African Group, which does not include Western Sahara, demanded a “retraction and an apology” from Trump, while thanking Americans “from all walks of life who have condemned the remarks”. Trump’s latest comments provided ample fodder for talk-show hosts. South African comedian Trevor Noah, star of “The Daily Show”, described himself as an offended citizen of “South Sh**hole” and also criticized Trump’s preferred choice of Norway for immigrants. “He didn’t just name a white country, he named the whitest – so white they wear moon-screen,” he said. – Agencies